Those for whom craftsmanship is an essential ingredient of great jewellery will delight at the current revival of artisanal techniques such as inlay, intarsia and marquetry. These related applications – in which small slices of contrasting materials are painstakingly assembled to form decorative designs – are enjoying a revival in jewellery, being used to dramatic effect to add the allure of heritage skills to contemporary work.
At Paris Haute Couture Week in July, Chanel unveiled Coromandel, a high-jewellery collection whose Fleur de Laque line (price on request) features petals fashioned from mother-of-pearl inlay set against a backdrop of black lacquer and diamonds. Piaget’s Sunlight Escape collection (price on request) includes one-of-a-kind earrings and cuffs embellished with scintillating flashes of colourful straw, wood and feather marquetry – the latter developed in collaboration with feather artist Nelly Saunier.
Jeweller Silvia Furmanovich’s introduction to marquetry came via artisans who specialise in making large screens from salvaged wood in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. “The natural shades of the wood create gradients that evoke an illusion of depth in two-dimensional surfaces,” says Furmanovich, who challenged the artisans to translate their skills to the minute scale required by jewellery. The resulting technique has become a brand signature, applied to designs ranging from witty trompe l’oeil wooden gemstones to dainty figurative scenes such as those depicted on a pair of red Marquetry Bird Ball earrings ($5,000) that “were inspired by a pair of antique lacquered chinoiserie panels”, she adds.
Marla Aaron, meanwhile, looked to Native American inlay work for inspiration for her Inlay series – a range of locking jewellery (from $5,000 for a lock), some of which features as many as 64 assorted stones. She soon learnt that intuition is as important as planning. “Initially we would produce a computer-generated ‘map’ for the stonecutter showing the precise size and location of each stone. I only realised after we had made several pieces that the maps were sitting pristinely in a corner far away from where he was working. It was then that he told me that he worked by feel and sight. So these pieces are at once modern but also deeply ancient in how they come to exist.”
Ancient tradition of a different nature can be found in Venyx’s Elementa collection, which includes three pendants – Moonscape, Earthscape (both £7,440) and Sunscape (£6,000), each showing a different landscape realised through intarsia. “Originally a form of wood inlaying, this ancient method was used in furniture,” says founder Eugenie Niarchos. “Later it was used in the creation of beautiful gemstone inlays and it has recently been reintroduced to the jewellery industry. It’s a mesmerising technique.”
From the elements to the galaxy, and jeweller Jacquie Aiche’s opal inlay style, which is as wearable as it is covetable. Pieces such as the Galaxy Mosaic cuff ($16,250) feature whimsical tableaux picked out in slices of iridescent Indian and rainbow opal, as well as turquoise, lapis and bezel-set diamonds. “I feel connected to the universe when I wear opals, so opal inlay seemed like the way to adorn other women with this same special energy,” says Aiche.
Also drawn to what she calls “the energy of stones”, Lauren Harwell Godfrey uses inlay to create striking geometric patterns inspired by her collection of vintage textiles. Designed to “connect with the passionate and creative energy” of the Fire element and its zodiac signs Aries, Leo and Sagittarius, Harwell Godfrey’s made-to-order Vida Fire locket ($14,500) – which contains a solid perfume insert – features black opal and white onyx inlay with pavé diamonds and deep plum enamel accents. On the particular appeal of inlay, Harwell Godfrey is unequivocal: “I love the precision because it allows me to explore the world of patterns, only using stones and in a fine jewellery context.”
Maia Adams is a jewellery consultant and co-founder of Adorn Insight (adorninsight.com).