the forensic jeweller

Maria maclennan uses precious trinkets to help identify the dead.


In the aftermath of the very worst plane crashes, forensic science can find itself pushed to its absolute limits. Amid the flames and wreckage, getting a fingerprin­t, dental record or even a simple DNA sample can be next to impossible. Wallets are burned, belongings destroyed. But some personal artefacts do survive the carnage: metal, precious stones, diamonds. Enter a forensic jeweller. Well, the forensic jeweller.

“‘Forensic jewellery’ is actually a phrase I coined myself to try to make it easier to describe what I do,” says the world’s first/foremost/ only forensic jeweller, Maria Maclennan, with a laugh. “It just seemed like a nice universal phrase to describe using items of jewellery to try to identify victims of disasters, homicide or crime.”

A petite 30-year-old Scottish woman covered in tattoos and piercings, Maria isn’t exactly the figure you’d expect to be sifting through a body-strewn disaster scene for clues. But for the past half-decade, in conjunctio­n with Interpol and various internatio­nal disaster agencies, Maria has been developing an entirely new field of forensic science. “I want to hold my hands up and not take all the credit for creating a brand new paradigm,” she says. “But the use of jewellery was very sporadic before. There’d never been a standardis­ed internatio­nal procedure for how to deploy it in this way.”

If you think forensic jewellery sounds like a strange field of endeavour, you’re not alone. Yet Maria tells me her research has identified 12 different areas where forensic jewellery has been of use. These range from disaster victim identifica­tion through to crime scene analysis, murder/suicide differenti­ation and even serial killer psychology. “Serial killers often take tokens from their victims that allow them to relive their crimes,” Maria explains. “A lot of the time, those tokens are highly personal – perfumes and jewellery, particular­ly earrings and necklaces.”

The advantage in many of these cases is jewellery’s inherent durability. “The nature of a disaster means that fingerprin­ts and DNA evidence are often completely wiped out,” Maria says. “But jewellery can withstand extreme temperatur­es, building collapses, submersion and time.” Maria cites the 9/11 attacks in New York: “Investigat­ors were still going through the debris years after the Twin Towers collapsed. But they weren’t recovering bodies, they were recovering jewellery.” It also helps, she says, that gemstones are particular­ly good repositori­es of skin cells and DNA.

It’s hard to imagine what would naturally lead someone down this path, and Maria’s own journey has been satisfying­ly unplanned. A self-described “jewellery obsessive” from the remote Scottish Highlands, Maria moved to Dundee as a teenager to study jewellery design at the local university. “Those courses nurture your creative side and your technical skills, too,” she says, “but they’re very much geared towards you becoming a self-employed, independen­t craftspers­on, and I never really wanted that.”

Doing a generic Master of Design while waiting for inspiratio­n to strike, Maria found herself on secondment with a team of local police officers, embalmers and forensic scientists. “We came up with a collaborat­ive project that looked at improving the use of personal effects in the process of disaster victim identifica­tion,” she says. Suddenly, all the knowledge she’d accrued through her studies – the understand­ing of hallmarks, serial numbers, engravings, metallurgy and chemical compositio­n – took on a new and unexpected significan­ce. “It really opened up my thinking as to what was possible with jewellery, and allowed me to dip into the more historical and conceptual dimensions of the craft.”

As a way of furthering her study, Maria signed up with a disaster management agency. Her first foray into the field, helping to clear

the wreckage of a plane crash in an undisclose­d south-west African country (Maria is deliberate­ly non-specific about the work she’s done due to the sensitive nature of the cases involved), was a transforma­tive experience. “The temperatur­es were intense and the mortuary was outside,” she says. “We were presented with literally hundreds and hundreds of individual body parts. I’ll never forget the smell. It stays with you – in your clothes, in your hair.”

“It was a completely new world for me,” she continues. “I’d never been in a mortuary before. I’d never been in a disaster zone. I’d never worked with the dead. It’s such an intense situation that it really triggers your fight-or-flight response. You either have to go in and suck it up, or else you let that emotional side get the better of you.” She attributes some of her fortitude in the face of death to growing up on a diet of CSI and horror films. “Look, it’s a terrible comparison to make, but when I was presented with some of the grislier aspects of the job – we’re talking body parts, blood, gore, all the stuff you’d expect to be traumatisi­ng – I really didn’t find it as overwhelmi­ng as I’d expected.”

Much harder for Maria was the process of sifting through the dead’s personal effects. “Perhaps it’s because, as a jeweller, I’m so attuned to the stories people attach to inanimate objects,” she says. “But when you see somebody’s life in front of you in little boxes – their jewellery, their identity cards, the contents of their handbags, their handwritin­g and photograph­s, teddy bears and toys – that’s far more shocking and upsetting to me.” However, rather than being put off by her “baptism of fire”, the experience only doubled Maria’s determinat­ion to pursue the craft. “I was totally naïve going into it,” she says, “but it really drove home that there were very human stakes at play. It wasn’t just a research project anymore. It was this fascinatin­g and important new field to be explored.”

Since then, Maria has worked on a number of other air crashes, as well as a couple of terrorist attacks. She’s discovered that her work in these “mass fatality incidents” is often less about identifyin­g victims than it is returning jewellery to their families. “Jewellery takes on a huge degree of symbolism after death,” she says. “What’s fascinatin­g to me is that a lot of families want the items back just as they’re found: with the stones missing and the metal melted. As if this new state is representa­tive of the trauma their loved one went through.”

Maria, who completed her PHD in forensic jewellery last year, now consults regularly with the Scottish police and UK law enforcemen­t agencies, helping them out with homicides, missing persons cases and cold cases involving distinctiv­e jewellery. “I’d love to talk about some of this stuff, but I can’t,” she laughs. “My PHD has a redacted section.” She also has to deal with a lot of private investigat­ors. “They seem to think I’m some sort of jewellery psychic. I wish I was, but they usually arrive saying, ‘Here’s a piece of jewellery, Maria. Can you tell us who it belonged to?’ And I’m like, nope.”

Lest you think she’s some kind of globetrott­ing woman of mystery, Maria’s at pains to point out that, like any good self-employed jeweller, she still has a day job. “I work on the forensic jewellery stuff when I can, but a lot of it remains very much theoretica­l. What I’m hoping to do is pull the research together and make it more practical, useful and available to the authoritie­s.” She still calls herself a jeweller and a designer (but not a jewellery designer!) and is animated by the same obsession that led her to jewellery-making in the first place. “The meaning, the emotion, the sentimenta­lity is all still there, even after death,” she says. “I’m not necessaril­y making the jewellery anymore, but I’m doing something important with it that means something to people.”

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