N ature has always been the original muse. From scrawled caveman sketches of wildlife in the caves of Lascaux to Claude Monet’s painterly lens on rolling hills and water lilies, art’s love affair with nature is no new surprise. And jewellery is but one of many disciplines in art that reflects this sentiment, with an enduring connection that transcends culture and time.
Ancient civilisations, such as the Egyptians, adorned themselves with floral jewellery as part of a tradition to celebrate the fertility of the Nile during The Beautiful Festival of Opet. However, it was in the 18th and 19th centuries that naturalistic motifs flourished and took centre stage on a more global scale. In the West, brooches featured intricate sprays of flowers, vines, and tendrils, crafted from diverse materials such as gemstones, gold, coral, and enamel, embodying art that imitated life. French jewellery house Boucheron also took inspiration from Egypt, incorporating the likes of winged scarabs and other iconic Egyptian symbols into their creations.
The Victorian era took these naturalistic motifs to a deeper, more symbolic level, introducing sentiment-laden designs where flowers conveyed messages of fidelity, enduring memory, and love. This era saw British jewellers drawing inspiration from indigenous flora, creating exquisitely feminine jewellery that encapsulated the beauty of nature. Concurrently, Chinese jewellers showcased their virtuosity in working with floral motifs, deriving inspiration from peonies, water lilies, roses, and more to craft jewellery that embodied the grace of the natural world.
Moving into the 20th century, the Art Nouveau period saw a shift towards flowing lines and more fluid, organic silhouettes. Pieces were cut from enamel, glass and ivory, with a particular style of enamelling rising to the fore. Plique-a-jour was a challenging enamelling technique that literally translates to “letting in daylight”, and was used to create winged structures as well as being a popular choice for insects or other winged creatures. The technique features a framework of metal lines with translucent enamel, creating an effect similar to that of a stained glass window. Esteemed jeweller René Lalique was known for his work during the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods, and went on to design for the likes of Boucheron and Cartier where he showcased his expertise both with plique-a-jour and with naturalistic motifs.
In 1911, Jacques Cartier's sojourn from London to India during the coronation of George V and Queen Mary at Delhi Durbar sparked a profound connection with the mesmerising coloured stones presented by Indian gem dealers. This encounter led to the Maharaja of Patiala entrusting Cartier with the re-set of his Crown Jewels, marking a historic commission and igniting a transformative phase for Cartier's design language, with Mughal-inspired works cropping up at Cartier in the form of vibrant cabochons and various engraved gemstones that spoke towards the shapes and colours of the Art Deco era and sometimes incorporated delicate floral patterns.
In the mid-20th century, some designs became increasingly more intricate, while others shifted towards abstraction. The 1950s and 1960s favoured designs like spray floral cluster brooches, while abstract designs persisted, mirroring the ever-evolving landscape of jewellery aesthetics.
The unwavering admiration for nature in jewellery design continues well into the contemporary. In 2018, Boucheron made waves by utilising real flower petals as the primary material for its innovative collection of rings, Les Fleurs Éternelles. Among their other remarkable creations is a set of jewellery pieces that takes inspiration from the biodiversity and beauty within the animal kingdom, featuring endearing, bejewelled creatures including a flamingo, chameleon, and parrot, amongst others. These precious pieces are a playful representation of Boucheron's portfolio in naturalistic motifs, opting for a more bold and imaginative approach.
Van Cleef & Arpels has had a longstanding relationship with the natural world, having crafted jewellery depicting everything from flowers and leaves to ladybirds and butterflies. Their classic Alhambra motif recalls the silhouette of a four-leaf clover, while their Two Butterfly collection highlights the dazzling beauty and colour of butterflies in flight. Butterflies often evoke feelings of freedom, beauty and transformation and are a popular design choice across some of the most esteemed jewellery houses, including Graff.
Nature is also the muse for many contemporary high jewellery artists hailing from Asia making a mark on the global stage, including Cindy Chao, Wallace Chan, Anna Hu and Carnet. Founded by jeweller Michelle Ong Cheng, Carnet places gem quality above all else, enlisting a small team of stone-cutters, carvers, goldsmiths and more who all work together to extract the purest form of the gem in question.
The influence of the natural world on jewellery design is a resilient constant amidst passing trends. Throughout the centuries, jewellers have sought to capture the essence of flora and fauna, marrying craftsmanship with creativity, producing not just adornments, but miniature works of art.