If there was something in the air during Paris Couture last summer, it was very likely wisps of wheat, carried along on the soft, warm winds of change that were rushing around the Place Vendôme, where the new high-jewellery collections were being presented. Outside the renovated Ritz hotel, the grandiose square was planted with mini fields of swishing golden wheat – chic as only Parisians can do – courtesy of Chanel, whose collection (price on request) revolved entirely around the theme of wheat, one of Mademoiselle’s lucky charms.
Across the square, in Chaumet’s sumptuous salons, there was also wheat aplenty (£15,480) – plump ears of corn and sheaves tied with ribbons, bursting with diamonds, both wild and refined – as one of four allusive plant themes (together with lily, laurel and oak) taken from its archives. And at Boucheron there were sunkissed diamond ears of wheat gathered up in its poetic Blé d’Eté set – the open-fronted necklace (price on request) has them sweeping softly sidewards across the collarbone. While fashion designers pick up on the same theme at the same time fairly frequently, it rarely happens in jewellery. In recent months, though, the master jewellers have all drawn on the classicism and rustic charm of the humble ear of wheat.
It could well have been part of a Marie Antoinette-style pastoral idyll, but it seems to signal a new approach to representing nature in jewels, a turn towards something less sweet and sentimental and more organic and earthy. This new trend is driven by the beauty of nature’s imperfections. So, pretty-pretty blossoms always at a peak of blooming perfection have made way for prickly cacti and, in the case of designer-jeweller Tarra Rosenbaum, pine cones (necklace, £350). And the innocuous butterflies have fluttered off into the sunset and been replaced by crunchy-carapaced beetles – some of the most captivating of which are made by German goldsmith Otto Jakob (earrings from £7,500), who casts directly from nature, using his own collection of beetles.
London-based Lebanese designer-jeweller Gaelle Khouri takes a fiercely conceptual approach in her Soft Deconstruction collection. The Self-Portrait fish earrings (£4,800) show “bones” in rose gold, with alternating fleshy heads and tails pavéd in cloudy, icy, heavily included white and brown diamonds. The Imbroglio ring (£3,415) is an oversized cellular sculpture in blackened silver, with an undulating rose-gold spine set with white and brown diamonds and bright-green tsavorite garnets. Khouri is fascinated with human reactions to nature, including the forces of attraction and repulsion, hence her choice of caterpillars, centipedes and cockroaches as the framework for earrings (£1,864 each), a necklace (£3,300) and a ring (£2,613), and of vertebrae for a bony, knobbly, blackened-silver Spine cuff (£5,020). The conflicting emotions are reflected in her use of metals. “I started mixing metals – bronze and gold – to lower the cost,” she says, “but found the mixture went well with the spirit of my designs.” The combination and contrast of tone and texture, dark and light, matt and shiny, reinforce the dynamism of nature and make her jewels seem very alive.
Indeed, dynamism is a key feature of the new organic mood. Egyptian jeweller Azza Fahmy’s 12-piece Wonders of Nature collection seems to grow over the wearer, highlighting that connection between the natural world and man, and in this case also between Ottoman gardens and the Victorian naturalist. Fahmy’s jewels are layered with silver and gold, an encrustation that generates a hazy 3D effect, seen in the massive flower between-the-finger rings (£2,490) and a wide silver collar (£7,350), open at the front, over which spreads an overgrown garden inhabited by an exotic hoopoe.
“People today want to be surprised,” says Cartier’s director of image, style and heritage Pierre Rainero. “Looking at themes from nature, we found the cactus very inspiring; there are so many varieties, and the shapes are modern and architectural, with a generosity of form.” He is also attracted by the idea of projecting a different view of femininity from that traditionally associated with flowers. “The cactus is a strong plant with a delicate flower. It’s daring, original, a survivor, and communicates strength.”
The Cactus de Cartier collection is joyful, juicy-looking and free-spirited, with a strong cocktail vibe, a hint of the California desert, and delicate details that fit perfectly with Cartier’s aesthetic vocabulary: the chrysoprase berries, clustered on the bracelet (£199,000), are inset with emeralds, 1920s style, and scattered with tiny, rust-toned carnelian flowers, each centred with a diamond. The emerald beads of the luscious earrings (£52,500) feature tiny diamonds, and the open-ended bangle (£62,000), again in 1920s style, is ornamented with lapis flowers centred on a diamond. The jewels are light yet voluminous, particularly the massive rings (£12,000) in which spines are stylised into trails of round gold beads, bringing a primal beauty that is a defining feature of the new organic jewels.
Designer-jeweller Cora Sheibani was ahead of the trend in finding inspiration in cacti a few years ago for her ever-evolving bestselling series Cactaceae (ring, £4,800). She explains that it came about because she had recently taken up gardening and had also been making more frequent visits to her mother’s house on the Aeolian Islands, where cacti and succulents thrive. “They are little survivors,” she says. “I found their shapes fascinating and graphic, and I liked that they bloom at unexpected moments.” Her designs are abstract, stylised and strong, with undulating or ribbed surfaces, in matte white or yellow gold, set with black-speckled dark-green nephrite from Russia perhaps, or a sprinkling of diamonds. She worked with her goldsmith in Paris to recreate the Victorian star setting, but gave it longer, thinner radiating rays to provide the impression of spikes. “For me, this is a modern, graphic interpretation of the classic flower jewel.”
Even portrayals of animals, among the best loved of all jewellery themes, have become less predictable, with jewellers looking for deeper meanings and connections – between man and nature, or science and nature. Van Cleef & Arpels went biblical with its Noah’s Ark (L’Arche de Noé) collection of twinned-animal brooches (price on request); at Bulgari, the iconic Serpenti has been stylised into a graphic pattern of scales (necklace, price on request); and Boucheron moved on to deer, wolves and eagles for its popular animal rings (price on request) that have previously featured pandas and koalas. Boucheron creative director Claire Choisne describes how founder Frédéric Boucheron “depicted strong, wild, realistic nature. We’ve made the animals more graphic, to capture their positive force.”
Jewellers are also taking a fresh, more scientific look at the make-up and geological journey of gemstones and minerals. Andrew Coxon, president of the De Beers Institute of Diamonds, is sure this is one of the reasons for the ever-escalating success of its Talisman collection (ring, £18,300 and pendant, £25,700), which features raw diamonds in earthy shades of gold, brown and grey. Speaking from Botswana, where he was looking for charismatic rough diamonds, with tone, texture and a good “skin”, Coxon explained that he likes to challenge perceptions of beauty by choosing soulful stones of low or unknown colours, just before they tip into the category of coloured diamonds.
The use of rough, earthy-coloured diamonds, along with the quest for nature’s wild, unconventional beauty, has also been taken up by entrepreneur Michèle Lamy, wife and business partner of fashion designer Rick Owens. Lamy, known for her inked and beringed fingers, has teamed up with LA rock ’n’ roll jeweller Loree Rodkin (who provided the jewellery Michelle Obama wore to her husband’s inauguration in 2009) to create Hunrod (rings £11,000 each), a series of rugged organic jewels in mixed metals – bronze, silver and gold – hand-hammered and shaped, and encrusted with rough diamonds in shades of brown, yellow and grey that look like they are oozing out of the tormented metal. Multilayered, deep and knuckle-dusting, they appear to be growing up the finger.
Notting Hill bespoke jeweller Ming Lampson, whose style is powerfully geometric, has channelled an imaginary oriental garden into a series of dramatic one-of-a-kind jewels (price on request). What she most wanted to do, she says, was give a sense of the feeling of each plant, tree or insect rather than a true representation. The shapes and forms morph – impressionistic, stylised, organic – in the quality of light, shade and colour that plays across the stones: wisteria is expressed in lavender sapphires that drape over the collarbone; double layers of hand-piercing create the blurring effect of beating dragonfly wings; the curve of a flower bud is caught at the moment it opens; and the mysterious dark sheen that plants take on as night falls is brought to light. It’s an emotive, cosmic view of nature, which, as Lampson discovered, offers an irresistible allure. One of the oldest of jewellery traditions, the portrayal of nature, takes a walk on the wild side.