At once austere and eminently useful, steel seems an unlikely material from which to conjure fabulous and exciting jewels, and still less likely a partner for the capricious, light-filled glamour of the divine diamond. Yet along with such metals as aluminium and titanium, steel has once again come into its own as a component of high jewellery design.
In New York, the brilliant and enigmatic artist Daniel Brush turns the mundane into the magnificent as he carves and engraves intransigent stainless steel – a steel alloy with at least ten-and-a-half per cent chromium content per mass – into poetic brooches of shimmering light and silky softness.
At Sotheby’s Diamonds, steel meets the king of gems with such scintillating synergy that the seemingly plebeian metal – an iron alloy with other mass elements such as carbon – has become a signature material in this collection of one-of-a-kind contemporary diamond jewels.
Infused with the very same industrial and futuristic qualities associated with the metal in which they are set, today’s steel jewels are the latest incarnation of a rich historical legacy. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, cut-steel jewels and accessories exported from the Oxfordshire town of Woodstock were all the rage, especially among the fashionable Parisian elite. Composed of little bluish-grey steel studs that were faceted and polished to sparkle like diamonds in candlelight, these pieces even found favour with Napoleon’s feisty first wife, Empress Josephine.
With its strength, sheen and power to evoke industrial progress and military might, steel continued to capture the imagination of designers and craftsmen into the early 20th century. In 1914, Cartier Paris made a stunning kokoshnik-style diadem out of polished blackened steel, modelled after traditional Russian peasant headdresses, for the sister of Queen Marie of Romania. One in a series of steel diadems, it was inset with nine pear-shaped diamonds – a number believed to bring happiness to the wearer – and edged in diamonds and calibre-cut rubies.
The last Imperial Easter egg made by Fabergé, in 1916, was the Steel Military egg, presented to the Rasputin-loving Empress Alexandra Feodorovna by her husband, Nicholas II of Russia, while he was manning the front lines as Supreme Commander of the Russian Armed Forces. Crafted in smooth blackened steel, the egg was held on a stand in the form of steel artillery shells. Much later, in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, the utilitarian aspect of steel and its minimalist masculinity made it a favourite among studio artist-jewellers, who used the metal to challenge long-established conventions of preciousness.
Today the highly skilled master craftsmen in the ateliers of Sotheby’s Diamonds are constantly exploring the properties of steel, seeking to obtain such recherché effects as metallic glints of colour and iridescence. Steel alloys from the early 20th century are hand-selected for their chemical composition so that, when heated, the metal turns a spectacular lustrous hue. The process requires not only consummate skill but sensitivity and instinct: even a single degree too low or too high can dramatically alter the final colour. What’s more, given the alloys’ variable compositions, no two effects are ever identical, rendering uniquely individual shades ranging from deep blues and greens to violets and purples.
Equally specialised metalworking skills are required to craft steel settings that outline the diamonds in refined and slender graphic mounts while giving them a sleek, tailored silhouette. In fact, not unlike a glamorous woman wearing a tuxedo, the steel pieces from Sotheby’s Diamonds and other jewellers embody the exquisite balance between the fiery femininity of the diamond and the masculine toughness of that most workaday of metals.
Vivienne Becker is a jewellery historian and contributing editor for the Financial Times’s How to Spend It.
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