Shaun Leane Reinterprets Art Nouveau Jewelry for His Sotheby’s Homecoming

By Stephanie Sporn

I n December 2017 Sotheby’s and Kerry Taylor Auctions partnered for the wildly successful sale of Shaun Leane’s personal archive. Featuring the British designer’s iconic pieces made for Alexander McQueen, such as the Coiled Corset and Crown of Thorns, Leane’s collection seamlessly fused the worlds of art, jewelry and fashion in a brilliant showcase of his unparalleled gift of metalsmithing. This May, Leane has returned to Sotheby’s with the contribution of spellbinding, bespoke orchid earrings for In Bloom: A Selling Exhibition of Floral Jewels (3–24 May, New York). “To have the world see my fashion and art side at Sotheby’s in 2017 was a true honor,” says Leane. For In Bloom, he specially created asymmetric, convertible green and white diamond earrings that draw on the Georgian, Victorian, Art Nouveau and Art Deco jewels he would restore during his seven-year apprenticeship in London. “To have these earrings in Sotheby’s new exhibition is to show yet another facet of my work which is fundamentally where I came from: high-end jewelry.” Ahead, Leane discusses his passion for jewels that intrigue and empower and why nature will always be his chief inspiration.

What is it like to have your orchid earrings displayed alongside jewels from many of the eras that inspire you?
Having my work amongst beautiful classical pieces created by Cartier, Van Cleef and all those houses I’ve adored since I was a young apprentice is very honoring and rewarding. What I particularly love about periodic jewels is how they capture the essence of the style, architecture and fashion of their times. For example, Art Deco and Art Nouveau were quite close to each other timing wise, but their work is so instinctively different. Pieces like that have always inspired me to create jewelry that would resemble the 21st century and the time that I live in.

Shaun Leane. Photograph by Nicky Emmerson.

How do nature and the dichotomy between its strength and fragility influence your work?
Nature is such a beautiful subject for jewelry because it is fleeting. The longevity of capturing that moment due to the nature of jewelry’s materials – gold, enamel, stones – is such a gift. Most importantly, I like to combine formidable structures that show the strength of nature, with very delicate motifs or fine details that reveal nature’s softer side. I want the onlooker of these earrings to feel intrigued by the flowers’ beauty but then realize there are thorns. The silhouette gives the wearer feminine elegance but also a strong, powerful confidence.

"In four weeks, these earrings were designed, mounted and enameled in London, pavé set in Belgium, and then sent to New York to have the central diamonds set."

Tell me about the process of making these earrings and designing around an ultra rare green diamond.
Nature is obviously my mother inspiration, so when Frank [Everett] and Carol [Woolton] told me they are putting together an exhibition celebrating floral jewelry, I decided that I would make something very special. I had previously been speaking to a diamond dealer in New York who specializes in Fancy Vivid colored stones, which I had been wanting to work with for a while. I had this Fancy Vivid green pear-shaped diamond that I’d seen in mind, and the color was perfect for a floral piece. I love pear-shaped stones and use them often in my work. They are hard to get hold of, especially a natural green one like that.

Why the orchid?
I find orchids to be very seductive flowers. They’re sensual with delicate, simple lines. They’re not fussy. They’re very graceful.

Once you determined the stone and flower, what shaped the rest of the design?
Because my work is typically asymmetric, I wanted to make a pair of earrings because that’s our house’s signature. The orchid earrings have a real Art Nouveau feel with their fluidity and feminine floral motif. I wanted to touch on the crafts of that time – the enamel, the repoussé – but in my own handwriting. They also are a bit Victorian in their versatility because the studs can be worn on their own, and then can be dressed up with the hook backs for evening. I wanted the stems to be totally pavé set with the graduation of tsavorites from dark green to light green to a diamond point. In the backs alone there are 1,047 stones.

Just how bespoke are these earrings?
Incredibly. We actually cut a D color, internally flawless white diamond down to the exact same dimensions as the green. In four weeks, these earrings were designed, mounted and enameled in London, pavé set in Belgium, and then sent to New York to have the central diamonds set.

How does it feel to return to Sotheby’s after immensely successful sale of your personal archive?
When I was a young apprentice I used to go to the Victoria & Albert Museum and study all the jewelry, particularly of the 18th and 19th centuries. Since I was about sixteen, I would also collect Sotheby’s jewelry catalogues and was in awe of its antique pieces. To have the auction of my life’s work from 1994 to 2008 exhibited and sold at Sotheby’s was a real honor. It feels like I’m part of the family now. Some of my pieces went to the most beautiful and important museums in the world, so Sotheby’s was an amazing stepping stone for their next lives.

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