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CROSS EXAMINATION : Style Converts Symbolic Adornments to Nonsectarian Statements in Any Denomination


Overheard in a Southern California jewelry store: "Do you want just a plain cross or do you want one with the little man on it?"

The line between devotional wear and pure fashion may not be that stark--or sacrilegious--but you get the idea. You don't necessarily have to be religious to wear religious jewelry.

Madonna, of course, was the bellwether of the trend toward religious jewelry as fashion in the early '80s. Raised a Roman Catholic, Madonna has always been generously ecumenical in her jewelry choices: crosses and crucifixes in several styles, Stars of David of all sizes and shapes, earrings, pendants, medallions, rings. If it is sacred to someone, Madonna dons it.

But Madonna didn't start the trend. The ankh, a stylized ancient Egyptian cross that is popular now, was also worn as a fashion accessory in the 1960s. And in the '20s, Coco Chanel featured a Maltese cross in her collection. A variation of a cross has been seen in each Chanel collection since then, said company spokeswoman Ann Fahey.

Actually, fashion custom and many of the world's religions have been closely allied for centuries. Apart from jewelry or other symbolic adornment that indicated the wearer's particular faith or devotion (saints' medals, for instance), religions such as Islam (full veils for women) and Orthodox Judaism (head coverings) have dictated certain styles. Traditional Shinto weddings require a particular and elaborate costume for the bride, and American Indian culture is full of clothing and adornment with specific spiritual meaning.

In relatively secular Southern California, religious jewelry mostly appears as a fashion accessory among the nightclub crowd.

"The most popular look is a big cross on a long chain or cord," said Elsa Martinez, the president of Roberto Martinez Inc., a Los Angeles jewelry manufacturer and wholesaler. "You'll see Celtic crosses, Gothic crosses, plain ones. We have one with a Santa Fe-inspired motif with a sort of antique patina. You've got your exaggerated pieces, but I'd say the most popular sizes on average are about two inches, three inches max."

Jennifer McCarthy, a model from Huntington Beach, said rosaries are often worn as necklaces.

But it is the Christian cross that is the overwhelming fashion choice among religious symbols. Teresa Saldivar, owner of Teresa's Jewelry in downtown Santa Ana, estimates that religious jewelry--mostly crosses, crucifixes and Christian medallions--account for about 30% of her business.

"They're bought for fashion," she said. "Even someone who is not religious will wear a cross, maybe because all the stars seem to be wearing them."

Is all this disrespectful or, worse, sacrilegious? Not necessarily, said Monsignor Lawrence Baird. It depends on the wearer's intent.

"The position of the church would be that it's appropriate if it's an external symbol of the faith of the person who's wearing it," said Baird, who is the director of communications for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange.

"If it's simply this choice of jewelry as opposed to something else, then it doesn't seem to have much meaning, and it has the potential to be distasteful," Baird said. "Much has to do with the intention of the wearer: What's my reason or my motive in having this and wearing this? It shouldn't be simply au courant. "

The crucifix--in which a figure of Christ is affixed to a cross--and the Star of David tend to be bought as devotional items rather than fashion accessories, said Martinez.

Designer Jonathan Simons of Govannon's Jewels in South Dakota specializes in jewelry that is representative of religion, mythology and legend that spans millennia. He said his customers are in search of not only unique adornment but also a sense of meaning.

"It's becoming more fashionable for jewelry to have meaning," he said. "There's a renaissance in spiritual thought today, and people want to show what they feel."

Simons sells crosses, but also other devotional symbols as diverse as icons from Norse mythology, the moon and star of Islam and "ancient Judaic articles" apart from the Star of David. Customers are all the more attracted to these items, he said, when their background is explained.

"Most of these symbols," he said, "are very ancient archetypal symbols, and they reach back into our consciousness. When I've explained them, there's a different look in people's eyes."

Cross Reference

The cross has been a Christian religious symbol since the Crucifixion, but it did not become widely stylized until the 4th Century, when the Roman emperor Constatine converted to Christianity and the cross could be displayed openly without fear of ridicule or reprisals.









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