They say that diamonds are a girl's best friend, but actually, it depends upon the girl in question. Jen-Luc Piquant, for instance, prefers emeralds and sapphires as adornments to her fine pixelated self — although she likes the occasional splash of diamond in her tiara, and she wouldn't say no to a rare blue or yellow diamond should a well-heeled virtual Cyber-suitor offer one to her. I, on the other hand, have quirkier tastes. True, I adore the wedding ring the Spousal Unit chose for me, but it's as much for the unique asymmetry of the piece — designed to sit at an elegant angle on my finger — as for the three very pretty diamonds arranged therein. And whenever I check out the window displays of high-end jewelry stores, the glittering wares — many retailing for tens of thousands of dollars — strike me as garish, and frankly leave me cold.
Truth be told, I prefer the less flashy, more natural stones. Rubies? All but the most expensive varieties tend to be pinkish in tone. Give me the rich deep red of the mundane garnet any day. Like my good friend Peri, I am enthralled by opals, a.k.a., Nature's home-grown photonic crystals — about which I have written extensively. Fine turquoise can be counted upon to catch my eye if it's in an unusual setting, and especially if it's the coveted Bixbee Blue variety native to the copper mines of Arizona:
Even better is the deeper, darker blue of lapis lazuli; jasper; malachite; jade; and quartz, which has the added value of being piezoelectric. But sterling silver and semi-precious stones are just a small part of Nature's jewelry-inspiring bounty. For instance, I occasionally wear a pretty dragonfly pendant — real laminated dragonfly wings set into a silver "body" — that never fails to elicit admiration from like-minded women. We are legion. As with our shoes, we like our jewelry to reflect our individuality, as well as accessorizing our outfits. If, like me, you love jewelry that reflects your love of science, rejoice! There are some truly unique offerings out there these days.
By far my favorite pieces in my own jewelry box are a matching sterling silver set based on ammonite fossils: pendant, cuff bracelet, and ring. Ammonites are extinct marine creatures especially prevalent in the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods (they went extinct with the dinosaurs 65 million years ago). They look a lot like the modern Nautilus, but are actually more closely related as a species to octopus, squid and cuttlefish. Sometimes they are even iridescent, if conditions have helped preserve their mother-of-pearl coatings; in rare instances, they can be polished to resemble gemstones. I bought my pieces years ago, and was pleased to find business is still thriving for a similar online store specializing in unique fossil jewelry. There's a lovely pendant with black onyx and Moroccan ammonite (pictured below), for instance, and a cephalopod fossil ring (PZ Myers could present it as gift to his infamous Trophy Wife).
Ammonite appeals to me on so many levels: visually, on a tactile level, plus it has a long, rich mythological history. The creatures owe their name to Pliny the Elder (who died around 79 AD); he called them ammonis cornua ("horns of Ammon") because the Egyptian god Ammon was frequently shown wearing ram's horns and ammonites are tightly coiled like ram's horns. They are revered in the Hindu religion, and were known as "snakestones" in medieval Europe since they were believed to be petrified snakes — the result of divine acts of intervention perpetrated by Saint Hilda or Saint Patrick. Personally, I covet this custom-made silver bracelet with semi-precious stones and ammonite fossils, even though it's already been snatched up by some lucky woman (hey, at least I saved $630).
If ammonite just isn't your thing, there's plenty of other styles from which to choose. The best known science-themed jewelry maker (and it's even affordable) in science blog circles is Molecular Muse, which made a splash a couple of years ago when it debuted its series of pendants and earrings based on popular molecules: caffeine, for instance, and serotonin, not to mention cocoa and resveratrol. The latter is a molecule commonly found in the skin of grapes, and thus, red wine — which several studies have shown may reduce the risk of cancer when consumed in moderation. Plus it makes an awfully pretty necklace (note the garnet teardrop at the tip):
Jessica of Bioephemera (one of my favorite blogs) has an especially keen eye for this sort of thing. Check out her recent post spotlighting the wares of Nervous System, a jewelry company founded by two MIT grads. The pieces combine "nontraditional materials like silicone rubber and stainless steel with rapid prototyping methods," and find "inspiration in complex patters generated by computation and nature." Jessica picked this algae filament necklace to highlight:
Ah, but she outdid herself this past week by digging up a truly unique find: bejewelled sterling silver "skeleton hands," half bracelet, half gauntlet, retailing at a paltry $24K courtesy of Delfina Delettrez. One word: WANT!!! Oh, Delfina, why do you tempt me so? Until the Spousal Unit and I win the lottery, I must admire longingly from afar. The only thing cooler would be my very own Witchblade.
But for all my love of semi-precious stones, ideally I'd like my jewelry to be at least somewhat sustainable. So I was thrilled when noted entomologist May Berenbaum (University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana) contacted me a few weeks ago about an organization called Conservation through Poverty Alleviation International (CPALI), dedicated to developing wild silks as sustainable renewable income sources in Madagascar. Madagascar, as you may know, is a "hotspot" of biodiversity, and 90% of its species dwell in its forests, which are at risk from the "slash and burn" agricultural practices; apparently less than 10% of the original forest remains. The production of yarns and silks could provide an alternative to impoverished local farmers for generating income in a way that does not, in the long run, destroy their livelihood (not to mention all manner of rare species).
Moth silk in particular shows promise as a raw material for unique textiles and jewelry and other decorative objects, although at the moment, production isn't high enough for this to be a realistic thriving business. Market demand needs to be developed. To that end, CPALI now has an online store, Rainforest Silk, which sells a few head scarves and shawls spun from moth silk. Some truly lovely patterns can be woven using silk harvested from three species of moth (Atherina suraka, Hypsoides singularis, and "ginger" Borocera):
May also sent me some photos of truly eye-catching (and sustainable!) jewelry incorporating moth silk and cocoons. Like this ethereal Tim-Burton-esque set of earrings (I don't wear earrings, but if this comes in pendant form, the Spousal Unit now knows my dearest birthday wish):
Here's a pendant made with black sapphire and gold, as well as moth silk:
And here's a ruby and silk pendant that looks a lot like gold filigree, except even finer:
With support from the National Geographic Society, CPALI has been hard at work demonstrating the feasibility of using the silk moths of Madagascar as a tool for conserving the region's rich biodiversity. Long-term, the goal is to establish small-scale local businesses that use the forest resources sustainably. To date, they've identified specific sites where the favored food plants of the three target moth species are abundant, and have set up a learning and training center in Morantsetra for farmers interested in rearing larvae/silk cocoons — the same food plants can be grown in the family garden along with dietary staples like manioc, tomatoes, sweet potatoes and peppers. It's not big business yet, but the niche "eco-fashion" market is as good a place as any to start. I, for one, welcome the decorative possibilities offered by the Moths of Madagascar.