Like all good legends, the origin of the story of the hierarchy of the animals in the Chinese zodiac comes in many versions. Give or take a detail or two, the story goes as follows. There was a divine ruler (some say the Jade Emperor, king of heaven, earth and hell; some say someone else equally divine, but with a different name) who was going to have a party. Whoever got to the party first (the concept of fashionably late had clearly not yet been invented) would be exalted to be the first among animals.
Turns out it was the rat who, in one take on the story, cheated the ox by hitching a ride upon its back in return for singing some road-trip songs and then leapt across the tape to victory at the last minute. In another, which perhaps goes a long way towards explaining the dislike of cats for rodents, both rat and cat rode upon the ox’s back until the rat pushed the cat into the water at the last minute and, in the ensuing kerfuffle, crossed the line first.
So the rat was a bit of a rat. And yet the transmogrification of myth has served the creature well. The first animal in the Chinese zodiac, the rat is now celebrated for its intelligence, resourcefulness, luck, prosperity and optimism. And as Chinese New Year approaches on January 25, heralding the Year of the Rat, the beast finds itself exalted in a mischief of jewels.
Jaquet Droz has created four limited-edition versions (72 pieces in all) of its Petite Heure Minute watch, picturing rather sweet naturalistic portrayals of rats alongside pomegranates, symbols of life and fertility, made of rubies (from £26,300), while Vacheron Constantin has produced two new Métiers d’Art rat models (in limited editions of 12 each) in platinum with a grand feu enamel dial (£118,000). Panerai’s take is a special-edition Luminor Sealand (£20,100) in a limited edition of 88 with a hand-engraved steel cover inlaid with gold threads and lacquered.
Fabergé has a new locket in its Palais Tsarskoye Selo series, in red guilloché enamel with 17 round brilliant diamonds, that contains a rat surprise in 18ct gold with diamond eyes (£8,640). Vivienne Westwood offers a pendant (£120; available in stores), with a miniature rat in white pavé-set cubic zirconia with black cubic zirconia eyes. And Alighieri has released a collection of necklaces with pendants representing all 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac in 24ct gold-plated bronze (£195 each).
For those of a more writerly bent, Caran d’Ache has a Year of the Rat fountain pen (POA), hand-finished with the time-honoured technique of Chinese lacquering, a process that takes 12 days to complete. It comes in an edition of 888, a number regarded as the ultimate sign of good luck in Chinese lore.