When it comes to keeping an eye on the sparkling sartorial choices of the rich and famous, fantasy authors don’t usually top the list. This past year, however, J.K. Rowling has been making waves in the jewelry department.
I first noticed Rowling’s jewelry on Dec. 12, 2017, when she accepted her membership into the Order of the Companion of Honour, for her services to literature and philanthropy. Only 65 people may be members at any given time, so the honor was great, indeed. Rowling accepted the award at Buckingham Palace, and when I saw the photos of her posing with the medal in its red leather box, my eye was drawn to an interesting ring on her right middle finger.
It was long, tubular, and brightly colored with what seemed to be vivid blue enamel. Golden leaves snaked around the center stone (perhaps a sapphire?) and the whole thing struck a nice chord with her smart navy outfit and chic hat. Jewels in Rowling’s novels are usually fraught with malevolent forces, and yet, this dynamic ring seemed good and pure. “Hm,” I thought. “What a nice ring.”
A few days later, I discovered on Facebook a video preview of Harry Potter: A History of Magic, an exhibition originating in London that will travel to The New York Historical Society in October 2018. The clip shows Rowling talking at length about some of the historic English texts in the exhibition that detail legends and myths of ancient magic-making found originally in tomes at The British Library. As Rowling turned a page, another large, colorful ring caught my attention. This ring featured a central cabochon turquoise, but along the tubular shank of the ring were inlaid patterns of black enamel.
“All right,” I thought, “let’s dig a little deeper.” I began combing through images and videos of Rowling from the past two years. I discounted most of what I encountered from red-carpet appearances, film premieres, or any other public events. The jewelry a celebrity like Rowling wears at events like these is potentially not her own, but something loaned or selected by a stylist, if indeed she has one. But at events where she controls the agenda, such as closed-set interviews, or ceremonies honoring her work, she is much more likely to adorn herself with a piece of her very own.
Sure enough, in late 2016, around the premiere of the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, she had sat for another interview, and once again sported a barrel of gold along her right middle finger, this time with a juicy orange stone at the center, potentially a vibrant Mandarin garnet or fire opal.
I took screen-shots, and engaged with Jewelry Instagram. “Anyone recognize these designs?” I queried. Rather quickly I got a few tips pointing me towards the designs of British jeweler Elizabeth Gage, which are undeniably similar.
Gage is a cornerstone of British jewelry, and has been making her distinctive gold designs since the ’60s. In an interview with The Jewellery Editor, Gage mentioned that she “often used antiques as a starting point for her jewellery designs, and historical references are very important to her. In fact, it was the jewelry of Catherine the Great that first made her ‘aware of the intense beauty of jewelry’ and spurred her on to spend six years training to become a goldsmith in the 1960s.”
While through her representative, Elizabeth Gage did decline to speak directly to The Daily Beast about clients she may or may not have, she has been known to cater to celebrities in the past, and has an entire section on her website dedicated to special commissions.
It is worth noting that the camel and Indian enamel brooch that Gage designed for the late actress Lauren Bacall recently sold at auction for $23,750, well above its estimate. So while there is no question that the wealthiest woman in England can obviously afford Gage, the very fact that she may be one of the jeweler’s clients certainly signifies a serious interest in jewelry, and jewelry that connects to the past.
It’s intriguing to think that Rowling may be fond of Gage’s rings, but it’s not surprising. Both women have a sense of history, and both appreciate the symbolic meaning of jewelry, both in real life and in fiction.
There’s no question that jewels can tell stories, but given Rowling’s obvious real-life predilection for jewelry, what about the jewels at the center of her books? It turns out that the horcruxes (and other jewels) of Harry Potter have their own deep roots in the history of jewelry.
Jewels and bejeweled decorative arts often play important roles in Rowling’s’ plots. A horcrux is described as an object in which a wizard has stored a piece of his soul, in order to live forever. It’s an exceedingly dark piece of magic in Rowling’s books, and (spoiler alert) the destruction of seven horcruxes, including one that is inside Harry himself, is pivotal to ridding the world of Voldemort forever.
Rowling is famous for doing her homework. Much of her work is based on intensive research in mythology, biblical allegory, and ancient texts on English magic, as well as classic European literature. It stands to reason she would have delved deep into jewelry history as well before creating powerful and magical jeweled objects for her books.
Certainly, she didn’t have to look far to find the idea of a jeweled capsule for a bit of soul: as late as the Victorian era the idea of mourning jewelry, for example, was prevalent and revered. Many pieces of mourning jewelry incorporated hair of the departed into the design. Sometimes it was braided into a tightly woven swath, and set inside a locket to keep an actual piece of the person alive and present forever. Take a look at these examples from the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Some rings had removable sections allowing for a curly lock of hair to encircle one’s finger, albeit encased in gold.
Another jewel that shows up in the Potter series that also has real world connections is the cursed opal necklace in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. A 19th-century convention held that opals were sinister sources of evil and could curse anyone that touched them.
In his 1913 book The Curious Lore of Precious Stones, Dr. George F. Kunz of Tiffany and Co. wrote, “There can be little doubt that much of the modern superstition regarding the supposed unlucky quality of the opal owes its origin to a careless reading of Sir Walter Scott’s  novel, Anne of Geierstein.” Or so said a man in the business of selling opals! Even in the early decades of the 20th century, a respected scientist, author, and businessman was writing about the perceived evil nature of a natural gemstone. The fear had permeated society so deeply that decades later, Kunz was still debunking it. This superstition found footholds throughout the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins, William Makepeace Thackeray, and even J.R.R. Tolkien. So then, nearly a century later, it isn’t too surprising that the archetype of a cursed jewel once again took the form of an opal necklace when Rowling conjured one that nearly kills a character in Half-Blood Prince.
In 2013, Rowling wrote an article for Harper’s Bazaar in which she claimed that her interest in jewelry began in childhood. The article was about charm bracelets, and most especially one that would be auctioned through Sotheby’s in order to raise funds for Rowling’s charity, Lumos. She described it as very similar to one she herself received from her publishers upon the completion of the seventh Harry Potter book, with charms specific to the series. Of these sorts of bracelets, Rowling wrote, “What other piece of jewelry is so imbued with memory and sentiment? Why do we call those little masterpieces ‘charms’ if not in allusion to their talismanic properties? They have meaning beyond the mercenary. They are personal amulets.”
Rowling was also given a charm bracelet as a child, and recalled one of her great aunts making a snide comment to the effect that “no really nice woman likes jewelry.” Rowling writes that “she was always very kind to me and I doubt that she expected her words to make such an impression, but what I gained that afternoon along with my new set of clinking charms was an association between wickedness and jewellery that has never entirely left me.”
Does Rowling love jewelry or is she repelled by it? Or can both things be true?
“The Harry Potter books are full of dangerous sparkling objects,” she wrote in that Harper’s Bazaar essay, “and in this, they are like the fairy tales of every culture in the world. Fabulous treasures that can destroy or heal are a staple of folk stories, as ubiquitous as the lost and abandoned children that wind their way through the genre.” Rowling is keenly aware of the wickedness often imbued in jewels, so it makes the investigation of her own jewelry that much more interesting.
What is she bottling up in those middle finger rings? Something magical, I hope.