Modern Masterpieces: Exploring Emotion & Nature in Jewellery

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As society tries to downsize, attachments to objects seem to be increasingly frowned upon. The word ‘hoarder’ is bandied about everywhere as we all try to fretfully Marie Kondo our lives away. Ornaments have become knick-knacks, while fashion has become almost political. And yet how natural the desire to adorn ourselves seems!

Jewellery, in its most transcendent form, can be sculpture, art object, pure fashion accessory or good luck charm. It’s a miniature, a tiny but potent piece of the planet which we can keep on us. For unlike a lot of what we see around us today, jewellery still uses real stones, mined gems, metals and minerals.

Few understand the emotion jewellery can evoke better than Valery Demure, whose career has spanned over a decade of drilling to the core of the industry. Her latest innovation, aptly titled Objet d’Emotion, curates contemporary jewellery for intimate presentations to private clients, as well as internationally acclaimed art fairs, such as PAD. Always encouraging a dialogue between makers and buyers, Valery hosts events and guides collectors through sourcing and commissioning fine jewellery.

In this Londnr segment we interviewed four of the inimitable designers she has championed, exploring their identity and approach towards their creations. We’ve also commissioned Simeï Iréne Snyman, a specialist botanical illustrator, to create floral compositions showcasing each designer’s signature style. Because why not add a little something extra to make it special?

 

Alice Cicolini: Enchanting in Enamel  

There are a great many lessons to be learnt from Alice Cicolini. There is one about courage, since Alice decided to change careers in her mid-thirties, retraining as a jewellery designer at Central St Martins. There’s another about conviction, as Alice fearlessly launched her eponymous company to create beautiful, historic pieces, not to service the mass market. My favourite concerns craft, which is at the centre of her practice, and which she believes is rapidly disappearing in our ever-digital world.

But perhaps I ought to talk more about the jewellery. Alice’s pieces pool inspiration from architecture, Japanese kimonos, ceramics. Anywhere she might see a pattern or a texture. However, the brand itself (though “brand” isn’t a word Alice likes much, or one that suits her) benefits from a profound connection with India. Formerly Director of Arts and Culture for the British Council in India,

her links to the country remained intact. The zinging colour pairings of her candy rings, in combinations like striped tangerine and lilac or lime and silver, are an instant mood-booster. In fact, all her collections belt colour, mixing semi-precious stones and statement jewels with elaborate leaf and floral patterns in vibrant shades of enamel, all outlined in gold.

Though now based in London, Alice has her designs crafted in Jaipur, India. Her close working connection with Kamal Kumar Meenakar, one of the last mastercraftsmen of the meenakari enamelling technique results in jewellery with a sell-by-date. Although you can wear it forever, making it will be finite. The necessary skills, traditionally passed from father to son are being lost, “new apprentices just don’t have the commitment,” she notes, “Kamal, for instance, started learning from his father when he was eight. These artisanal traditions won’t survive if we don’t buy into them or value them or invest in them. That applies for English traditions – like lace-making – as much as Indian or Chinese.”

It’s a rarity for a designer to so readily name and promote the makers behind their jewellery. “When I first started my friends said, ‘You’re insane, people will go directly to him to make your work for half the price and you’ll be stuffed.’ But that didn’t happen because I was prepared to work with him, and I understand that its historic work. That’s all he wanted, to be acknowledged and not put in the background.” One hopes Alice does more than set a good example, and that in the future her commitment to transparency, sustainability and her philosophy of respect may have far-reaching results in jewellery circles.

For more on Alice, please visit her website

Stylised poplar flowers reference her Summer Snow collection, as flurries of pollen tumble down like snowdrifts from poplar trees. Ebony flowers reference the ebony maquettes Alice uses, while the oyster shell stands as symbol to the fragile world and skills disappearing around us. 

 

Francesca Villa: The Magpie’s Eye

Chinese lacquer buttons, rare African beads. Daguerreotypes, decoupage and antique English dominos. Torn scraps of long-lost letters, milk tickets, toy soldiers, casino tokens. These are the things jewellery is made of. Or so it is in the universe of Italian designer Francesca Villa. “I collect many different things,” she explains, “and I decided to give them new life because it was a little sad to see these wonderful things closed in a drawer. I wanted to make unique pieces to give to my customers, something which can only be made once.”

Thus bygone commonplaces are cast anew, reworked in contemporary settings. Mah Jong counting sticks are interspersed with slices of white gold and inlaid with diamonds. The effect is excitingly modern. A pair of earrings uses an old button at the centre, with surrounding blue sapphires, purple sapphires and black diamonds shooting outward like crepuscular rays, perfect for night-time daring. Another pair incorporates vintage shells from Mauritania cut into floral silhouettes, then positioned on a fluid shape of pink gold and diamonds. The resulting impression is of creamy blossoms drifting down a sparkling river. Crucially, the reclaimed items never play the supporting role, they are the heart of the piece, not the frills. For Francesca is a master of her art: the lost-and-found objects are transmuted, never muted.

“At the beginning I thought it was impossible to sell these kinds of pieces to jewellery shops. I started just with small exhibitions to private clients,” Francesca tells us. Yet it is exactly this uniqueness that has brokered Francesca’s reputation on the collector’s circuit. There is a satisfaction to immortalising perishable items like paper. A wonder to placing a historical fragment on a chain. And of course, everybody has mementos of their own, so it should come as no surprise that customers often bring their own treasures to be woven into wearables.

“Usually the first time they’ll buy my own piece, and when they meet me a second time they bring their own souvenirs.” Here, Francesca’s role is more than a design challenge. These keepsakes are a peephole into someone else’s world and it’s her responsibility to create the right misè-en-scene for them. It’s the role of a psychologist, a palm-reader, a restorer and a guardian, all at once. “They tell me everything really,” she says, “I need to keep their secrets and that’s very special I think.” To help translate their personality, she invites collectors to see her composition and drawings. The process is nostalgic, immersive. “People can bring me all sorts of stuff, but the most interesting pieces always arrive by chance,” she muses. One might take this as a gentle note to cherish the seemingly unimportant items that come our way… then bring them to Francesca when we’re ready!

For more on Francesca, please visit her website 

Vibrant plants such as the hibiscus, clematis and coral have been chosen as perfect accomplices, for like Francesca’s designs they are uniquely formed. Vines move around the frame, just as many of her pieces have travelled from far-flung places.

Melanie Georgacopoulos: Out of the Shell

Give a girl a pearl. Oh, I know what you’re thinking! Pearls are for grandmother’s brooches and things, country club ladies with chokers or strings. But that was before Melanie Georgacopoulos. Melanie is a pioneer of all things pearl, a maverick, an oyster-inquisitor. Hers was the curiosity that sliced a pearl in half whilst she was studying at the Royal College of Art. The rest is history.

Since then, Melanie’s interest in deconstructing the pearl has made it far beyond her finals and formed the basis of her eponymous brand, launched officially in 2010. Fortuitously, she also met Valery during this time, who included her material in jewellery shows across major European cities. One of the greatest coups of her career is a partnership with the Japanese pearl purveyors TASAKI. Having collaborated for close to a decade, TASAKI and Melanie created another brand in-house, called M/G TASAKI after Melanie’s initials. The line sold so successfully in countries across Asia that a flagship store was opened on Bond Street just this year. A monumental achievement.

One glance at her work and it’s easy to call Melanie a disruptor. Arguably the first designer to begin really challenging the properties of pearls, what they could do and how they should look, the perception of these gems as stuffy, old-fashioned and boring are a million moons away from her creations. She has dedicated her time to anything but hanging pearls limply like beads. Apart from the famous sliced pearl, Melanie has faceted, drilled, diced, chopped and stacked them, wrapped them in gold and bejewelled them with diamonds. And she’s still not running out of ideas.

“My interest has expanded to Mother of Pearl,” she states, “I think for pretty much the same reason as why I started working with pearls. First of all, it’s totally unexplored territory, and I think as a material is considered to have less value as it’s a bi-product of the pearl industry, so no one really looks at it in an interesting way. There’s no contemporary jewellery using it.” In this new endeavour, her early training as a sculptor comes into play. The Mother of Pearl pieces take on more classical jewellery shapes, but the material is tricky to manipulate. The idea was “to create a piece starting with the biggest size we could get of Mother of Pearl, because of the size restrictions. It’s about how to showcase the beauty of the material, because the bigger the surface, the fuller the impact.” For Melanie’s customer, the worth is not in a jewel of many carats or the most expensive metals, but in the originality of the design, the style, the sheer artistry. “I carried this collection for a long time,” she smiles wistfully, “so they’re very close to my heart”.

For more on Melanie, please visit her website

As Melanie’s oeuvre centres around pearls, sea botanicals and aquatic elements encircle her pieces. The rose appears here as a nod to Melanie’s Greek heritage. The first evidence we have of roses comes from legends and poetry, showing it’s existence and cultivation in Ancient Greece. 

 

Yael Sonia: Musings in Movement 

Life is not designed to stay still. Neither is Yael Sonia’s jewellery. Having grown up between New York and Brazil, no doubt the frenetic pulse of traffic and commuters in the first, coupled with the colourful vibration of natural elements – rustle of leaves, flap of bird-wing, lick of sandy wind – in the second, are responsible for her lifelong interest in movement.

Exposed early to beautiful stones and accessories thanks largely in part to her gemmologist mother, Sonia started sketching jewellery from a very young age. “For my 16thbirthday my mum had one of my drawings made by a local goldsmith. That was really my first taste of having an idea of mine executed into a real piece. It stayed with me.”

Following a degree in French literature Sonia returned to art, studying product design at Parsons in New York, though she was quickly disillusioned. “I decided to take a metals class and from my first project I was hooked. I was amazed by the idea of creating wearable art, which is where I was going.” Her early work continued to focus around metals, but a move back to São Paulo reintroduced her to the richness of colour. “I was suddenly exposed to incredible gems which could be custom cut for me, and I was introduced to amazing goldsmiths. I started to work with people I trusted and who understood what I was trying to convey, rather than doing all the metalwork myself. It was a great awakening,” Sonia shares brightly.

The resulting style is a whimsical play in the serious world of fine jewellery. Her award-winning Perpetual Motion line includes her ‘spinning wheel’ bracelet, where round-cut blue topaz slide through a gold cage. Rings with orbiting gems and pendants with rolling pearls render other collections equally kinetic. “It becomes a sort of talisman,” she says, “an extension of yourself, since it moves with your emotion, sets to your rhythm. You become part of the piece.”

Inspired lightly by childhood toys, but also by memories of childhood pastimes such as flying her kite on the beach as a little girl, Sonia’s designs can be mischievous too. Her tongue in cheek take on engagement rings challenges the idea of having “a rock on your finger”. Reinterpreting the tradition of a hefty diamond, instead Sonia uses rough-hewn Brazilian stones, placing tiny diamonds in the setting, rather than as a centrepiece. “The interaction comes first,” she laughs, “90% of my customers are women who buy for themselves. They’re looking for something that speaks to them and sometimes you see that little spark when somebody tries something on and it makes a sound or starts moving. Then there’s a connection.” It’s a pleasant reminder to all of us to march to the beat of our own drum… or rather, to the graceful chime of a Yael Sonia piece.

For more on Sonia, please visit her website

Vines creep around the page, representing Sonia’s love of movement. Meanwhile the plant forms in the frame are typical of Brazilian bromeliads and palmae, native to her beloved São Paulo. 

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