Bejeweled

These Standout Jewels Speak to Our Endless Affection for Animals

The Duchess of Windsor’s 1940 Cartier flamingo brooch is among the jewels from the book Beautiful Creatures, by Marion Fasel
The Duchess of Windsor’s 1940 Cartier flamingo brooch is among the jewels in the forthcoming exhibition at New York’s American Museum of Natural History curated by Marion Fasel and a book from Rizzoli Electa (photo by Nils Herrmann, Cartier Collection © Cartier). Top: A bestiary of sparklers (photos © Sotheby’s, private collection [dragonfly]; by C. Chesek/© AMNH [enamel bird; tigers]; courtesy of Hemmerle [parrot]; by David Ross Photography/© AMNH [dolphin and jellyfish]; courtesy of Stephen Webster [fighting fish]; courtesy of FD Gallery [snake]; courtesy of Albion Art Collection [lizard]; courtesy of Tiffany & Co. Archives 2020 [giraffe]).

Lions and tigers and bears, and countless other creatures, have been depicted in jewelry throughout history. Animals have contributed striking silhouettes and a dramatic sense of narrative to the art form. Long a subject of human fascination, they have often been represented in amulets meant to protect and guide us. In ancient Greece, snakes signified eternal love and wisdom. During the Renaissance, felines, ferrets and parrots — possibly heraldic totems — were rendered in enamel and pearls.  

As a jewelry historian and the author of several books on 20th-century jewels, I began to study a corner of the vast world of animal jewelry a couple of years ago, when New York’s American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) invited me to guest curate a special exhibition to coincide with the opening of its Mignone Halls of Gems and Minerals. The launch, although delayed by the pandemic and now scheduled for this spring, dovetails with the museum’s 150th-anniversary celebrations. 

The new rooms are renovations of existing halls conceived in the 1970s and will include a space dedicated to temporary exhibitions. Two highlights among the more than 5,000 unmounted minerals and gems in the museum’s collection are the dazzling Star of India — a 563-carat star sapphire — and the 632-carat Patricia emerald. The holdings also include a select few pieces of jewelry, intended to show what creative minds do with the earth’s treasures on permanent display. 

The inaugural temporary exhibition, “Beautiful Creatures: Jewelry Inspired by the Animal Kingdom,” along with the companion book from Rizzoli Electa detailing my research on the subject, focuses on gems made from 1869, the year the museum was established, through the present. 

The Hall of Biodiversity at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), New York, USA
Fasel based her choice of jewels for the “Beautiful Creatures” exhibition on the animals displayed in other areas of the museum, such as the Hall of Biodiversity, shown here. Photo by Diego Grandi/Alamy

The wildlife in the institution’s famous dioramas suggested one of my first parameters for the exhibition. I decided that all the animals depicted in the jewels had to exist elsewhere in the museum. So, I left out barnyard and domestic beasts. And I didn’t include animals dressed as people. 

When I explained this last rule to the museum’s science experts, they looked at me quizzically, as if to say, “Why would there be any animals dressed as people?” But such pieces have constituted a subgenre of animal-themed jewels over the past 150 years, albeit one that would take the show off course. My thinking was that once you add a mouse in a sailor suit or a hen in a hat, you have an entirely different presentation.  

The elusive designer of the JAR collection, Joel Arthur Rosenthal, revealed that while he was growing up in New York City, he spent a lot of time in the museum’s Hall of Gems and Minerals.

Many people have asked how I found the more than 100 pieces in “Beautiful Creatures” and how long it took. The truth is it took me 30 years, plus 9 months. 

Over the course of the nine months I had to secure the jewelry, I reached out to just about every contact I had worked with during my three-decade career. I was looking for jewels I had seen and knew were out there somewhere. I was also searching for treasures that had never been exhibited publicly. 

Birds became important symbols of hope in World War II France. During the German occupation, Cartier’s production of the Oiseau en Cage brooch, seen in a sketch at left, depicting a captive bird sporting the colors of the French flag, was a sly act of resistance. The maison’s 1941 kingfisher clip brooch, center, represented peace and prosperity. The Cartier Oiseau Libéré brooch, in the sketch at right, with the bird freed from its cage, celebrated the end of the war. Photos courtesy of Cartier Collection © Cartier (3); left and right photos by Vincent Wulveryck

Among the extraordinary jewels I came to include, many reflect historical events. One striking example is the carved-emerald, sapphire and diamond kingfisher brooch made by Cartier during the World War II occupation of Paris by German forces. Birds were viewed by the French as a symbol of hope during the war, and the kingfisher represented peace and prosperity. 

During the same period, Cartier also famously created brooches in the shape of a small caged bird, set with gems representing the red, white and blue colors of the French flag. When the Gestapo questioned the house’s creative director, Jeanne Toussaint, about the design, she claimed it was an old one. It wasn’t. After the war, the jewel was redesigned with the bird singing and the cage door open. 

Insect jewelry from the book Beautiful Creatures, by Marion Fasel
A selection of glittering insects, clockwise from top left: A ca. 1895 Boucheron stag beetle brooch; a ca. 1900 Lucien Gaillard grasshopper ring; an 1893 Tiffany & Co. leaf weevil brooch; a 1904 Tiffany & Co. dragonfly brooch; a 1946 Van Cleef & Arpels bee pin; a 1953 Cartier dragonfly clip brooch; and an 1880–1910 Tiffany & Co. fly pin. Photos courtesy of Boucheron; Private Collection, courtesy Albion Art Jewellery Institute; courtesy of Tiffany & Co. Archives 2020 (3); © Van Cleef & Arpels SA; by Vincent Wulveryck, Collection Cartier © Cartier 

Some of the most realistic animal pieces in the exhibition are insect jewels dating to the end of the 19th century. Their makers were responding to the general public’s obsession at the time with entomology, which they learned about at institutions like the AMNH and from gorgeously illustrated books. Two particularly stunning examples in “Beautiful Creatures” are an emerald and gold leaf weevil brooch made by Tiffany around 1893 and a Boucheron ruby, diamond and gold stag beetle brooch from around 1895. 

The displays in the museum itself have been sources of inspiration for designers over the past 150 years. In 1941, for example, Fulco di Verdura fell in love with the cases of seashells and purchased several lion’s paw shells in the gift shop. 

He took them back to his Fifth Avenue studio, where he had his craftsmen set the striations with gold, diamonds and sapphires to create the appearance of waves receding from the surface. The designer saucily explained to The New Yorker, “What I get a kick out of is to buy a shell for five dollars, use half of it, and sell it for twenty-five hundred.” He never revealed how hard it was to manufacture the designs. 

In a rare interview, the elusive designer of the JAR collection, Joel Arthur Rosenthal, revealed that while he was growing up in New York City, he spent a lot of time in the museum’s Hall of Gems and Minerals. His passion for unusual and colorful stones is evidenced by the Montana sapphires of various blue hues covering the wings of a butterfly brooch he made in 1987. The body of the insect is set with an antique-cushion-cut diamond surrounded by smaller light-pink diamonds.

Some of the most iconoclastic and masterful pieces in the show were inspired by personal stories or special commissions. Among these is a version of the jellyfish brooch Tiffany designer Jean Schlumberger created in 1967 to ease his client and dear friend Bunny Mellon’s pain after she was stung by one of the marine animals while swimming at the Mill Reef Club in Antigua. 

The bell-shaped top of Schlumberger’s La Méduse is covered in moonstones, gems with a subtle iridescence that echoes the bioluminescence of some jellyfish. The creature’s curled oral arms are made of chased gold and lined with various sizes of baguette-cut sapphires. A spring inside each of the six-inch-long gold tentacles allows them to move as though through water. 

A Cartier Paris crocodile necklace from the book Beautiful Creatures, by Marion Fasel
This convertible jewel made by Cartier Paris in 1975 for the Mexican actress María Félix can be worn as a necklace or as separate crocodile brooches. Photo by Nils Herrmann, Cartier Collection © Cartier

According to legend, film star María Félix waltzed into the Cartier boutique on the rue de la Paix in Paris around 1975 with live baby crocodiles. She let the jeweler know that she wanted a necklace inspired by the animals and that she took the concept seriously. 

Cartier sculpted two crocodiles, complete with scutes like those found on the reptiles’ skin. One is covered in yellow diamonds totaling 60.02 carats; the other, in 1,060 emeralds totaling 66.86 carats. Both are entirely articulated with interior armatures. They can be joined together as a necklace or worn individually as brooches. 

Jewels, especially those displayed in museums, are often seen as symbols of power and wealth. I believe the birds and beasts in “Beautiful Creatures” demonstrate that there is much more artistry and meaning to jewelry than conveyed by that one-dimensional point of view. I hope the exhibition instills in people — especially children, who make up such a large portion of the museum’s audience, and all the animal lovers among us — a sense of wonder and joy.


Marion Fasel’s Animal Jewelry Picks

Victorian gold, enamel and diamond snake wrap bracelet, ca. 1880, offered by Stephanie Windsor Shop Now
Victorian gold, enamel and diamond snake wrap bracelet, ca. 1880, offered by Stephanie Windsor

 “Snakes were wildly popular in the mid- to late-19th century, because Queen Victoria loved them and so did several other royals. There are a lot of great snake bracelets made during the period. Blue enamel ones like this were a huge trend. I love the style because it’s glamorous but not too big or flashy. You could really wear it easily with jeans.”

Van Cleef & Arpels two-butterfly between-the-finger ring, 21st century, offered by RichDiamonds Shop Now
Van Cleef & Arpels two-butterfly between-the-finger ring, 21st century, offered by RichDiamonds

“This ring has risen to the level of icon status, but I remember when Van Cleef & Arpels launched it. The idea of a between-the-finger ring was new, and it just felt very fresh and cool. The butterflies look as though they have landed on your hand.” 

Verdura gold and enamel honeybee earrings, 2000s, offered by Luxury World Shop Now
Verdura gold and enamel honeybee earrings, 2000s, offered by Luxury World

“There is a jewel-like quality to insects in real life, and I think that has inspired many designers to make them over the years. I adore the symbolism and style of these Verdura honeybees.”

Diamond and gold double-serpent ring, ca. 1890s, offered by Macklowe Gallery Jewelry Shop Now
Diamond and gold double-serpent ring, ca. 1890s, offered by Macklowe Gallery Jewelry

“When I finished the book Beautiful Creatures, I bought a little late-19th-century gold and diamond snake ring to mark the occasion. It made me realize I could have a lot more snake rings in my life, and this one would be a dream piece. There is something comforting about having a little animal hugging your finger and looking back at you.” 

David Webb diamond, ruby and enamel frog bracelet, 1960s, offered by Yafa Signed Jewels/Maurice Moradof Shop Now
David Webb diamond, ruby and enamel frog bracelet, 1960s, offered by Yafa Signed Jewels/Maurice Moradof

“David Webb is known for his animal jewels. This design is so joyful. It’s another piece that has so much personality it might just feel like a friend when you wear it.” 

Bulgari Serpenti diamond and enamel bracelet watch, 1970s, offered by Yafa Signed Jewels/Maurice Moradof Shop Now
Bulgari Serpenti diamond and enamel bracelet watch, 1970s, offered by Yafa Signed Jewels/Maurice Moradof

“The enamel Bulgari snakes appeared several times in Vogue during the nineteen sixties because the editor-in-chief, Diana Vreeland, loved them. Photographers Irving Penn and Gian Paolo Barbieri took some unforgettable pictures of them on models. I always think of those amazing images when I see the enamel snakes by Bulgari, which are relatively rare.” 

Cartier Panthère peridot and onyx cuff bracelet, 21st century, offered by Yafa Signed Jewels/Maurice Moradof Shop Now
Cartier Panthère peridot and onyx cuff bracelet, 21st century, offered by Yafa Signed Jewels/Maurice Moradof

“Cartier panthers are without question the best-known animals in jewelry. Many of the private collectors who loaned jewels to the exhibition had several in their collection. I like this guy because he has all the hallmarks of the big-cat style but feels modern and easy to wear.”

Ilgiz F. light blue butterfly bracelet, 2018, offered by Bentley & Skinner Shop Now
Ilgiz F. light blue butterfly bracelet, 2018, offered by Bentley & Skinner

“Butterflies are among the most ubiquitous animals in jewelry, along with snakes. They have been made consistently by designers over the past one hundred and fifty years but surged in popularity in periods like the nineteen sixties, when people were seeking change and liberation. This is a modern bracelet, but it’s made in almost an Art Nouveau style. It would be perfect to wear during long summer days.” 

Seaman Schepps wood, malachite and pearl turtle link necklace, 21st century, offered by OakGem Shop Now
Seaman Schepps wood, malachite and pearl turtle link necklace, 21st century, offered by OakGem

“I adore this long charm necklace with the turtle, Buddha-like figure and pearl. Turtles are symbols of home and protection. They may not have the glamour of snakes or butterflies, but I love them.” 

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