The Alluring Mystique of Talismans and Good Luck Charms

  • Amulet: an object intended to bring good luck or protection to its owner.
  • Talisman: an object held to act as a charm to avert evil and bring good fortune.
  • Fetish: an object regarded with awe as being the embodiment or habitation of a potent spirit or as having magical potency.

I have always been fascinated by talismans and good luck charms, but strictly from a visual standpoint. It is hard to believe that anyone would put so much stock in a trinket or charm, but throughout history this has been the case. My obsession with these symbols began as a young child when I bought my first rabbit’s foot. I was entranced with the dyed pink, turquoise, purple, and yellow varieties and the little claws poking out of the fur, as well as the attached solid brass key fob and chain. It is believed that this good luck charm harkens back to 600 B.C. among Celtic people. While I find the origins of this good luck amulet fascinating, as a child I simply liked the way the rabbit’s foot looked. When I was painting figuratively back in the early 1980s, I adorned several of my subjects with a trompe l’oeil rabbit’s foot, attempting to blend a Renaissance look with contemporary punk in my portraits.

From 1986-1989, I created product illustrations for catalogs published by F.N. Kistner and Company, a now defunct fraternal gifts and jewelry business on Wabash Avenue across the street from the Mallers Building in Chicago. As an artist, I absolutely loved the kitschy giftware and symbolism in pieces created for members of the Masons, Elks, Moose, and Knights of Columbus. Unfortunately, I did not buy any of the medals which two decades later I started collecting and using in my collage necklaces. There is a mystique about fraternal sects that I find very appealing, but above all, the watch fobs and jewelry that was created 50-75 years ago is visually rich and wonderful. 

During the last 6-7 years, I have amassed quite a collection of vintage Elk tooth charms/fobs. According to the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, whose headquarters happens to be in my hometown Chicago, the origins of why members started wearing/carrying these bejeweled elk teeth is unknown. I have a few Moose teeth in my collection that were fashioned into fobs, but physically these teeth are not as impressive. They serve the same basic purpose as elk teeth, worn by Loyal Order of Moose members as a token to commemorate years of service, etc. Visually, these tooth fobs look really cool on a gold chain, in particular when they are paired with the unexpected, such as gumball charms and religious medals. My jewelry and collage work is all about juxtaposition and instilling new meaning in objects, both conceptually and visually.


I am not Italian, but Italy is one of my favorite destinations on earth and I love coral and have collected it for years. I stumbled upon an Italian horn amulet, also known as a corno many years ago in New York’s Little Italy. It is theorized that the little horns (like the horns of all horned animals) were considered sacred by the Old European moon goddess, before the existence of Christianity. These days, genuine coral horns can be quite costly, but when I am able to purchase one at a reasonable cost, I will utilize this visual delight in one of my collage necklaces.

Talking about Italy, it was on my second visit in 1982 that I became fascinated with the relics of saints in all the churches. Displayed in ornate cases and with great fanfare were tiny little bone fragments of saints, jewel-encrusted scapulars, and an array of what seemed to me like mystical iconography. Growing up in a secular, non-religious Jewish home, I always had a bit of Catholic envy. As an artist I was really drawn to Catholic imagery and the often opulent, ornate pieces that I encountered – particularly in Italy. Later on I decided to collect any relics, rosaries, statues, pictures, and scapulars that I could get my hands on at thrift stores, garage sales, and rummage sales. I figured if my mentor Bebe, a professional artist who happened to be Jewish could collect and display these treasures so creatively, why couldn’t I? My parents, while reformed Jews, were not very pleased when they visited my house a few years ago and saw my “altar” of religious treasures. I am over this obsession for the most part now and just collect sterling silver religious medals and rosaries that are hidden away in one of many jewelry boxes or incorporated into my collage necklaces.

A real oddity to me is the Botánica, shops that you can find in most Hispanic neighborhoods in major cities throughout the U.S. While traditional Catholic items such as rosary beads, holy water, statuary, and images of saints are sold, many Botánicas embrace beliefs far beyond Catholicism. They sell remarkable talismans that purportedly heal every ailment and products for spiritual practices including candomblé, curanderismo, espiritismo, macumba, and santeria. I was a bit timid upon entering my first Botánica because “Yo no hablo espanol.” Indeed, venturing into these establishments has been a mixed bag – I have encountered outright rudeness, since I am clearly an interloper – to very cordial clerks. The common denominator I have found is that the prices are usually unmarked, but turn out to be astronomical – healing and spirituality does not come cheap!

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