Build your own menagerie of animal-themed jewelry

A Cartier 18K yellow gold elephant brooch with pave diamonds realized $24,550 plus the buyer’s premium in 2021.

A Cartier 18K yellow gold elephant brooch realized $24,550 plus the buyer’s premium at Bidhaus in 2021.

NEW YORK – Few are immune to the charms of animals. From medieval times, European royalty often maintained private menageries featuring lions, tigers, bears, monkeys, elephants, camels, and tropical birds. In time, wealthy Londoners, in addition to personal menageries, collected pieces of jewelry that depicted birds, beasts, and everything in between.

Henry Goddard, in his 1826 book Memoirs of a Bow Street Runner, recalled London’s upper classes flocking to Cross’s Menagerie, lured by “the most extraordinary animals … the great Elephant Chunee, and Nero the largest Lion ever seen … the Boa-constrictor and the laughing Hyena, Ourang Otang, Birds of Paradise, Ostriches and every living animal from the Jungles in the far East.” Though wild animals were all the rage, wealthy Georgian era women didn’t assemble menageries in the form of jewelry. They favored finely-fashioned drop earrings, cameos, and brooches with flower, feather, laurel or bow-and-ribbon motifs; no animal-themed jewelry was to be seen.

Many associate Victorian jewelry with romantic cloverleaf, flower, heart-and-crescent, swallow, and butterfly imagery. That changed after Prince Albert offered Queen Victoria a gold coiled-snake engagement ring, its emerald-set head biting its tail. This ancient motif, a symbol of everlasting life and love, became highly fashionable.

A Victorian yellow gold, ruby, and diamond Ouroboros snake bangle bracelet realized $11,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2019.

A Victorian yellow gold, ruby, and diamond Ouroboros snake bangle bracelet, hinged with clasp, realized $11,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Hindman in 2019.

Snakes slithered into all forms of Victorian jewelry design. Necklaces featured sinuous enamel or jeweled snakes holding hearts in their mouths. Brooches depicted snakes encircling gemstones, or as snake-link tassels, or snake bow knots. Many Victorian rings took the shape of a single coiled gem-eyed snake. Flashier ones, covered with scale-like sapphires, garnets, or diamonds, portrayed multiple snakes intertwined.

As the Victorian era drew to a close, Art Nouveau snakes, instead of coiling meekly, slithered sensuously across everything from bracelets and brooches to cufflinks, stickpins and diadems. Creepy-crawly gemstone cicadas, mosquitoes, spiders, and feet-splayed lizards also emerged.

Charming hens and cockerel images appeared on so-called “bachelor buttons,” enamel works marketed to young, unmarried men of means. Swooping swallows, diamond-winged fledglings, and bejeweled peacocks also bedazzled. Yet the insects – yellow gold, plique-a-jour enamel butterfly and dragonfly brooches, with translucent wings tipped with diamonds, rubies, and aquamarines – are the most exquisite Art Nouveau jewels of all.

An Art Nouveau dragonfly Brooch, in yellow gold, with diamonds, rubies, sapphires and plique-a-jour wings sold for £12,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2020.

An Art Nouveau dragonfly Brooch, in yellow gold, with diamonds, rubies, sapphires and plique-a-jour wings sold for £12,000 (about $16,500) plus the buyer’s premium at Elmwood’s in 2020.

Wealthy Edwardian era women liked graceful white diamond, platinum, and sapphire brooches, but brooches in the forms of dragonflies and honey bees, their delicate wings set with seed pearls, amethyst, and tourmaline, were also sought-after. So were lavishly embellished images of birds perched pertly on birdbaths or soaring free.

This Van Cleef & Arpels gold and platinum bird brooch, featuring ruby cabochon bodies and a branch set with blue sapphires, sold for $22,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2014.

This Van Cleef & Arpels gold and platinum bird brooch, featuring ruby cabochon bodies and a branch set with blue sapphires, sold for $22,000 plus the buyer’s premium at John Moran Auctioneers in 2014.

Through the 20th century, a number of fine jewelers made statements with animal-themed styles. Van Cleef & Arpels, for example, crafts highly jeweled hummingbird, bird of paradise, and dragonfly brooches. Light-hearted pieces inspired by insects, such as red enamel ladybugs and ruby-bodied bees, are also enticing.

An Edwardian bird of paradise brooch in platinum and 18K yellow gold, set with rose-, Swiss- and single-cut diamonds realized $3,600 plus the buyer’s premium in 2017.

An Edwardian bird of paradise brooch in platinum and 18K yellow gold, set with rose-, Swiss- and single-cut diamonds realized $3,600 plus the buyer’s premium at New Orleans Auction Galleries in 2017.

Cartier’s iconic spotted onyx-pattern panther, which debuted in 1914, may have symbolized a fierce emerging femininity. In any event, scores of other elegant gold and platinum panther pieces appeared, as did brilliantly jeweled lions, leopards, giraffes and elephants.

Art Deco Era brooches boast stylized birds, bugs, and butterflies rendered in intriguing combinations of silver, onyx, and marcasite, or silver, rock crystal and pearls. Egyptian Revival pieces inspired by then-recent archeological excavations featured bird hieroglyphics such as the ba-bird (a bird-human creature) and the hieracosphinx, a mythical beast featuring a hawk’s head and a lion’s body. Winged scarab beetles, replicated in multi-hued plique-a-jour enamel set in silver-gilt, also characterize this era.

A David Webb zebra brooch in gold, platinum, and enamel, as well as diamonds and rubies, realized $8,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2021.

A David Webb zebra brooch in gold, platinum, and enamel, as well as full-cut diamonds and ruby cabochons, realized $8,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Heritage Auctions in 2021.

David Webb launched his first animal-themed bracelet in 1957. He chose to showcase a double-headed Makara, a legendary Hindu sea creature. Webb followed it with an assortment of bright, bold, sculptural animal designs that blended wit with whimsy. Webb’s splendidly scaled snake, pop-eyed frog, slithery salamander, coral elephant, purple horse, mischievous monkey, and slinky tiger pieces provoke delight. But his black and white enamel zebras, featuring unique stripe patterns set with diamonds and rubies, are most alluring of all.

Artisans have transformed animals into jewelry deftly and well, over and over again, with each generation finding fresh ways to interpret them.

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