Women's Jewellery

Powers of reduction

Fine jewellery’s new minimalism showcases strong, sculptural shapes in grandiose statements that reflect current fashion trends. Vivienne Becker reports.

March 26 2010
Vivienne Becker

After a few false starts in recent years, fashion seems to have found its way back to a modern minimalism. It’s structured and pared down – as minimalism generally is – but now with warmth, emotion, texture and tactility (think Céline’s covetable leather shifts) that was lacking last time around. And jewellery is cautiously beginning to tread the same path, distancing itself from the simplistic soullessness of the 1990s, when minimalism meant non-adornment. Jewellery has become too important to fashion, too integral to the message of each collection, too interwoven into the clothes themselves, and too essential to self-expression to disappear again. No, this new wave is about glamorous, Amazonian adornment. It’s big, bold, weighty and confident, focusing on strong, simple shapes, on tone and texture, all underpinned with a depth of meaning to the design.

On the catwalk, Gucci accessorised its streamlined athleticism with showpiece jewels in aged silver, reinforcing the metal hardware details: one bracelet reprised the horsebit, oversized but softened with a wide, slinky, articulated band of triangular elements (£1,150); simple, sleek aged-silver bangles were hung with chain tassels (£455), while a huge silver modernist necklace ($3,595, only available in the US) sat inside an Ikat-patterned shirt. In tune with Frida Giannini’s new modern and sexy femininity, the newest additions to the classic Gucci Horsebit jewels are made softly sensual and dynamic through graphic, stylised sweeps of 18ct gold (ring £1,840).

Single-minded, the new modernist mood makes a clear style statement and provides a welcome counterbalance to the strands of candy-coloured girliness and hippie luxe in fashion and jewellery. And in jewellery the new minimalism has an added bonus in that strong, architectural shapes work well with streamlined shifts and tailored suits, and also with the new sculptural draperies and ruffles. There’s modernity in unexpected juxtapositions, as Lanvin has shown with geometric collars of wood and semiprecious stones (from £1,305) and also art-deco modernist metallic and gemstone necklaces (from £1,000) and breastplates (£3,140) that bring an edge to the organic fluidity of its dresses.

This strength of form and harmony between the uncompromisingly streamlined and the opulent are cornerstones of the unwavering aesthetic of the German master jeweller Hemmerle. Christian Hemmerle (son of goldsmith Stefan Hemmerle) says: “After years of extravagance the fashion has shifted towards a more reduced design. That’s what Hemmerle has always been about. At present we are influenced by the ancient Egyptians; everything is reduced in form but elegant.”

New looks explore patinated copper, producing a smooth, powdery matte effect to tone with au courant hues of orange, purple, lavender and berry pinks. Two pairs of earrings show the technique to perfection: fire opals set into matte, rust-brown patinated copper and rose-gold oval drops, and purple tourmalines that move freely within plum-coloured patinated copper open rectangles (both price on request).

Belmacz designer Julia Muggenburg believes that as we enter the second decade of the millennium it’s time to look forward to something entirely new – but with real values, and moving away from dripping beads and endless facets: “It’s easy to lose yourself in decoration. Minimalism used to be about green things. People have moved on, [and are] looking for a new minimalism that is imposing, grandiose and monumental.”

Her new collection includes blackened-silver bangles with one strong, archetypal amulet (£880 for four), rings that are monumental, sculpted, domed and dished (from £520; version pictured on previous page, £2,280), and earrings dangling sharp, geometric shapes in luscious materials and colours such as coral, lapis and mother-of-pearl (£6,800), as well as a necklace hung with rutilated quartz elements, their internal striations like a constructivist artwork (£1,800).

New modernism is where high jewellers, the great diamantaires of the world, can come into their own and make the most of the purity of the diamond, its crisp geometry and unfolding planes of light. It’s a small sign, but even the briolette – the symbol of rich, baroque taste – is now tamed into a taut stud earring (£6,750), with a diamond tag top, at Ritz Fine Jewellery.

Harry Winston’s New York collection draws on the rhythms of the city that gave birth to the brand and its classic style. Dynamic designs capture the art deco architecture, as in the Chrysler-like Skyscraper ring with its sugar-loaf cabochon sapphire pointing up from arced triangular motifs (£228,600), and the Guggenheim spiral ring (£20,900) or Reflection pendant (£28,900), with vertical streams of light-filled windows. Central Park is depicted with a central grass-green emerald among terraces of diamonds (ring £76,200), while the perpetual motion of Manhattan traffic is captured in a set of jewels composed of baguettes mixed with round stones (Traffic collection, from £1,700). Attraction, an architectural ring summing up the magnetism of the city, introduces a fresh design code, a band of diamonds with a solitaire held aloft within its own band of diamonds (£19,100). The whole collection exudes New York City’s eternally modernist spirit.

Bulgari’s signature architectural bent means that the brand can easily slip back into modernist mode with strong, linear compositions that are updated with a softer, more sensual treatment. Outstanding in its High Jewellery collection is a wide, curved palladium cuff (price on request) whose brushed, matte metal is dotted with random collet-set diamonds in different geometric cuts. From afar the stones look as if they’re floating. The sense of geometry is stronger still in a spectacular High Jewellery necklace centred on a 20.68ct emerald-cut diamond sandwiched between stepped layers of baguette diamonds, the chain alternating with diamond circles (price on request).

It’s interesting to see the powerful and regal emerald cut becoming more desirable – in itself a subtle pointer to the rise of structured minimalism. Diamond king Laurence Graff has always focused on the unassailable purity of the diamond, on clean lines and minimal settings. He refuses to be trend-led and always allows the gems to sing. His line of bracelets – beautifully articulated, with echoes of 1920s machine-age modernism – are looking just right again with their stream of immaculately matched emerald cuts, either all diamonds or diamonds and emeralds (price on request).

Meanwhile, Moussaieff clusters three emerald-cut Colombian emeralds in a ring that plays on the classic three-stone design, but spread wide across the finger and bordered with diamonds to make a major statement (price on request).

The emerald cut inspired one theme, Contradictions, in Jil Sander’s spring fine jewellery collections, the result of a recent collaboration with Italian diamond giant Damiani. On paper, Sander’s sobriety and Damiani’s diamond-dripping extravagance seemed like a clash of opposites, yet the limited-edition pieces succeeded in expressing Jil Sander’s low-key luxury through a sophisticated palette of Tahitian pearls with muted tones of aquamarine, smoky quartz and amethyst, lifted by diamonds. This year, the jewels march to the tune of Jil Sander’s spring collections with bold shapes, sculptural lines and a sense of human traces on natural elements (ring €2,290). Contradictions picks up on an increasingly popular theme in fine jewellery by placing two contrasting shapes side by side: the emerald cut in semiprecious stones (amethyst, blue topaz or smoky quartz) next to a round pearl (Tahitian, freshwater or silver) on an open-ended ring (from €685), as a necklace (€1,980) or earrings (from €295).

Modernists have traditionally always been individualists, creating jewels that express a single vision of a changing world. The same is true today, especially as individual designers strengthen their hold as real alternatives to established brands in fashion and jewellery. Iconoclast and arch individualist Solange Azagury-Partridge tuned into the sci-fi, space-age associations and indomitable strength of titanium for her Black Rainbows collection, whose matte, masculine black background is sweetened by a fairytale rainbow of coloured diamonds (cuff £68,000). And at Astley Clarke, Carla Amorim draws on the architecture of her hometown, Brasilia, as she piles satin-textured discs of pale, 18ct gold onto her powerful Treasure ring (£3,695).

Since she started teaching herself to make jewellery in the 1990s, Jacqueline Rabun – who now also designs for Georg Jensen – has taken a pure, conceptual approach to design. She develops strong, spare, fluid forms intended, as she explains, “to reflect the human experience”. She feels that, however simple and pared down, the jewel must be meaningful. The intense purity of form of her work is matched by the singularity of the materials and finishes – mostly 18ct gold in different colours, or silver or platinum that is smooth, unadulterated and undecorated.

Rabun searches for elemental harmony in all her work. For example, Mercy is a group of jewels (from £100) inspired by an hourglass that symbolises the flow of giving and receiving, its strong fluid shape and surprising proportions swelling into a dynamic drop. Grace (from £900; bracelet £6,300; neckpiece £9,500) encases a solitaire diamond within a golden grid and cube, exploring the balance between freedom and captivity, the purity and perfection of the diamond paralleled in the pure geometry of the cube. Party, a modern reinterpretation of one of Rabun’s designs from 1997, is a series of playful cocktail rings (from £2,750) that experiment with tilting curved planes and mixes of materials.

Designer-jeweller Alexandra Jefford trained as a fine artist and now heads towards machine-age abstraction with her collection The Movements. Eight major rings (from £4,500) that focus on pure shapes, form and colour and combinations of materials and textures, are inspired by the Bauhaus. She explains, “I paid homage to the leaders of the Bauhaus, such as Walter Gropius and Moholy-Nagy. I like the strength and simplicity of their work and the essence of that time. I think it’s part of our Zeitgeist too, going back to purity.”

Jefford juxtaposes contrasting decorative elements at the front of her signature wraparound rings. Isamu (Yellow), for instance, influenced by the sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi, flourishes a carved citrine miniature bowl and a black Tahitian pearl (£6,200). Laszlo, named after Moholy-Nagy and in white and rose gold set with a paraiba tourmaline, is a constructivist slab of textured gold and a grey pearl (about £14,000). And Walter has a vast green opal and an emerald (about £12,200). There are no diamonds: “This was difficult for me, but diamonds draw too much attention to themselves, and I wanted to get across the industrial nature of the Bauhaus.”

From the rings, necklaces and bracelets developed, in openwork shapes, playing with negative space, including the huge yet light Alexander necklace (after Alexander Calder) made of rose gold (about £8,600). “These were little, neglected shapes that I wanted to put to good use. I also love their tactility, and the process, as Ben Nicholson called it, of peeling away the inessential.”

See also

Fine jewellery