Sometimes a project just begs to be made.
Such was the case of the Avatar, the Last Airbender betrothal necklace.
Shortly after I discovered Avatar (and completely fell in love with the series), I spent a summer providing healthcare for Alaskan natives.
I couldn’t help but see some of the ways that Avatar’s creators had drawn from the culture of my native friends to create the series’ Water Tribes, so when my friends started to teach me traditional crafts like flatbeading and bone carving, I immediately started sketching ideas for a betrothal necklace which would combine both the real and the imaginative Northern cultures.
The betrothal necklace was the first project inspired by my Alaskan adventures, but was the last to be finished. Click here to see some of my other creations!
Avatar’s Water People
In Avatar, there are groups of waterbending people scattered throughout the world, but the largest civilizations are found around the North and South poles.
The tradition of the betrothal necklace is from the North. It is a symbolic gift given from a man to his beloved, much like an engagement ring.
The necklace worn by Katara in the show is easily the most iconic (she is the main heroine, after all).
Katara’s necklace gets so much screen time that it seems to have led some people to believe that it is the only betrothal necklace design out there. Many fans have created betrothal necklaces, but most of them are reproductions of Katara’s.
In the series, however, each necklace is unique–hand-crafted by the groom-to-be for his beloved. Several examples of different necklaces are visible in the show, most notably Princess Yue’s.
Although each betrothal necklace is unique, they also have uniting characteristics: each is a small, flat, round medallion, suspended from a ribbon-like choker.
Just like the men of the Water Tribes, I wanted to make something one-of-a-kind, but I took these design principles as ground rules to inspire my design.
Water Tribes of the Real World
As I mentioned earlier, my necklace was not just a tribute to the Avatar Universe, but (like most of my projects) I also wanted to tie it into the real world.
I learned the art of bone carving from the Northern Athabascan people themselves, so it became the obvious material choice for my project. As a further reference to my teachers I chose to include jade in the design (Alaska’s State gem).
Alaska is not the only place where these mediums are used, however. As in the Avatar world, planet Earth is covered in peoples whose lives are deeply attached to the water, especially in the Polynesian islands.
As I learned about these cultures, I felt that the Water Tribe spirit resonated particularly well with the Maori of New Zealand.
The Maori have their own ancient tradition of hand-crafting symbolic necklaces, and they often use bone and jade in their work. What’s more, their designs are guided by ancient and deep symbolism, which I wanted to infuse into my own creation.
The first Maori symbol I wanted to use was the Koru (spiral), which is drawn from the form of an unfolding fern.
There is a Maori saying that “As one fern frond dies – one is born to take it’s place.” Growing out of this proverb, the Koru design represents new life and the bonds between generations of family members.
The other symbol I wished to incorporate was the Porowhita (circle).
The Porowhita has no beginning and no end, and symbolizes the Maori belief that life is eternal.
I wanted to unite the symbols for family and eternity in my betrothal necklace. After all, isn’t creating an eternal family what a marriage is all about?
Crafting the Necklace
Even after I had decided on the design principles, materials, and symbols for my necklace, I went through a lot of concept art before a final design emerged.
Some designs just looked wrong right off the bat. Others had good ideas but the wrong delivery. One design even made it to the stage of cutting up some bone before I decided it wasn’t going to look as good in three dimensions as it did in two.
The design I finally settled on includes two Koru, spiraling around the outside like paired waves or Ying and Yang (significant symbols for the Water Tribes), but also representing two persons circling each other, coming ever closer together.
Although united in the design, the spirals are not identical. One is decorated with lines and the other is polished smooth. I played with making them symmetrical, but the design just didn’t look right unless the distinction was made. This felt right to me, since in a marriage each person brings something unique to the table to create a new and better whole.
There are jade inlays in both Koru, and in the middle of the pendant a Porowhita circle is suspended, as if by magic.
In order to achieve this effect, the medallion had to be created from front and back pieces which were matched up, glued together, and polished as one.
This made for a very stressful creation process because the pieces were so thin they could easily break (I know because I broke one and had to remake it). Nevertheless the finished product turned out just how I had hoped–even from the side it is difficult to tell that it is not carved from a single piece of bone, so the suspended jade in the middle seems almost impossible.
I chose green ribbon instead of blue for the choker to match the jade, and chose to make the choker from two different ribbons, one with a gold pattern, in order to create more visual texture. Flat, monochromatic designs look fine in a cartoon, but I find they don’t translate well into real life.
At this point in the project the necklace was everything I wanted it to be cosplay-wise, but since chokers aren’t in vogue at present I felt like it wasn’t very wearable outside of a comic con. To circumvent this problem I fastened the medallion to the choker with a clip so that it could be easily removed and placed on a chain if desired.
I’m really glad I made this adjustment. Both versions ended up looking so nice that it would be a shame to have to choose just one.
This project was a long time in the making, but the effort was worth it. The end-product evokes the spirit of Avatar’s Water Tribes while simultaneously conveying a depth of realism and symbolism that make it a piece of jewelry that I’d be happy to wear in everyday life.
This was the right necklace for me–born out of my own thoughts and experiences, but another person’s necklace might be completely different. Comment below and let me know what kind of symbols you would put into your own betrothal necklace. People who see your art may not know all its meaning, but the depth of your artistry will shine through regardless.