As long as I’ve known it, the term has felt closer to me than any other description for my craft’s purpose. Jeweler, goldsmith, silversmith, designer, craftsman… all of these cross over somewhere in my work, but to be sure what I make, and why I make them, has little to do with the full sense of any of these trades.
I create and track talismans, phenomena that appear in fiction or historical reproduction, but are incredibly rare as an active product in this culture. The talisman truly blurs the line between craft and art as it is viewed in those distinct ‘markets’. It’s also an uncommon word. If anything, it suggests an object of belief, like an amulet, or an object of power, like a fetish. But that’s not quite right – a talisman is at once something special, completely unique, and functionally essential: somehow reflecting the spirit or person of maker and even the wearer. The easiest way to explain why I prefer the term talisman is to say that you will find a lot of intelligence woven into my work: backstory, magic, a distinct life in and of itself. And my motivation, the thing that makes me a talismonger (now there’s a word that is nearly extinct) has everything to do with seeding the world with droplets of this peculiar brand of intelligence, and ultimately achieving a degree in my work where this cultural function is the first thing that is apparent in any given piece.
My question in making the talisman is one of substance – what is the difference between intrinsic value and perceived value? Where do they overlap, as with craftsmanship, and where are distinctions made? Why does perceived value appear more frequently than the intrinsic in our culture?
The heritage of the word talisman is interesting. It’s been all over the place, borrowed and repurposed, which is proof of a long life serving up a special meaning that never quite had another match. Here’s the entry from the Online Etymology Dictionary:
1630s, from Fr. talisman, in part via Arabic tilsam (pl. tilsaman), a Gk. loan-word; in part directly from Byzantine Gk. telesma ”talisman, religious rite, payment,” earlier “consecration, ceremony,” originally “completion,” from telein ”perform (religious rites), pay (tax), fulfill,” from telos ”completion, end, tax”.
So the sense of this definition seems to be a ceremonious or customary payment. A bit inadequate, this doesn’t seem to match our modern usage that well… The Arabic participation makes sense – you still find antiquarian tribal wealth jewelry featuring thalers riveted into their fabric, especially among the Arab tribes. Still, this doesn’t get close enough to our use of the word. Let’s pull in the cognates – other words in use at the time that sound similar and resemble the meaning.
First off, we have thaler or taler, which is the origin of the word dollar, and describes large silver coins (equally well-known as crowns) used for trade throughout Europe and in other lands for hundred of years. At some point, thaler was a word nearly anyone would know. It also stood for the rise of stability through the great merchant leagues, the legendary free cities, and the decline of the dark ages. Another cognate from this time, teller, means one who keeps count of money and ‘tells’ the count. No doubt there were little jokes about the tellers that count the talers.
Thaler means ‘from the valley’ and it is said this meaning was first attached in the silver-mining regions of Bohemia, where the early silver coins were stamped with a design representing the valley it originated from. Even today, independent bullion mines stamp their locations on their produce. So here we can glean a little extra information – enhancing its role as a ceremonious payment, it is accountable, straight from the source. The otherwise anonymous bit of metal gains implied value through the imprinted decorations, that indicate its origin and a guaranty of quality standards. By the thaler’s other common name, crown, we know that the implied value is doubly connected to the eminence of its ‘maker’, with source and a noble’s ‘seal of approval’.
A great example of this double guarantee of source and approval is the ‘Woodwose’ thaler, an archaic word for a ‘wild man of the forest’ that came from folklore, and is unique to the region of Brunswick. We might be able to taste a bit of the trustworthy character of this creature in his descendant, the ‘Jolly Green Giant’. There are many designs. On the flip ‘crown’ side one would find the issuer’s coat of arms. Around our Wild Man we find various telling inscriptions in Latin, the language of church and king, imploring people to honor their value – “Recto Decius” – The Right Choice; “Honestum pro Patriae” – Honor for my Country; “Deo et Patriae” – God and Country, and even “Alles mit Bedacht” – Think Everything Through. So we have a coin that is not merely silver, but assured by crown, religion and commonwealth, and a hint at why talisman today means so much more than just a worn decorative object.
The thaler-crown was not only a trade unit, but such a fact of life that it was fractioned to make smaller coinage for daily use. Well known in folklore today as the pirate’s currency, the ‘pieces of eight’ were a crown that was cut four times to produce eight wedges or chunks which were then hammered into crude coin shapes.
Finally we have one more cognate, surviving in the form of atelier, which is French for workshop, specifically describing a trade guild system of education and production that lasted for centuries. It is connected to the occurrence across Europe of using taller to describe a workshop, especially a metalsmith, which seems a perfect hybrid word for ‘fancy’ as it could lend a suggestion of French sophistication to the shop’s name, and just happens to sound close to thaler, and so synonymous with a crown standard of quality, as with the implied meaning of a ‘sterling’ reputation. I would imagine a successful taller would take the talers they earned straight to the teller.
So the talisman was once a substantial piece of silver whose markings assured reliability, and was the medium of customary tribute and borderless trade far beyond the known world. A shining fruit that grew on the trees of the guilds, harvested from the workshops and scattered in the ships of the merchants. A rising moon (the brightness of polished silver was since ancient times compared to the moon) that shed a light of prosperity on the dark ages.
And the talismonger was a maker and seller of talismans, precious metal workshop objects that were sophisticated, fancy, beautiful and of quality. Something so good, as good as a thaler, and worthy for paying tribute. The talisman was not simply a magical amulet, it was an exceptional and hand-crafted thing that captures something of the good and common law, of justice in pan-society.
And this my friends is the origin of talisman; we had to abandon the cliff notes, blow the dust from a few older memories, and arrive at the personal motives behind this term. It has come to be used almost purely for a fantastical end – describing a mystical symbol-object one wore around their neck for protection, erroneously connected to early Europe but really stemming from more recent Colonial times. This is precisely how memory becomes myth, and lives its life in the common use (the reflection of how it is breathed among everyday people). What else would one indigenous to the Spice Islands, a Bedouin trader, or a Native American do with the exotic concept of this universal trade unit of Europe, but string the thaler or tilsaman around their neck like an amulet?
If the history of the Silver Thaler as a global trade unit interests you, check out this comprehensive history page about the Maria Theresa Taler, minted 300 million times: