Thursday, February 3, 2011


The Week in Estate Jewelry: Owls, Tigers, and Snails

There’s nothing I like more than jewelry that has a secret. This hinged bracelet, with a hidden interior that is just as intricately worked as the surface, is one of those pieces. (Too bad I don’t have a spare $80-$160K.) The bracelet dates to 1887, which we know from an inscription on the inside, and is rare because it grew out of the short collaboration (only 12 years) between two renowned French jewelers, Germain Bapst and Lucien Falize. It’s 18k yellow gold, with engraved botanical motifs enhanced by enamelling and 67 diamonds. Yowza.

Edith brought up mourning jewelry last week, but you might want to grab a hankie before you read about this ring. It looks pretty standard for mourning jewelry — entwined locks of blonde hair, woven hair border, 14k gold, probably English — but then there’s the inscription on the back:

aged 4 Yrs
died 6 July
aged 4 Mo’s
died 12 Dec

Not one but TWO children — one just a baby — dead within 6 months of each other. Awful.

I have mixed feelings about this piece. Back in the late 1800s, when the sun never set on the British Empire, jewelry made from the teeth and claws of Bengal tigers was all the rage. These were the glory days of the Raj, and Indian jewelers made and sold the pieces to visiting English tourists, who snapped them up in the form of pendants, brooches, earrings and watch fobs. (This particular pendant is set in 14k gold and may have originally been used as a fob.) This practice went on for decades. There are some truly beautiful, ornate tiger claw designs out there that show the immense talent of the Indian goldsmiths; I always try to appreciate that side of the style, and not think about the tigers.

Now, this thing is just odd. I definitely want to investigate it further, but figured it was worth pointing out in case any of you share my obsession with Freemasons, Templars, Rosicrucians, Cathars, etc. (any group that's since been tainted by Dan Brown, basically). There’s a lot of Masonic symbolism within this piece — calipers, a level, blazing stars, a central plumbline terminated with a pearl — all fashioned out of 18k gold and platinum, with loads of diamonds, sapphires, rubies and pearls. The clasp is also engraved with the words “Quo Fas,” which may be an abbreviation of “Quo Fas et Gloria Ducunt,” or “Where Duty and Glory Lead,” which is the traditional motto of the Royal Engineers and Royal Artillery. Who knows; this is all speculation...

But seriously, WTF? Who would wear this? I can’t help but think of it slung across the front of a robed and barrel-chested old Englishman during some mysterious Masonic ritual. Let’s hope he just had it made for the wife.

The Art Nouveau style grew out of the anti-industrialist Arts & Crafts movement that started in England in the late 1800s. Legendary French jeweler René Lalique took the slightly clunky Arts & Crafts style and made it more fluid, introducing the female form into his designs and generally ramping up the romanticism. This brooch/pendant is unmarked, so we don’t know who made it, but it’s a great example of the Art Nouveau look — a beautifully modeled female profile with flowing lines and natural motifs, created out of 18k rose gold with plique à jour enameling. A photo can’t possibly do it justice, though, because the plique à jour (which means “open to light” in French) technique takes translucent enamel and fires it within the metal form with no backing — so it’s transparent; it looks like stained glass. So, so beautiful.

No matter how beautiful, styles get old, and people eventually got sick of Art Nouveau. They wanted a cleaner, more stripped-down look, with more angles and less froof (I don’t care if that’s not a word). The streamlining didn’t occur just in jewelry, however, as the Roaring Twenties saw changes in architecture, dress, even hairstyles. Art Deco spread to jewelry, too, and this silver bow necklace is a nice example of the cleaner yet still feminine style. It’s also got guilloche enamelling, which features translucent enamel laid over an finely engraved metal backing. Lovely.

Look at these things; they’re bonkers. Tiny seed pearls, diamonds, rubies; my head just exploded.

Carlo Giuliano made these earrings, and he’s my favorite jeweler of all time. Giuliano originally worked for the famous and obsessive Castellani family of jewelers (who I will be sure to tell you about in a future installation!) in Naples, and moved to London in the late 1800s to open a branch for them. He later went on to open his own shop, where he specialized in stunningly ornate Renaissance-Revival style jewelry like these earrings. They date to around 1880, and the workmanship is just extraordinary. The weight of them on the ear probably is, too, but what good is beauty without suffering?

These are seriously making me regret cutting my hair off last summer. They’re Chinese gold-washed silver hair sticks with coral terminals; the dealer dates them to the mid-1800s. The engraving seems to be slightly different between the two; I’m not sure if they were originally meant to be a pair, but who cares... How pretty would they be stuck into dark hair? (Like mine. Dammit!)

Opercula — the odd little round things set in this necklace — come from the shells of some salt and freshwater snails. They’re actually the little door on the opening of the shell; when the snail withdraws inside, the operculum then blocks the entrance to keep the little guy safe. They’re often called cat’s-eyes, and are believed by some to ward off evil spirits. This necklace dates to 1900 and features some really beautiful examples set into silver — but god help me, I can’t look at this thing without thinking of The Lion in Winter. I want to put this on and get all Medieval on somebody.

Did somebody mention owls? This little 18k guy is from Tiffany & Co., circa 1955.

Monica McLaughlin used to write about jewelry full-time, but then she got canned, so now she's just an enthusiast with no money or expense account. At any moment in time, she would rather be reading.

7 Comments / Post A Comment

Amelia Abreu

I'm seriously conflicted about this estate jewelry coverage. On the one hand, I LOVE IT. But on the other, I am a little bit scared about what it means that my previously private OMGs are now outsourced to the Hairpin.


As the daughter of a middle school science teacher I've gotta say, those ain't cat's eyes.

They are cow eyes. Dead on.


bless this website for leading me to others with an affinity for Weird Dead People Shit.


I am so happy you are writing about this, and I want to wear that crazy necklace and get hell of Game of Thrones on someone. So right on.


Now, see, I didn't know of this "Game of Thrones," so I looked it up and goddammit! I already have to sign up for Showtime because of The Borgias; now I have to get HBO, too? Aggggh

Julianne Sherrod

Gorgeous! This blog is definitely going to fuel my costume jewelry obsession. Back in the 1990's my granddad (a carpenter and handcrafter) started doing these collages out of old costume jewelry, like a butterfly or Christmas tree on felt backing. He'd frame them and give them away or sell them for the church auction. He got all his supplies by asking ladies at his church for their old costume jewelry that they weren't wearing any more. Well, this is in St Louis and these were somewhat affluent Catholic ladies in their 60's and 70's, so you can only imagine the INCREDIBLE abundance of absolutely gorgeous costume jewelry-matching bracelet/necklace/earring sets, huge brooches, cameos, etc-- that he BROKE UP and turned into these collages. I was only 16-17 at the time, and living in another state, so I didn't really understand. He did give me a couple pieces, like a bracelet and a brooch, but I look at the collage hanging in my mom's house and almost cry for these pieces that can never be recovered. He and the ladies he got the jewelry from thought it was junk, but I bet at least some of it was worth a lot of money. Not to mention I would love to wear it! Sigh.

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