Since Art Nouveau, there’s been a gradual change in the jewellery world; the precious gemstones such as diamonds, rubies and emeralds began sharing their starring role with what was considered lesser valuable materials such as coral, shells, amber and even wood.
Jewellery houses and designers as Lalique, Suzanne Belperron, Verdura, Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels, to mention only a few, used these organic materials to make breathtaking jewellery pieces that became iconic, giving the natural materials a new status and fame.
Hebrew cone shell, coral and gold earrings by Verdura, c. 1940
The pinkish-red organic gem from the south of Italy is carved into cameos, beards or used in its natural branch-like shape. The coral from Torre del Grecco became extremely popular around the world, and Fulco di Verdura, the Sicilian jewellery designer that made the iconic cuffs that Coco Chanel wore on each arm, is famous for his stunning jewels with corals, shells and baroque pearls. Natural gems from the depth of the sea are fascinating and look fabulous when made into ornaments with gold and combined with other gemstones. Art Déco pieces by Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels are remarkable examples of the use of coral in jewellery.
Carved coral and jade, pearl and diamond brooch by Cartier, c. 1940
Coral, shell and gold brooch by Verdura, 1940
Shell, sapphire, turquoise and gold brooch by Cartier, 1950
The fossilised resin of extinct trees has been used in jewellery since antiquity. It has since, captured people’s imagination with its yellowish colour and insects or flowers that were caught for eternity inside the gems before the liquid resin turned into fossils, millions of years ago. Etruscan style jewellery with amber became very fashionable by the 1840s. Ambar can be used in the shape of beads, hand-faceted or carved and looks especially striking when set in yellow gold.
Amber and silver earrings, Sicilian c. 19th Century
Horn is another natural material that comes from a once living creature and looks extremely beautiful in jewels because of its translucent yellowish colour. Considered in the past as an inferior copy of tortoiseshell, Art Nouveau loved it. René Lalique was the first to introduce jewellery with horn, like this gorgeous diadem with horn and diamonds, and the centrepiece of a choker with horn, gold and enamel, both made around 1900.
Horn, diamond and gold diadem by Lalique, c. 1905
Horn, enamel and gold choker plaque by Lalique, c. 1900
The list of organic materials used in jewellery is endless, from coral and amber, shells and pearls to lava or mammoth ivory, we are mesmerised by the beauty of our natural world transformed, through the imagination and talent of jewellery designers, into wearable art.
Title photo: Baroque pearl, tourmaline, ruby, diamond, platinum and gold brooch by Verdura, c. 2009. All photos from “Jewelry From Nature” by Ruth Peltason