Some years ago I was trying to describe my latest purchase to my friend Iris, who deeply understands my jewelry addiction, being similarly afflicted. “Well,” I said, “it’s a tiny gold pendant, set with diamonds you can hardly see except for the sparkle. I’d say it’s about the size of…a communion wafer for a hamster.”
“A hamster host, eh?” said Iris.
With a diameter of barely 8 millimeters, it might actually be a bit large for a hamster, even a devout one. But it is very, very small for a human being. I thought it was just about perfect, with its minuscule (yet fully cut) diamonds set in sanded gold in a pattern that could either be a snowflake or an evil eye, depending on your point of view. I wore it every day for many months.
I could say I was in a minimalist phase, but the truth is that I’ve always loved the idea of tiny amulets, worn for pleasure and protection—they do feel protective, somehow—rather than show. And: if I’m wearing dangly earrings and an additional necklace seems like Too Much, a tiny amulet doesn’t.
The hamster host is the work of Adel Chefridi , for whom tininess and delicacy are cardinal virtues. (That religious metaphor again!) I first met Adel at one of the many fancy crafts fairs that regularly part me from my money. I spent a long time at his booth, entranced by the pinpoint glittering stones that punctuate his jewelry. He told me he uses a microscope to set them—I gather this is not uncommon—but somehow, his designs bring out the best in them. His stones look brighter; his gold, golder. Over the years, I’ve bought several of his pieces and given away more as gifts. (He also does beautiful work in silver.) The things I bought from him still entrance me. And he’s a lovely guy.
But I was on the prowl for tiny amulets long before I met Adel. I own a number of them, of various sorts; their chains tangle intractably in my jewelry box. The truth is that I have always envied people whose religions entitle them to wear miraculous medals—of Saint Christopher, say, or the Blessed Virgin—there are some truly gorgeous Blessed Virgins out there. But being Jewish, I can’t wear them. It’s not my tradition; these blessed souls are not my protectors. (Though I might get myself a Ganesha one of these days. Ganesha, remover of obstacles, protects everyone.)
I own several Jewish stars. My first, in white gold, was given to me as a child by my grandmother, who shortened its chain with tiny un-undoable knots, basically ruining it. God knows where that wound up. Even now I’ll buy myself a tiny Jewish star every so often, but I can’t seem to bring myself to wear any of them. For whatever reason, I can’t, or won’t, wear jewelry as a profession of faith.
But there is one bona fide saint whose medal I gladly wear.
She is Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians. Many years ago, in the early 1980s, my friend Bud Westman presented her to me, and I still think she’s one of the loveliest gifts I’ve ever received. Buddy told me she had belonged to Aaron Copland, and it’s definitely true that Aaron and Buddy were close once upon a time. But I would much rather wear her as a keepsake of Buddy, who died in 2012—and of Saint Cecilia herself, and the anthem W.H. Auden wrote for her, set to music by Benjamin Britten. It’s quite a personal poem and bears a large share of personal anguish, though it also harks back to a lofty literary tradition. It begins:
In a garden shady this holy lady
With reverent cadence and subtle psalm,
Like a black swan as death came on
Poured forth her song in perfect calm:
And by ocean’s margin this innocent virgin
Constructed an organ to enlarge her prayer,
And notes tremendous from her great engine
Thundered out on the Roman air.
This is my idea of protection, and she is my idea of a protector.