That love works in mysterious ways became evident recently when a conversation about seeds sparked my latest jewellery crush. The use of unorthodox materials in fine jewellery is something that has long intrigued me – intelligently done, it can be witty, unique and thought-provoking – so when Fernando Jorge introduced me to Surround, his award-winning new collection in which tagua seed plays a surprising role, it ignited my interest in jewellery that features materials of organic origin. For me, the appeal lies in the rich aesthetic contrasts, while for the designers behind some of my new favourite pieces, the reasons for using once-living materials in their work are as varied and lovely as the jewellery itself.
Sourced from palm trees in Jorge’s native Brazil, tagua seed – also known as vegetable ivory – reflects a key aspect of the designer’s ethos: “I try not to restrain myself with preconceptions of what is valuable and acceptable in fine jewellery – I keep my mind open to possibilities.” Featuring diamonds set in concentric rings of tagua seed, petrified wood and mother-of-pearl, Jorge’s Signal earrings (€11,900) epitomise this approach: “The natural materials convey a warm, grounded feeling; their fragility and imperfections are just as exciting as the strength and perfection of a diamond.”
Working conceptually comes naturally to sculptor-turned-jeweller Bibi van der Velden, for whom unconventional materials offer an opportunity to “create jewellery someone will treasure as a piece of wearable art”. The centrepiece of her delightful Mammoth Galaxy ring (€7,650) is a rotating orb made from mammoth tusk that existed under the ice for up to 40,000 years. A sprinkling of gold stars, white diamonds, opals and blue sapphires embellish the orb’s smooth surface, catching the light as it spins on its golden axis. “People want conversation starters,” says van der Velden. “Using all sorts of precious and semiprecious materials adds not only the stories of their history, it also introduces elements of recycling and sustainability.”
Jacqueline Cullen says working with Whitby jet – which her supplier collects by abseiling down local cliffs and accessing disused Victorian crawl holes – suits her artistic nature. “I love that during the working process, natural inclusions can be revealed, which add extra personality to the finished piece.” In pieces such as her Atomic Multi-Cascade earrings (£3,235), hand-carved fissures release a flow of tiny black diamonds set directly into the jet. “I wanted to use the diamonds not as a ‘precious’ material but for what they could bring to the jet – namely panels of dancing light, highlights and chiaroscuro.”
In addition, says Cullen, working innovatively with jet presents an opportunity to reinvent a heritage material symbolically associated with death, grief and morbidity in a way that allows her audience to “reappraise the sensual and tactile nature of jet and appreciate the material in its own right free of negative connotations”.
For Monique Péan and collectors of her jewellery sustainability is a large part of the appeal of the materials she chooses. “My work celebrates the juxtaposition of expressive natural materials with architectural elements seen in ancient and contemporary cultures,” says Péan of her aesthetic. As well as featuring rare and unique cuts of antique and conflict-free diamonds and exclusively using recycled gold and platinum, pieces such as her Solcin necklace ($69,860) incorporate semiprecious gems (citrine, dendritic agate, septarian) and fossilised materials such as walrus ivory and dinosaur bone. “Whereas traditional industrial mining can be extremely taxing on the environment, using these prehistoric fossils leaves a minimal ecological footprint,” she says. She is drawn to how they are affected by the passage of time: “Over tens of thousands to millions of years, minerals in the earth and the ocean alter the fossils’ colours, creating one-of-a-kind expressive compositions and painterly hues ranging from lavender to black with red, yellow, brown and blue. The intricate patterns of the cell structures preserved in fossils are reminiscent of abstract art.”
For almost a decade, Melanie Georgacopoulos’ work has seen her slice, facet and sand pearls to challenge connotations of status and preciousness attributed to them. “I was, in fact, destroying them but at the same time, by incorporating them into an interesting design, I was adding value to them again,” she says. Her latest collection is MOP Gemstones (from £2,600 for a brooch) – a series of pieces made from golden, lavender, peacock and white mother-of-pearl, whose silhouettes echo the seven best-known gemstone shapes. “My hope is that people will recognise the shapes but be surprised by the choice of material, which might lead them to have a deeper conversation about the value and impact of diamonds,” says Georgacopoulos. “In addition, working with mother-of-pearl is a way to use the oysters that are considered by-products of the pearling industry. In my own little way, I’m trying to contribute to the appreciation of this undervalued material that, when it catches the light, is just magical.”