Rosaries for Collecting and Devotion
By Linda Dorland

Decades ago, one might see a rosary only in church, and usually only in a Catholic or Episcopal setting. These were typically seen in the hands of a nun or one of the faithful before Mass, their fingers lovingly passing over each bead in prayer. The rosary then slipped back in its pouch to be hidden away until the next visit. Times have certainly changed. The rosary is now mainstream with many collectors clamoring for a unique style of their own. And what a beautiful addition they make to a home, such as with the rosaries on this rare French pipe clay statue of Mary and Jesus, right, topped with a rosary of purple beads rosary and another in French blue (purple rosary, $99; French blue rosary, $230; statue, $1,325; all in S-510).

One contributor to this trend is that the practice of praying the rosary has become very popular again. In fact, many Protestants have taken up this practice in their homes.  The term “rosary” actually refers to the prayer, which uses rosary beads as counters to mark each prayer.  The list of rosary prayers includes The Apostles' Creed, the Lord's Prayer (also known as Our Father), the Hail Mary, Glory Be and Fatima Prayer. One can also use one's own personal prayers with the beads. Praying the rosary does not require the use of beads, but it is the actual beads that have contributed to the popularity of this devotion.

The Catholic or Christian rosary has several forms. The entire Rosary contains fifteen decades, each one denoting a prayer, and is often called the Dominican Rosary. Sets of beads are separated from each other by a larger bead or sometimes by a medal or metal cross. In the photo, left, is a rare rosary with miniature orange beads, a blue enamel medal and many tiny medals of saints ($245 in S-501).

There are also smaller rosary beads called chaplets, which consist of various numbers of beads that depend on the number of prayers making up each particular form of devotion. The photo, below right, features an example of a chaplet, this one for Jesus the Infant of Prague, in a gold tone metal ($68 in S-501).

Prayer beads existed long before the Catholic rosary beads. They were used in ancient religions of the Middle East, made most popular by the Buddhists; having beads on which to count the prayers was helpful, not only from a mathematical perspective, but also to aid in producing a spiritual meditation in the follower. Most Buddhist, Hindu and other Eastern religions use a prayer bead, called a mala, consisting of 108 beads plus a “guru” bead at the end in honor of the teacher. Many Buddhist practices consist of thousands of repetitions of a prayer, hence the necessity for counting accurately. Due to the handling, these beads develop a beautiful patina and a very spiritual feel after many years of use.

Eastern prayer beads came mostly in natural materials, such as seeds, stones including precious stones, rocks, bones, ivory and wood. Rosary beads include all of the above materials, plus pearls and synthetic materials, as well. Each rosary will have a center medallion, often imprinted with an image of Jesus or Mary, and a crucifix on the end, often of sterling or some other common metal. 

Priests, nuns and members of religious orders will often have their rosary, usually very large, hanging from their habits or clothing. But for most people, the beads are usually not displayed on the body except when in use. But even this has changed, as many jewelry designers are using rosary beads and their parts in necklaces; most rosary are quite easy to take apart for other designs.

When buying a rosary for personal use, consider the comfort of the bead in your fingers and the weight in your hand; it should feel good. If collecting rosaries, variety and rarity are more important.  Look for unusual center medallions, fancy crucifixes such as those made in sterling silver, and unusual beads, including fine semi-precious gemstones, bone and ivory, mother-of-pearl, real pearls and sterling silver beads. An example of an old bone rosary is seen in the photo, left ($235 in showcase S-509). Many rosaries may contain medals for a saint, and you can add medals to your rosary collection to enhance the beauty and value.



A lot of collectors will concentrate on rosaries owned by nuns or priests; these are often longer with larger beads and include large crucifix and usually many more decades of beads. These are not as easy to find, but it is well worth the search to add at least one in your collection. In the photo, right, is a large wooden rosary with a large crucifix that would have been used by a nun or priest ($240 in S-502).

If storing your rosary, the traditional pouches are best because each rosary is protected by the soft material. They can, however, be displayed on a table or altar, hanging from a statue, or they can be hung on the wall. In the photo, below left, is a nice display of rosaries on a gold gilt crucifix with a holy water font (font, $175; mother-of-pearl rosary, $184; French brown cut glass rosary, $165; rare old wooden rosary with carved bone Jesus head bead, $465; all in showcase S-509).


The rosaries shown here are only a small sampling of the many available  at GasLamp Antiques for sale; and we also have loose medals that can be added.



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