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Shaun Leane’s savage jewellery

The beautiful and the grotesque

Shaun Leane makes jewellery unlike anyone else. Andrew Bolton examines his fierce, primal work

Shaun Leane makes jewellery unlike anyone else. Andrew Bolton examines his fierce, primal work

Andrew Bolton | September 26th 2016

It was at Alexander McQueen’s autumn/winter show in 2000 that I first became aware of Shaun Leane. The collection was inspired by the Yoruba people of west Africa and called Eshu, after one of their gods. The models were wearing mouth braces made by Leane – like two horns that forced apart their lips so you could see their teeth. At the time, some people considered this misogynistic, but my overriding impression was of ferocity: there was a brutality to his work. I looked back at his previous collections and saw his spine corset and his coiled corset, both collaborations with McQueen. All these pieces transformed the body, like an exoskeleton (quite literally, in the case of the spine corset). At the same time, they had affinities with the body adornments of non-Western cultures, especially those in Africa. There was a primitivism to them. Jewellery is very personal – it’s imbued with so much memory and it often marks a rite of passage. Leane’s work draws out this folkloric aspect.

Leane treads a very fine tightrope between the beautiful and the grotesque. He’s always done that, even with his more wearable jewellery: the tusks, the horns, the thorns you apply to your face have a fierceness to them but are, at the same time, beautiful objects with extraordinary lines. He’s an excellent technician – everything is perfectly fashioned. Because his work is so sensational and provocative, people often forget that; but the results are always flawlessly achieved. 

He will endure because he has such a singular voice, and marries technical expertise with conceptual complexity. The designers that last in jewellery and fashion are those who stay true to their voice and adapt over time. Leane has a very distinct vocabulary that evolves year after year – strong designers know their own leitmotif. In ten years’ time, I know I’ll be able to recognise his work at a glance, because of its overtly primal nature. Everything he designs has a barbarity about it.

Tahitian pearl and silver neckpiece for Alexander McQueen 

Bespoke brooch with beetles in white gold, vitreous enamel and cabochon sapphires mounted on aluminium branches set with sapphires and buds of Tanzanite, from £27,000/$34,670. BOTTOM RIGHT Beetle brooch in black rhodium-plated white gold with black diamonds, tsavorites and rose-cut and pavé diamonds, POA

Some people think technological developments will have a big influence on jewellery design, but I’m sceptical. It’s one of the most traditional art forms around and buyers want to see the jeweller’s hand at work. Leane’s work is underwritten by tradition – without tradition, innovation loses its potency. I think the future is about the play between tradition and innovation/transgression.

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