The A-Z of Jewelry: U is for… Unicorn

By Colette Borden Berry

C hastity, fidelity, rarity, reincarnation, authority, grit and grace - unicorns have come to symbolize a multitude of attributes over the years.

The first depiction of a unicorn was found in the Indus River Valley in present day Pakistan and dates from 3300–1300 BCE. Seals unearthed from sites such as Harappa bear the impression of these fictitious animals, derived from ox or oryx (African antelopes) with long pointed ears and horns.

Ancient Greek authors such as Ctesias, Aristotle, and Pliny the Elder propagated the idea of unicorns as real and not mythical creatures in their natural history accounts, which became the basis for subsequent allegories. Pliny writes, “The monoceros (transl. unicorn) is a very fierce animal… which has the head of the stag, the feet of the elephant, and the tail of the boar, while the rest of the body is like that of the horse; it makes a deep lowing noise, and has a single black horn, which projects from the middle of its forehead, two cubits in length. This animal, it is said, cannot be taken alive.”

Unicorn symbolism has continuously evolved, from enigmatic themes in the ‘Unicorn Tapestries’ at the Met Cloisers, to themes of fidelity in works by Raphael, to demonism in works by Albrecht Dürer, to eroticism in works by Dali, and to fantasy in works by Damien Hirst.

Today, jewelers continue to produces pieces featuring unicorns. Modern makers including Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Chaumet, Schlumberger for Tiffany & Co., and David Webb have all represented these mythical creatures, most commonly in brooch form.

In his typical bold, creative, and whimsical style, David Webb has tackled the subject on numerous occasions. His jewels highlight themes of rarity, grace and exoticism through a delightful array of gemstones, metals, and enamel.

In light of the unicorn’s long history and the current craze for all things unicorn (from drinks to fancy dress to pool toys…), it’s safe to assume unicorns are here to stay.

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's