In our times, fine jewellery is flourishing. What was once a closely guarded preserve is today a bustling industry benefitting from an influx of creative talents bucking against the boundaries of tradition. Where jewellery was once valued for its intrinsic material value, it has evolved to become much more than just a sum of carats. Creativity is the name of the game these days and independent designers and even grand Maisons prize inventiveness over material. These ground-breaking jewellers are combining traditional precious materials — gold, diamonds, the big three of emeralds, rubies and sapphires — with unusual, even non-precious elements, from feathers to desert sand. Paired with a returned emphasis on the highest craftsmanship, what’s precious has now been redefined.
“I’m more interested in materials than jewellery,” says designer Monique Péan. Her nearly decade-old New York brand is founded on principles of sustainability and relies on recycled gold to set unusual “gems”: Fossils of walrus tusks, mammoths and dinosaurs, and meteorite fragments, gleaming like the silvery iron of hematite and naturally laced with a perfect linear grid, the result of the impact against our planet’s crust. They are all materials that preclude invasive mining, found on or near the earth’s surface.
Péan launched her company with an eco-conscious framework after discovering the vast quantities of chemicals required to mine a single gold band. “Customers are much more thoughtful today. They are more interested in understanding the life cycle of how things are made,” says the designer. Her distinctive materials, shaped into her trademark geometries and framed with recycled or conflict-free diamonds, are marked by the long, natural process of mineralisation, where salts and other elements seep into the fossils to create exceptional patterns of colour, rendering each piece unique. “It’s awe-inspiring to see what forms over hundreds of millions of years,” she says. “Mother nature is quite talented.”
For the London designer Jacqueline Cullen, a deeper, darker fossil fuels her creativity. It was during her school days that she first stumbled upon a now rare form of jet, a petrified black material endemic to the Whitby cliffs of England. Cullen was fascinated by the historical significance of jet, used in the Victorian era as mourning jewellery. “I was looking for a material that had preconceived ideas attached to it that I could then challenge,” says the designer.
Coming from a visual arts background, she appreciated the sculptural possibilities of shaping jet with lapidary wheels. She grinds the surfaces smooth and sets them with diamonds or gold balls. Most of her designs are composed of small monoliths with matt facets — feather-like profusions of narrow sprigs of jet — or she incorporates the material’s raw, natural edges into rings and bracelets. Cullen works with a single abseiler — his identity a closely guarded secret — who supplies the material, rappelling down Whitby’s precipices to chisel off chunks of the 180-million-year-old black fossil.
For the experimental jewellers of today, niche artisans and suppliers like Cullen’s abseiler are the rarities to seek out. It used to be that only the largest and most flawless gemstones were fiercely contested over; this demand is now a secondary concern subsumed by the power of designers and master craftspeople. Milanese-based Vhernier, who is synonymous with the art of the Italian goldsmith, has turned to titanium in its latest collection. “Thanks to its lightness, with titanium we have the freedom to create larger volumes and surfaces,” says Carlo Traglio, chairman of Vhernier.
The extremely hard material requires the expertise of a specially trained goldsmith. And its capabilities are impressive: In Vhernier’s new Volta Celeste collection, the jeweller used titanium to make oversized disks emblazoned with shades of sapphire pavé. It also reinterpreted the classic Vhernier Eclisse designs in the sandblasted, matt grey finish that is a signature of the metal. According to Traglio, titanium allows the brand to flaunt the sophistication of Italian craftsmanship in modern ways. Ebony wood and a gold alloyed with palladium have been used before and Vhernier will “continue to experiment more and more with new jewellery designs,” says Traglio. “We’re beginning to be quite daring.”
Vhernier is not the only jeweller who recognises the benefits of titanium. Wallace Chan’s fabulously sculptural high jewellery creations are also made of this tough material. Chan likes how titanium can deliver volume without compromising on a jewellery’s wearability. Titanium is also the only metal that can turn his designs into reality because of the myriad of colours it is able to take on when put through an electrochemical treatment. As for its non-precious nature, he is nonplussed about it. “Some people say that titanium isn’t a precious metal but honestly, how much of a high jewellery piece is composed of metal? How much of its value goes into its carat weight?” asks Chan.
The experimentation with materials extends to the storied jewellers of the Place Vendôme, where Chanel perhaps best represents the house that has elevated ground-breaking design above traditional materials. Past high jewellery collections have worked with titanium, as well as ceramic, and, since 2012’s 1932 collection, transparent rock crystal. Accentuating modest stone were strokes of diamonds and gold that contributed to an overall mystifying effect. Rock crystal was also present in Chanel’s latest Les Talismans de Chanel collection that was introduced during the July 2015 haute couture week in Paris. The Mystérieuse and Magnétique pieces set crystalline cabochons of rock crystal over bases of golden loops, reams of diamonds and deep black lacquer, acting as a sort of magnifying glass for the sparkle and depth of the foundations, and highlighting the craftsmanship of the pieces. The effect is a mysterious visual play — it shifts and grows with the light — and it is a wholly different game from traditional haute joaillerie.
Among the jewellers of Place Vendôme, rock crystal has re-emerged as a foundation material for experimental designs. It first appeared, voluminous and perfectly limpid, in the pioneering architectural designs of art deco jewellery by Cartier. But it was the avant-garde designer Suzanne Belperron, who also created, among other crystal pieces, a monumental bracelet with pyramid-like, diamond-set crystal platforms that best defined the new spirit of the 1930s. Crystal’s magical powers are being harnessed again by Chanel, Cartier and Boucheron, whose Creative Director Claire Choisne used the material to play with light, as her predecessor, Frédéric Boucheron, did a century ago. Taking the legacy further in her latest haute joaillerie collection, Bleu de Jodhpur, she introduced pieces such as the Nagaur necklace with a pendant made of rock crystal filled with sand from the Thar desert. Another emblematic creation, the reversible Jodhpur necklace is composed of many delicate pieces of Makrana marble, the same marble used to construct the Taj Mahal.
At a newly opened store just above Place Vendôme on Rue de la Paix, Piaget unveiled its haute joaillerie collection the same week as Chanel, with what might be the greatest signal that precious jewellery is not what it used to be. There were sapphires, emeralds, diamonds and gold — yes — but then there were sprays of feathers as luminous as the stones themselves.
Working with master plumassière Nelly Saunier, one of the few feather artists in the world, Piaget created a diamond headdress with a froth of ostrich and Victoria crowned pigeon feathers sprouting from the centre, as well as a white gold cuff bracelet with iridescent pheasant and peacock feathers radiating from under an emerald centre.
“We turn the feathers into works of art before placing them in the piece of jewellery,” says Piaget’s Jewellery Marketing Director Jean-Bernard Forot, who defines the artful compositions as the “marquetry of feathers”.
From the Secrets & Lights — A Mythical Journey collection, these pieces are part of a tale about the Silk Road; with the feathers, they recount the wonders of Venice, a key city on that ancient trail, and capture the mystique of its masks, theatre and carnival. They also equate the vivid blue of peacock feathers with that of sapphires, and the feather marquetry skill of Saunier with that of the goldsmiths. Saunier was also responsible for the feather marquetry watches from Harry Winston.
As the very notion of what’s precious changes, jewellery is more and more about daring to try new techniques, new artisans and unexpected materials. What will define our times is much more than the sum of jewellery’s combination of traditional and ground-breaking parts — it’s the grand total of creativity and craftsmanship, expressed with the freedom of unlimited materials.
The future of jewellery looks bright with invention.