Jewellery phobia: Does this picture terrify you?

Probably not… but for Jo Macfarlane, who has an irrational fear of jewellery, it’s her worst nightmare.

jewellery phobia
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As Benedict Cumberbatch strode purposefully away from a copper bathtub filled with swans, his wet T-shirt clung to every sinew of his muscular torso. Some swooned at the stylish image, shot for the cover of a glossy magazine. Others questioned why a bevy of soaped-up swans had caused the Oscar-nominated actor such obvious disquiet.

In my case, however, I physically shuddered. Because all I saw was the chunky silver chain slung casually around his neck, captured in silent, horrifying mid-swing. The stylist probably thought it gave him swagger; a hard-man edge at odds with his public-school background.

But for me, the idea of the cool metal on his skin – the way I knew it would graze its surface as he walked – caused a reaction most people would consider distinctly odd: waves of nausea made me heave. I was, quite literally, repulsed because I am among a group of people with a strange and disabling fear of jewellery. It has a name – kosmemophobia – and a community Facebook page with a modest 600 worldwide likes.

Before stumbling across it last year, I thought I was the only one –a bare-limbed oddity.

The past two years of loungewear and minimalist accessories have given me some respite from my phobia, but now it’s worse than ever as summer 2022 comes clattering in, festooned in chunky chains, door-knocker earrings and cocktail rings. As one contributor to the Facebook group puts it: ‘For me, touching jewellery is like touching a toilet seat covered in mould and rust – nasty, and not something I can do for very long. It leaves an annoying tingle on your skin that you just want to wash off.’

Another member wrote: ‘Any time I watch Friends and see Phoebe wearing a ring on almost every one of her fingers, an uncomfortable shiver runs down my spine. I instantly start considering how I might dodge a handshake if faced with such hands.’

For as long as I can remember, I’ve experienced this same intense disgust when faced with any type of jewellery. Chain necklaces, particularly the thin, sinewy kind, are the worst. But earrings or bracelets, especially if they dangle, all trigger the same strong physical response, so I’ve never had my ears pierced. Rings are the least offensive – I do wear my wedding ring – but I would struggle to touch someone else’s.

Having dinner with a friend who might absent-mindedly play with her necklace at the table can feel excruciating as I inwardly gag at the way the chain crinkles on her skin. I’ve ruled out dates and Hollywood crushes based on the fact they wear a necklace.

I’ve also had genuinely terrifying nightmares based around people I love – my dad, my husband – deciding, out of the blue, to start wearing necklaces.

Even watching television can be a trial if someone is wearing a lot of bling. The BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel Normal People was particularly challenging because Connell, one of the main characters, wore a chain which was so popular it spawned a hashtag, #connellschain, its own Instagram page with 155,000 followers, and numerous newspaper articles with offending photographs. I watched only a single episode.

Mention it and people laugh. After all, it’s not as though jewellery can kill you in the same way that, say, spiders, snakes or heights – the most common phobias – might.

But intriguingly, it’s still the same survival instinct at play, explains Paul Salkovskis, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford. ‘Phobias are anxiety disorders, and people are phobic of spiders, snakes and heights almost certainly because there’s an evolutionary imperative around that,’ he says. ‘These things are dangerous to us, but that knowledge isn’t innate: the anxiety will develop usually through observation– you see your mum, perhaps, being terrified of a spider and you’ll link it to fear.

‘The sense of disgust people feel [about jewellery] is linked to the idea that it could be contaminated, either because it sits on other people’s skin, or through piercing holes, or because there are tiny holes in chains themselves which could harbour contamination. It makes sense to want to keep away from disgusting things.’

Victoria Gregory’s first memory of her jewellery phobia was being given a silver chain with a mother-of-pearl dolphin pendant by an aunt one Christmas when she was eight. ‘Most kids would have thought it lovely, but I felt this dread at the idea of wearing it,’ she recalls.

The 40-year-old from Lincolnshire only wears her engagement ring and jokes about her partner that ‘if he ever wants to break up with me he just needs to start wearing a chain.

‘Honestly, someone could be the best-looking man in the world – Brad Pitt, even – but if they were wearing a chain I’d find it repulsive and want them to go away,’ says Victoria. ‘I just can’t bear the idea of it on their skin, or touching my skin. It makes me retch – it’s a physical sense of repulsion.

‘My nine-year-old daughter is desperate to have her ears pierced but I’ve told her she has to wait until she’s 12 so she can put them in herself as there’s no way I could do it.’

I can sympathise. My eight-year-old has been known to chase me around the house with the silver chain she was given as a gift.

The idea that it could be linked to contamination fears is fascinating for Victoria because she runs her own cleaning business. ‘I don’t suffer from anxiety, but I do have to hoover my house before I leave it in the morning, and if I haven’t been able to I’m desperate to get back and do it,’ she says.

‘I can’t sit down in the evenings until the dinner plates are away. I do like things clean. But I’d never have linked that to an aversion to jewellery.’

Natalie Oxford, from London, has the same reaction. The 39-year-old says she feels ‘disgust and hatred’ towards jewellery, particularly if it’s gold. ‘Dangly stuff makes my skin crawl,’ she says. ‘It’s hard to explain, but I feel sick and want it to go away. If a friend is wearing something I just hope it doesn’t touch me when I go in for a hug. My family and friends don’t know how bad it is. It’s a weird thing to hate, so I keep it to myself.’

There’s little agreement among experts around how phobias develop but they usually start in childhood with a traumatic moment ora fright. Most people, like me, won’t have any recollection of what that triggering moment was.

‘They’re exacerbated by running away from the problem,’ explains Trilby Breckman, who runs the charity Triumph Over Phobia UK. ‘The discomfort you feel is adrenaline kicking in and your body activating its fight-or-flight mechanism. Your head might be saying that it’s only a necklace but your body thinks you’re in a dangerous situation and you need to escape.’

So when does an aversion become an all-out phobia? ‘You might start off feeling uncomfortable around a friend wearing a necklace, but if it then stops you from seeing that person – or from going out at all – it turns into a phobia,’ she says.

The good news, however, is that such phobias are easily treated– in fact, they’re among the easiest anxiety disorders to resolve. ‘You can recover from any phobia, but it takes hard work,’ Trilby says. ‘Because you’ve got to face your fear. And that’s the one thing you really don’t want to do.’

So do I sit out this summer’s love affair with jewellery (shuddering inwardly every time a friend embraces it… or me), or do I feel the fear and fasten the necklace anyway? Maybe I’ll just hang on for the colder months when jewellery isn’t quite so on display or in touch with the skin (yuck!) and hope that summer 2023 will be a bit less blingtastic.

HOW TO TREAT PHOBIAS

By Paul Salkovskis, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford

Exposure is the key to overcoming phobias. That might begin gradually by talking about the thing that scares you, then perhaps putting a triggering object –a cartoon image of a necklace, for example – in the same room with you. It’s about helping people make sense of it first, then when you’ve prepared in the appropriate way, you can slowly work up to being exposed to the real thing, then touching it. It’s a sort of full-on cognitive behavioural therapy which takes about three hours to get rid of the phobia completely.

Images: Getty