Something to Watch Over You

The ancients believed that talismans brought good luck and deflected evil spirits. Suddenly they’re in vogue all over again.

Neapolitans call it malocchio. The British phrase is “overlooking.” In Hebrew it’s ayin ha-ra, and to the Greeks it is the mati. Terminology aside, the evil eye—a primitive belief that one person can either unwittingly or through their envy project enough ill will to generate nausea, headache, even impotence in another—is universal enough that it turns up in ancient Egyptian and Etruscan tombs. The artifacts come mostly in the form of crudely carved pendants, used as amulets against the curse. Before jewelry was adornment, it seems, it was a means of protection.

Modern designers have tapped into this self-preservation theme, casting folklore symbols in diamonds and gold. Most popular are the eye, said to look back at the evil eye and confuse it, and the Italian corno (horn), whose crescent shape is linked to the protective powers of the moon goddess. Natascha Demner’s vintage and contemporary jewelry shop in New York carries Antonia Miletto’s horn pendants and recently sold a Virginia Witbeck rock crystal, coral, and peridot mano fico, an amulet shaped like a clenched fist. Demner thinks the increased interest in talismanic jewelry is about a search for meaning. “Once you have the nice diamond earrings,” she says, “you look for something more symbolic. Jewelry that stands for something.” Demner wears a bracelet loaded with charms: a black cat, a small piece of wood engraved with the word “knock,” and several miniature corna. Around her neck is a Tibetan double-dagger talisman said to give direction. And Naples-born design team Faraone Mennella sells Italian horns in tiger’s-eye, ebony, and coral at places like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman.

"This kind of jewelry has been around since the dawn of time,” says historian Audrey Friedman of Manhattan’s Primavera Gallery. “We all still have a side that is drawn to the idea of wearing something that offers protection. It’s primal.”