Challenging Conventions

High jewellery today is no longer just about gold and platinum

The use of materials not conventionally considered luxurious in haute joaillerie became popular among jewellers during the financial crisis of 2007. The affluent scaled down on ostentatious spending, choosing designer items and high jewellery buys which are less conspicuous. By pairing less costly materials like ceramic or titanium with precious gems, collectors downplay the perceived cost of their buys and also assert their individuality through wearing something unconventional.  However, as the world recovers from the shock of the financial crisis a few years on, independent jewellery designers and maisons are still juxtaposing the precious with the not-quite-as-precious to create one-of-a-kind designs that appeal to some customers’ penchant for the quirky and unique.

The most popular of materials is still titanium, the toughest, strongest metal on earth, which is also used in industrial applications and joint replacement surgeries. At only a quarter of gold’s weight, it is a blend of strength and lightness, enabling designers to inject movement, fluidity and weightlessness to otherwise heavyset and chunky jewels.

Michelle Ong of Carnet, who first started working with titanium 20 years ago, was designing a brooch featuring a large variety of precious stones, when she discovered titanium – it would have been a challenge incorporating a sense of fluidity and lightness into the complex design with the conventional precious metals. “Although titanium is technically challenging to use in jewellery crafting, it has allowed me to create some of my most recognisable signature pieces,” shares Ong. She confirms there has been a constant demand for pieces with the industrial metal.
The use of titanium is unlikely to abate as more traditional jewellers have also picked up on using it. Family-owned and run Moussaieff, with a heritage that dates back to the 1800s, uses the metal to set stunning rare gems in its high jewellery pieces. Glenn Spiro, whose G London collection pieces start from around USD$100,000 and go up to about $25mil (RM107.7 million), has featured titanium so heavily in his works over the past decade that the metal has become synonymous with his design. Spiro explains that titanium doesn’t pull on the skin like gold does and weighs so little, that it has made some of his bigger pieces which are more riotous or voluptuous with precious gems wearable.

Italian jeweller Pomellato has also embraced titanium’s light weight and high tensile strength, setting it against rose gold in its Arabesque collection. The metal also makes an appearance in the Black Rainbows collection by British jeweller Solange Azagury-Partridge, who created the line in collaboration with Belgian designer Francis Mertens to celebrate American Express’ titanium Centurion card in 2011.

Family-run German jeweller Hemmerle first worked with unlikely metals in 1995 when it received a commission from a customer to set diamonds in textured iron. The customer had a penchant for wearing historic Berlin iron jewellery, which were given to Germans in exchange for the gold and silver pieces they donated to help fund the War of Liberation in 1813. Since then, Hemmerle has gone on to dazzle with their one-off pieces that combine unexpected materials such as pebbles, real snail shells, and even walrus teeth with gold and diamonds.

Hemmerle is not the only one to source from the natural world for its creations. Last summer, Piaget collaborated with Nelly Saunier, a feather artist whose work is often seen on runway fashion, to create a cuff bracelet lined with tiny feathers from exotic birds like the Abyssinian roller, Lady Amherst’s pheasant and the magnificent riflebird.

A more easily obtained, but no less bizarre material that has appeared in the works of a few independent designers is beetle parts, mainly the iridescent exoskeleton. Los Angeles-based designer Daniela Villegas has combined the creepy-crawlies with porcupine quills for her avant-garde creations. Even Dior has found the beetle irresistible, unveiling a VIII Grand Bal watch collection during Baselworld 2015 featuring marquetry-set Scarab beetle wings on the dials.

Meanwhile, a less exotic material that has quietly found its way into the rarefied world of haute joaillerie is ceramic. It features in Boucheron’s Quatre rings, in Chanel’s J12 timepieces and jewellery, as well as in De Beers’s Daylight Enchanted Lotus rings, where ceramic lattices are punctuated with diamonds. Most of these jewellers cite ceramic’s lightness as an asset. As designers push new boundaries in the world of jewellery design, perhaps this unconventional pairing of materials in haute jewellery will soon become de riguer.

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