Animal Motif Jewellery Through The Ages
Man has always rubbed shoulders with beasts, and history echoes humanity’s affinity with the animal kingdom through its works of art and design. In ancient times, before the invention of the written word, animal symbolism was crucial for survival, but as literacy and folklore developed, humans ascribed deeper meaning to the animal form. A bear, for example, was no longer merely deemed a threat but a being embodying human traits, such as valour and strength. Meanwhile, serpent rings came to symbolise eternity and loyalty.
In this article, we explore the rich tapestry of animal motifs in unique jewellery throughout the iconic jewellery periods, from the Victorian era to the present day.
Late Georgian-Victorian era
Intricate animal portraiture, carvings, and gemstone-studded animal designs underscore the Victorians’ reverence of nature and symbolism, and appear in many pieces of antique Victorian jewellery. Meanwhile, the 18th Century discoveries of Pompeii and Herculaneum inspired artists to revisit ancient designs, returning figurative jewellery decoration to the fore. Seminal discoveries and their resultant inspiration, coupled with the Industrial Revolution, revolutionised jewellery tastes across Europe.
Against the polluted backdrop of urbanisation, nature became an attractive alternative for the middle classes, whose romantic fascination with animals engendered a rise in motifs, including butterflies in flight, serpents, dogs, and insects. Often mounted in old cut diamond pearls, these intricate animal motifs formed the basis of some truly stunning miniature sculptures.
Victorian animal motif jewellery
Set with a pair of long oval cabochon rubies and six old cut diamonds, this bold snake necklace epitomises the intricate etchings that characterised Victorian jewellery.
Forming a triple coil around the finger, this unique twin-serpent ring pairs dazzling old cut diamonds with small rose-cut diamond eyes, creating a stunning finish.
Ignited by a profound unease with the new modernised world, the Art Nouveau movement of the late 19th century saw jewellers shun machine-led manufacture in favour of traditional, hand-crafted methods. These artisans dove into the depths of the animal kingdom for inspiration before a somewhat unlikely source – richly hued, iridescent insects – gave flight to scores of stunning enamel creations.
Art Nouveau visionary Rene Lalique combined various new materials, including mother-of-pearl, to craft magical, sculptural pieces with enamel and precious gemstones. One of his most famous pendants, the Quatre Libellules sold at Sotheby’s for $212,000 (approx. 154,000) in 2015.
Notwithstanding WWI and the Great Depression, the roaring twenties produced a plethora of innovative jewellery pieces, dripping with the era’s signature opulence. However, animal motif jewellery declined in popularity as styles shifted towards the nonfigurative and abstract – those trends emblematic of modernity and dynamic development (e.g., the Bauhaus Group, Cubism & Futurism). As a result, clean lines and geometric motifs epitomise Art Deco jewellery.
Despite the emphasis on minimalism, ancient Egyptian creatures continued to court favour during the Art Deco era. After the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, demand for Egyptian jewellery skyrocketed, with motifs such as falcons, hounds, and scarab beetles adorned at dinner parties and high society events throughout the Western world.
While the Art Deco era’s production of animal motif jewellery was modest, the ensuing decades were something of a golden age. During the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, artists spanning the length and breadth of the Western world crafted enamelled and bejewelled creatures to meet the public’s voracious demand.
The most famous animal motifs were arguably the Chaumet bee, the Cartier panther, and the Bulgari serpent. While each symbol is traceable to an earlier period of each brand’s history, it wasn’t until the early 1940s that the respective motifs garnered attention from the press, high-society clients, and of course, celebrities. In fact, Cartier’s pioneering Director of Jewellery, Jeanne Toussaint, was bestowed with the moniker La Panthère due to her incorporation of large cats into its flagship collections.
Suzanne Belperron was another important 20th-century jeweller; her memorising pieces celebrated for their novel, tactile qualities that captured the essence of the natural world. One Belperron masterpiece is a chalcedony, pearl, and diamond starfish brooch that epitomises her emphatic signature style synonymous with 1950s jewellery. Despite being made some sixty years prior, this Victorian opal diamond star brooch shares some notable similarities to Belperron’s starfish.
Mid-century animal motif jewellery
This beautifully enamelled butterfly comprises six opals and four brilliant-cut diamonds, capturing the wondrous natural essence evoked in Belperron’s work.
Contemporary animal jewellery
Animal motifs and symbolism remain fertile ground for jewellery inspiration to this day, retaining favour with mass producers, fashion houses, and haute-joaillerie designers alike. However, on close inspection of the current market, it isn’t easy to discern identifiable animal jewellery trends. Some designers, such as Loren Nicole, cast their gaze back to the ancients, creating animal pieces from bygone cultures, while others like Bib van der Velden continue to craft intricate scarab wings and mammoth bone pieces.
On the other hand, Wallace Chan blurs the lines between jewellery and sculpture with his transformable jewellery collection, which features a peacock ring-brooch hybrid, as well as an angelfish brooch-sculpture.
These sublime Carrera y Carrera cufflinks feature two finely crafted panthers complete with an 18k yellow gold brushed finish. Polished tails and elegant curves crown their exquisite, contemporary design.