Ethnographic jewelry in the Baltic States

  • 2008-11-19
  • By Kristina Pauksens

PERKONS KRUSTS: In Latvian mythology, an elaborate fire cross is the symbol for Perkons, the warrior god of thunder.

Without many other exports to speak of, the jewelry industry is one of the few that the Baltic States are well known for internationally. As such, jewelry 's and especially amber from Latvia and Lithuania 's has long been a point of pride for the Baltics. In this week's Industry Insider, we take a look at the meaning behind some of the symbols common to Baltic jewelry, overview one of the Baltics' largest jewelry factories and examine the impact of the world economic crisis on the local amber trade.

RIGA - Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia all have rich ethnographic traditions 's often involving pagan deities, nature worship and the life cycle 's that have been embodied in folkloric jewelry.
Beautiful traditional jewelry pieces with historical roots are still popular today among locals, tourists and members of Baltic Diaspora communities. Ethnographic jewelry artisans have thus carved out a cozy niche in the Baltic jewelry industry.

According to Dace Pasparne, from the Galerija Tornis jewelry store in Old Riga, customers buying ethnographic jewelry are "not only tourists, but also locals 's especially young people who are interested in ancient culture."
This is not surprising as in addition to being beautiful, ethnographically inspired Baltic jewelry often comes with a fascinating story. 

In all three Baltic States, pagan mythological symbols are popular in contemporary jewelry. 
"Ancient jewelry was very similar, amongst all who lived around the Baltic Sea," Ieva Straupe, the owner of Galerija Tornis, told The Baltic Times. 

This is especially true for Lithuania and Latvia, which share many of the same ancient gods and goddesses 's including the thunder god, Perkons/Perkunas, the goddess of the morning star, Auseklis, the sun goddess, Saule, and the fertility god, Jumis. The symbols for these gods and goddesses, which appear on the tassels of the Latvian "seven days ring," were once used to ward off evil spirits and to bring luck to single girls and women. The symbols on the ring were also used to predict which of a girls many admirers she would marry.
The Lithuanian Cross (Lietvos Kryzius) is another popular jewelry item which blends Christian and pagan elements. It was derived from pre-Christian crosses honoring the sun and moon. The Lithuanian cross is a stylized folk art cross which is commonly used for funerals and as votive offerings. Today, it is one of the most popular symbols in Lithuanian jewelry.

In Lithuania, the Tree of Life, or "Romuva," is another popular ethnographic symbol used in jewelry. The symbol of Romuva is a stylized oak tree, representing the tree of life.
The three tiers of the tree's branches represent the three worlds of Lithuanian pagan cosmology 's the world of the living, the world of the dead, and the world to come. The flame represents the ritual offering of fire which is central to Romuva religious practices and which is still practiced today in some circles.

In both Lithuanian and Latvian folklore, the sign of the thunder god Perkons looks similar to the Nazi swastika.  Ethnographic jewelry featuring this symbol could therefore appear offensive to those who are not aware that the symbol had an ancient meaning before it was bastardized by the Nazis. 
In Estonia, the ancient pantheon of gods and goddesses is different from Latvia and Lithuania, and this is reflected in jewelry styles which are more "Finno-Ugric." 

Popular images include the queen of the birds, Jutta, the Air Maiden, Ilmatutar, and Vanatuhi, the lord of the underworld.  Birds are an important image in Estonian jewelry. Estonian ethnographic jewelry is extremely popular among Finnish tourists.
Another fascinating style of Estonian jewelry is the Setu Estonian coin necklace. The Setu Estonians traditionally wore long, heavy necklaces of metal coins around their necks 's a distinct feature among all tribes in the Baltic region.

Setu Estonian coin necklaces played an integral role in the life of a Setu woman 's she wore coin necklaces from birth to death, and brought them with her into the world beyond.  When a Setu woman died, her jewelry was also considered to be "dead" 's and it thus followed her into the grave.
At Galerija Tornis, the "Namejs" ring, with its twisted metal strands, is the most popular item among customers. Its popularity can in part be attributed to the fact that it is a recognized symbol of Latvians around the world 's thus, it is especially popular among members of the Diaspora community. Politicians in Latvia are also often seen wearing the Namejs ring.

According to legend the Namejs ring originated with the Semigallian tribes of Latvia in the 13th century.  The leader of the Semigallians, Namejs, was one of the last warriors to fight against the German knights. He escaped into exile in Lithuania, but as a parting gift, he gave his son a twisted metal ring so that the boy could recognize his father when he returned. 

However, Namejs' son was imperiled when the Germans discovered the secret of the ring. The Germans went out in search of Namejs' son in order to Christianize him. It is said that almost all of the men and boys of Semigallia made similar rings and wore them in order to protect the boy's identity. From that time on, it has been a popular Latvian men's ring. 

It is exactly this type of heartfelt story that translates into sweet returns for artisans making traditional jewelry.  Perhaps they are fulfilling a crucial role in society by  bringing long forgotten stories back into the foreground, to be told and retold every time someone asks the wearer, "what's that interesting symbol on your ring?"