Why you should care

Because to solve a crime, you should leave no gemstone unturned.

A piece of jewelry can be many things: a sign of wealth, a treasured heirloom, a pledge of commitment. But it is rarely thought of as an investigative tool.

Maria Maclennan is out to change that. The 29-year-old Scottish designer is the world’s first forensic jeweler, bringing together art and science to explore how jewelry can be used as a method of identification.

“I was fascinated by jewelry but didn’t want to necessarily design or make it,” says Maclennan, who trained in jewelry design at the University of Dundee. She explains that identifying people through their jewelry, rather than making it herself, allows her to explore its meaning and “why people form bonds and attachments with jewelry.”

It’s seeing things like jewelry that give glimpses and insights into people’s lives that is the most upsetting. That stops you in your tracks.

Maria Maclennan

Maclennan is quick to point out that she is not a forensic scientist, but she is thoughtful and articulate about her subject. When we speak she had just submitted her Ph.D. thesis on the use of jewelry in forensic identification.

She explains how watches and jewelry have a number of strengths as forensic tools. While not sufficient by themselves to identify someone, as unique personal effects they can be used in combination with other evidence, giving them the same level of credibility as a person’s blood group.

The ability of gemstones and precious metals to withstand high temperatures and extreme impacts, as well as immersion in water, means they are sometimes the only intact objects left after an air crash or a natural disaster, says Maclennan. She adds that diamonds and gemstones are also effective at collecting DNA and skin cells that can help identify their wearer.

Watches are also helpful for identification. Many high-end timepieces have serial numbers, allowing them to be traced even if they are damaged. Maclennan cites one notorious case of a partially decomposed body that was pulled from the sea in 1996 and identified by the Rolex found on its wrist. The watch not only helped police identify the deceased as a man named Ronald Platt, it also led them to his killer.

Maclennan has worked with forensic teams in a number of countries. She helped identify remains in the aftermath of the 2015 Germanwings plane crash in France. She also spent a month in a South African mortuary in the wake of another air disaster in Namibia. Her master’s degree involved creating an international jewelry classification system for missing persons, in collaboration with Interpol.

Despite these credentials, convincing forensic scientists of her message has not been easy. Not only is her subject unique but she is physically petite, with delicate tattoos around her neck and on her forehead, and facial piercings. She says that she has to work hard to prove herself. “There is a little bit of suspicion about why I’m interested in the research,” she says.

Robert Organ, deputy warden of the Goldsmiths’ Company assay office in London, recalls how he first met Maclennan while she was researching her degree. “She’s, well, striking in appearance,” he says with a laugh. “But as soon she opens her mouth, she’s engaging, quite brilliant.… It’s funny how appearances can deceive sometimes.”

Despite the raised eyebrows, Maria Maclennan is gaining recognition as a pioneer in her field.

An accomplished speaker, she uses ingenious methods to illustrate her talks. Because so many of the objects she works with belong to victims or are in confidential crime files, she re-creates them in tableaux.

“It brings a bit more creativity to what I do,” she says. “I’ve bought old secondhand watches and smashed and bashed a few of them to try to re-create conditions that I’ve seen in disaster scenarios or after a crime.”

There is, of course, a great leap from re-creating the effects of disaster to dealing with the aftermath of a real-life catastrophic event. Maclennan admits that seeing a dead body for the first time shocked her.

But “it’s seeing things like jewelry that give glimpses and insights into people’s lives that is the most upsetting. That stops you in your tracks,” she says.

Jewelry and other personal effects take on even greater symbolism for the families of the deceased, particularly if there are no physical remains for them to bury. “They in some ways serve as a kind of proxy for the event that’s taken place … because they’ve physically accompanied the individual through that experience,” Maclennan notes.

“No matter how traumatic or awful that might have been, it was with them at the end.”

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By Siona Jenkins

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