A habitué of open-air markets around the world, I have spent hours roaming Bangkok’s myriad street stalls in search of increasingly rare Miao and Hmong hill-tribe silver cuffs, which I collect. I have never really paid much attention to the thumb-sized Buddha figurines, typically encased in protective glass or plastic, which also populate these stalls – but when I met talented American jeweller Alexis von Viragh, all that changed. She has adapted this ancient tradition into modern, meaningful works of wearable art (from $650).
Von Viragh decamped with her family to the Thai capital in 2005. On a lark, the recently arrived expatriate selected a handful of these esoteric ornaments to attach to a chunky silver chain – and swiftly set about learning their backstories, which she discovered were imbued with both Buddhist and animist beliefs. Her necklace attracted the attention of strangers from Phuket to Paris, who asked where they could buy these captivating chains of lucky charms. Around five years ago, I joined that chorus, by which time von Viragh had already established a cult-like global following, mostly by word of mouth and private sales.
The Los Angeles native and multimedia artist credits her training in photography with teaching her how to balance the bold shapes and subtle hues on each gold or silver chain. “Nothing is left to chance,” the superstitious von Viragh explained to me at her art-filled house, as I took in her considerable collection of Tibetan coral prayer-boxes, chunks of Himalayan turquoise, Indian crystals, Burmese jade carvings and other auspicious charms amassed along her travels in Buddha’s footsteps.
I picked up one necklace ($1,425, first picture, centre) embellished with a lapis Ganesha surrounded by Sri Lankan sapphires and von Viragh informed me that this Hindu god of wisdom (ring and necklace second and third pictures) and remover of all obstacles is especially popular among her clients. Many choose their first necklace by colour, as I did, opting for an amethyst-accented 18ct gold necklace with an antique-looking glass centrepiece. These luxuriously elongated chains may be worn as a single strand or doubled up around the neck, allowing me to travel with one statement necklace that works with just about anything, from beach kaftans to business suits.
My first von Viragh charm necklace began clocking serious air miles as I travelled from Thailand to Tokyo, Marrakech, Madrid and Paris then back to Asia, but after a year or so, we alighted back in Los Angeles. I had two missions in mind for my next rendezvous with this charming artisan who maintains ateliers in both Bangkok and LA: the creation of an entirely bespoke silver charm-necklace of my own travel souvenirs and to personalise my gold go-to accessory by adding my own inherited vintage charms.
I already loved my original gold strand, yet feel ever-more comforted on the road, taking a bit of grandmotherly love along for the ride (in the shape of the Cartier four-leaf clover she left me). My old silver treasures ($985) look infinitely more chic strung alongside von Viragh’s Buddhas and baubles.