Published: 18.04.2021
Makiko Akiyama
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Argentine medical workers wearing hand medals.
. Photo courtesy: Iris Eichenberg and Jimena Ríos..
Argentine medical workers wearing hand medals.
Photo courtesy: Iris Eichenberg and Jimena Ríos.

© By the author. Read Copyright.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that 2020 was a year of COVID-19. It spread around the world in the blink of an eye, and although vaccinations have begun, the fight to tame the pandemic is still going on, even a few months into 2021. On the front lines of this battle are the medical workers. In Japan where I live, various projects have been developed to show gratitude and appreciation, from calls for donations to catering by chefs.

>> About Hand Medal Project

日本語版 - Japanese version      View / hide description

中文版 - Chinese version      View / hide description

Versión en Español - Spanish version      View / hide description

In the jewelry field, a project has also been launched to support medical workers. In April 2020, Iris Eichenberg and Jimena Ríos launched the Hand Medal Project. Iris Eichenberg is an artist from Germany. After a career as a nurse, she studied jewelry in the Netherlands and worked as an artist and educator. Then, she moved to the United States, where she continues to teach and create large-scale works in addition to her jewelry. Jimena Ríos is from Argentina and studied jewelry in Spain and Italy. After returning to her homeland, she set up a workshop called Taller Eloi, where she teaches jewelry and organizes workshops and lectures both domestically and internationally.
This Hand Medal project was designed to honor and show appreciation for medical workers' contributions by giving them hand-shaped medals. In addition to the medical workers, there are three other groups involved in this project. The first is the jewelers, the second is the "Hand Keepers" who collect the finished medals, and the third is the "Hand Givers" who receive the medals from the Hand Keepers and present them to their local medical communities.
Those interested in participating were supposed to email the organizers. The makers would then make the medals, print out envelopes to put them in, and contact the Hand Keepers by mid-October 2020. The Hand Keepers would deliver the medals to the medical workers on a designated date in November. As the project title suggests, the medal is hand-shaped and simple. A medal is made by cutting out a sheet of metal according to the prescribed pattern, giving an appropriate finish, and attaching a ribbon and a pin. Makers can choose the type of metal and color of the ribbon, and the pin fittings can be either store-bought or handmade. On the back of the medal, a number assigned to each maker is inscribed, and if you visit the Hand Medal Project website, you can check which numbered medal was made by whom.

Photo courtesy: Iris Eichenberg and Jimena Ríos.

From the beginning, the organizers stressed that the project is meant for the recipients, the medical professionals, and not the jewelers. The idea of honoring dedication and sacrifice through a small, palm-sized object was based on the Christian custom of "ex-voto". Ex-voto is a small metal object meant to offer gratitude and wishes from believers to God. Since it is made by silversmiths, they are thought to act as intermediaries between God and the public. The ex-voto represents symbols of miracles performed by the saint (figures of saints, hearts, eyes, etc.), and sometimes the details of the miracle are written on the surface. They are meant to be seen by the public to convey the great deeds of the saints.
In 2019, Iris and Jimena created an exhibition that examined how contemporary jewelry makers could interpret ex-voto. Although the ex-voto itself is not something to wear, it has a lot in common with jewelry in size, material, and significance. The COVID-19 pandemic came right after that. The two wondered if they could respond to medical personnel's devotion with the spirit of ex-voto and launched the Hand Medal project, which quickly gained supporters, with more than 3,000 jewelers.
I did not participate in this project. And I regret it. To put it another way, I didn't participate because I didn't believe in the significance of jewelry in times of disaster, and I regret not believing in it. From here on, I will describe the process of regaining that trust.
The reason I didn't participate was simple: the physical and mental toll on the medical workers in this disaster was so devastating that it seemed that their needs were more fundamental, such as compensation and adequate rest to match their hard work. In Japan, when a major disaster strikes, it is customary to donate a thousand paper cranes to the people involved as a token of gratitude, comfort, and prayer. While on the other hand, many see a large number of paper cranes as an unwanted favor, and I agree with them. However, the same is true for jewelry, which is specialized in emotions and has no usefulness (if precious metals and gems are used, it can add to the monetary value, but that is the value of the material, not the jewelry). To me, the Hand Medal project looked similar to the act of sending a thousand paper cranes, but to equalize the two seemed to be the denial of the jewelry I have really liked and, by extension, the jewelers I have admired.
While I was in anguish, the Hand Medal project proceeded, and the Instagram feed was filled with various medals posted by participants from all over the world and the organizers. The more I watched the excitement, the more my anguish deepened. It would have been better if I could have criticized this project head-on like those who criticize paper cranes, but jewelry was too familiar to me to do that, and I felt bad about myself for not believing in the power of jewelry.

Photo courtesy: Iris Eichenberg and Jimena Ríos.

The opportunity to change the course of my thoughts came suddenly. About a month after the medals were delivered to the medical workers, I was browsing Twitter when I saw tweets from a paramedic in the United States. His story consisted of 17 tweets, each describing an event that had happened during his shift and what he felt and thought about it. The following is its summary.
One day, while he was busy dealing with Corona patients, a man was brought in who was having trouble breathing. When the paramedic removed the man's clothes to change into a hospital gown, he found several tattoos, including a swastika, symbolizing the Nazis on the patient's body. This was not the first time he had experienced this. Rather, he was used to seeing patients with swastika tattoos and racist patients. Every time it happened, he shuddered, but he kept telling himself, "This patient needs a doctor, and dammit, I am that doctor," because reciting this mantra helped him focus on what he needed to do now. But this time, it didn't work much, and he realized that he was at his limit. This was the overview of the tweets. He also revealed the fear and isolation that health care workers were feeling and referred to the people who claimed that all these Corona panics were made up and called the medical workers liars.
This story suggests that a symbol with immense negative meaning can be the final push to break a person's heart (Especially since tattooing involves a direct physical injury and pain, it even tells us that the ideology represented by the symbol is strongly internalized). If this can happen, could it not also happen the reverse -that a symbol of goodwill can prevent a heart that is reaching its limit from breaking down? I finally realized that I was so focused on the importance of the baseline support that I was overlooking the fact that providing them didn't mean that any other support is not needed. In other words, I lacked a little deeper perspective.
The hand has many meanings since ancient times, and there are many examples of historical jewelry that use the shape of a hand as a talisman or token of affection. The hand in the Hand Medal Project is a symbol of goodwill and can be associated with supportive hands, bonds, healing, care, and the process of making, and the power of handwork. The hand's shape also reminds us of the importance of handwashing as a measure against infection.

Argentine medical workers wearing hand medals.
Photo courtesy: Iris Eichenberg and Jimena Ríos.

However, even if the symbol of goodwill has the power to make people look forward, I think it is no comparison to the powerful impact and shock that a swastika tattoo can give. A moment is enough to get severely injured, but sometimes it takes a tremendous amount of time to heal. I think the relationship between the symbol of malice and the symbol of goodwill is a little similar to that. In the Hand Medal Project, numbers are the key to making up for this power disadvantage. One of the manifestations of the power of numbers is the number of participants. And importantly, there is an ingenious way to identify each jeweler so that the large number does not result in complete anonymity. (As mentioned earlier, if you search the website for the number on the medal, you can identify the maker.).
The inscribed number also helps the recipient imagine that before and after that number is a series of many other creators who want to honor medical workers. Furthermore, if we think of the silversmith's role in the ex-voto as an intermediary between God and believers, we can say that the makers of the hand medals are intermediaries between medical workers and the general public. That is to say, each participant is a spokesperson for the public, which adds weight to the individual medals.
Finally, I would like to focus on the preconceived notion of jewelry. It is universally recognized that medals are given to people who have made outstanding achievements. Therefore, when a medical professional wears a hand medal, people around them immediately recognize that they have accomplished something that should be celebrated. This is also in line with the role of the ex-voto, which is to spread the word about the saints' achievements.
Even with all the things that jewelry can do, it is hard to say that jewelry will be much needed in a pandemic or other catastrophe. However, that is what jewelry is, and as such, we have no choice but to give it our all and hope that it will reach those who need it. While making full use of the power of handwork, the power of symbolism, the power of small things, and the unique characteristics of jewelry, sometimes we can make wise use of the stereotypes that have been planted in jewelry.
In short, it took me too long to realize the obvious. However, there may be other people in the jewelry field who have lost faith in jewelry, or I may lose faith again someday. I decided to record my thoughts and feelings in this text, hoping that it would help me remember the basics when such an occasion comes.
To avoid misunderstandings, I would like to add that trusting the field you are in is fundamentally different from blindly affirming that field and losing critical thinking. In fact, I think that trust cannot be established without critical thinking. What I am trying to say is that it is important to find out what you can do in your field in a given situation and focus on that. And to me, it is the Hand Medal project that reminded me of that.

Photo courtesy: Iris Eichenberg and Jimena Ríos.

- Hand Medal Project official information (Last viewed on Feb. 28, 2021):,

. Related article (Last viewed on Feb. 28, 2021):
"IN YOUR HANDS Join The Hand Medal Project (In English/Spanish)" By Elizabeth Essner: Art Jewelry Forum.

- "HELPING HANDS An Update On The Global Hand Medal Project" (IN ENGLISH/EN ESPAÑOL). By Elizabeth Essner: Art Jewelry Forum.

- EX-VOTOS AND CONTEMPORARY JEWELERS by Jimena Ríos: Art Jewelry Forum.


About the author

Makiko Akiyama. Writer and translator. Born in 1979 in Osaka, Japan. In 2013 launched a newsletter for Japanese readers featuring translated articles about art jewelry. Contributing writer for klimt02, Current Obsession, Art Jewelry Forum, and Norwegian Crafts.