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Beyond bling

Beyond bling

Designers are making high jewellery that pretends to be the low kind, says Charlie McCann

Designers are making high jewellery that pretends to be the low kind, says Charlie McCann

Charlie McCann | December/January 2020

Marilyn Monroe would not have liked Hannah Martin’s latest jewellery collection: diamonds are not Martin’s best friend. Most fine jewellery bristles with diamonds and other precious stones. But Martin’s sculptural bracelets, necklaces and rings are made of ebony (wood), gold and malachite, a grass-green semi-precious stone.

A handful of designers are rebelling against the idea that fine jewellery should trumpet wealth and status. Most don’t forgo precious stones entirely, as Martin does, but many are incorporating wood, enamel, quartz and other cheap, plentiful materials into pieces. Nina Runsdorf, a New York designer, is known for making jewellery out of thin slices of diamonds that resemble stained glass. She used to line them with pavé diamonds; now she encircles them with red enamel. Rock crystal, a type of transparent quartz, features heavily in the most recent collection of Boucheron, a French luxury house. Solange Azagury-Partridge, a British designer, pairs enamel with a variety of precious and semi-precious stones to make effervescent, technicolour rings that look like the kind of inexpensive, plastic thing you might buy for a child.

Pierced ring in 18k yellow gold and malachite, Hannah Martin, £6,000/$7,400. “Phoenix” fan earrings in 18k white gold with grey slice diamonds and enamel, Nina Runsdorf, POA

MAIN IMAGE “Torque” necklace in onyx with diamonds and rock crystal set in18k white gold, Boucheron, POA. “Windsor Flower” brooch in gold and platinum with rock crystals, rainbow moonstones and diamonds, Belperron, £44,280/$56,500. Ceramic plate and lacquer ring with tourmaline and blue diamonds set in 18k yellow gold, Solange Azagury-Partridge, £23,000/$35,000

It’s not the first time that designers have made high jewellery that pretends to be the low kind. Suzanne Belperron, a legendary French designer, introduced rock crystal into her work in 1918. She dismissed the prevailing view that jewellery was metal decorated with stones and embraced rock crystal because she could carve jewels out of blocks of the stuff, giving her pieces an unusual sensuous, sculptural quality. Designers have worked with rock crystal ever since, but the snobbery around its use persists. According to Nico Landrigan, who relaunched Belperron in 2015, many people still think “that rock crystal is perhaps not precious enough to be worthy of fine jewellery”. Most customers believe that a jewel’s value is contained in the stone set into the metal.

Flouting such conventions is what makes Martin so gutsy. “Diamonds are beautiful,” she says, “but I feel they get a little more credit than they deserve.” A jewel “doesn’t have to have a ten-carat diamond in it to make it valuable”, she says. “There’s value in other things.” Her new, punk-inspired collection features carved malachite. In one ring a gold pin appears to pierce a nub of malachite, which has been sculpted so that it looks soft, as though it were flesh. Raw malachite is much less expensive than a diamond or a sapphire but Martin argues that the craftsmanship that goes into producing such a piece “is what makes it feel ‘luxury’”. Martin sees her collection as a kind of provocation; she’s called it “A New Act of Rebellion”. If she can get her customers to say that malachite is a girl’s best friend, she knows she will have been successful.