Themed Jewels

Wrapped In History: Snake Jewelry

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As one of the oldest and most widespread mythological symbols, it’s no wonder serpents (snakes) remain as popular in jewelry as they did back in ancient Egyptian times.  What makes this creature so intriguing to mankind is its dual expression of good and evil, fertility and rebirth, poison and medicine.  Throughout time, different civilizations have interpreted the serpent’s symbolism in different ways:  the Egyptians saw it represent royalty and deity; in Rabbinical tradition and Hinduisim, the snake represents sexual passion and desire; while the Romans interpreted the snake as a symbol of everlasting love.  While Cleopatra may be the most notable historic figure to espouse the wearing of snake jewelry, Greek, Nordic, African, and Native Americans have all celebrated this intriguing reptile in gilded forms with varying meaning.

The Victorian era incited the proliferation of snake jewelry after Prince Albert proposed to Queen Victoria with the very first engagement ring, which was in the image of a snake with an emerald-set head.  For Victoria, the snake was an emblem of eternal love, making her betrothal ring the ultimate token of happily-ever-after.  Peaking in the 1840s, the snake represented wisdom and eternity during this period and was a ubiquitous motif on rings, bracelets, brooches and necklaces.

An Antique Emerald, Diamond and Gold Serpent Necklace
Designed as a tapered coiled gold serpent, with sculpted gold scales, to the old mine-cut diamond and square-cut emerald head, with cabochon ruby eyes, mounted in silver and gold, circa 1860, 17 ins.

Despite the slight dwindling in popularity in times after Victoria, the snake enjoyed a brief resurgence during the Art Nouveau period with the help of the renowned French jewelers Jules René Lalique and Georges Fouquet.  This elaborate period emphasized heavily on the essence of nature, in which the snake played a prominent role.  Marie-Odile Briot put it best:  ”The serpent is an archaic underworld god, chased out of the Christian Paradise. Just like a gemstone, its plastic perfection makes it a striking sign of the sacred in nature. The snake is the living abstraction of the line which Art Nouveau would see as the underlying ‘biomorphic’ structure of form,” (via New York Times).

Corsage jewel (1898-99) by Jules René Lalique

Whether coiled in a knot atop a ring or wrapped around the wrist as a stylish bracelet, the serpent remains a venerable favorite amongst jewelry motifs.  Its colorfully textured skin and long, rope-like body make for a perfect model from which to mold a piece of jewelry.  Malleable just like metal, the shapes and configurations of this mythic being serve to test a jeweler’s own creative talent.  Several jewelry houses have even incorporated the serpent into their Maison’s identity, using it as the central theme in several of their iconic collections (Bulgari and Boucheron instantly come to mind).  To that end, I’ve put together some highly creative and truly remarkable snake jewelry pieces that demonstrate why this slippery being continues to endure.


Gold, diamond and colored stone snake bracelet, late 19th century

Victorian Snake Earrings Bohemian Garnet and Pearl Europe Mid 19th century

Turquoise and diamond necklace, mid 19th century

18 Karat Gold, Emerald and Pearl Snake Ring, Last Quarter 19th Century

Gem-set, enamel and diamond bangle, mid 19th century

 

An Art Nouveau Enamel, Multi-Gem and Diamond Corsage Ornament, By Georges Fouquet

Art Nouveau Gold, Enamel, Blister Pearl and Diamond Serpent Pendant-Brooch

 

Platinum-Topped Gold and Diamond Serpent Brooch, Circa 1910

Snake necklace, Cartier Paris, special order, 1968, Platinum, white gold and yellow gold, 2,473 brilliant- and baguette-cut diamonds weighing 178.21 carats in total, two pear-shaped emeralds (eyes), green, red, and black enamel, Made as a special order for María Félix © Cartier, Photo by Nick Welsh from Cartier: The Power of Style (Paris: Flammarion, 2010).

A Ruby and Gold Ring, by Buccellati

PAIR OF OPAL, BROWN DIAMOND AND DIAMOND PENDENT EARRINGS, Lydia Courteille

A Colored Diamond, Ruby and Emerald Serpent Necklace, By Carvin French

ENAMEL, RUBY AND DIAMOND ‘SNAKE’ BANGLE, CIRCA 1980

GEM-SET RING

Snake ear clips, Yellow gold, pink gold, turquoise-coloured enamel, two oval rubies and two rose-cut diamonds, Cartier Paris, special order 1971, N. Welsh, Cartier Collection © Cartier

Mother of pearl and diamond snake bracelet, Carlo Luca della Quercia Illario

Boucheron Python ring with a 15,64 carat aquamarines and 340 rubies set into blackened gold. Two emeralds are his eyes.

Boucheron Python Bracelet with 700 tsavorites, 440 sapphires and 120 diamonds in white gold.

Boucheron Serpent diamond, opal and rock crystal necklace

Boucheron bracelet 2008

Bewitching Snakes, Boa ring | Boucheron

Boucheron Adam bracelet set with 548 spessartite garnets, 248 red and pink spinels, yellow sapphires, 6 emeralds and 26 diamonds on pink gold

PAIR OF COLOURED DIAMOND AND TSAVORITE GARNET ‘SNAKE’ PENDENT EARRINGS, Michele della Valle

Lydia Courteille Green Snake-shape Earrings

Cartier White Gold Diamond and Star Sapphire snake ring

Cartier Platinum necklace with aquamarines, diamonds, and pearl

Cartier emerald drops and diamond serpents

Cartier Platinum ring set with a ruby and diamonds.

Cartier Eternity snake necklace

Cartier Serpent Ring

A Multi-colored Diamond and Gold Serpent Bracelet,
by Hemmerle

A Fire Opal and Multi-Gem Snake Ring,
by Lorenz Bäumer

Dior Antique Jewelry Ring

Wendy Yue Coral Birdcage Earrings

Wendy Yue Wood Snake Hoop Earrings

BULGARI Peacock Enamel Ruby Serpent Bracelet Watch

Bulgari Serpenti Haute Joaillerie

Elizabeth Taylor Watch Bulgari Serpenti

Bulgari Serpenti Watch

Lotus Arts de Vivre Pair of Gem-Set Snake Bangle Bracelets

David Webb Serpent Earrings | Jadeite, Diamonds, Rubies, 18 Karat Gold, Platinum

DAVID WEBB A Multi-Gem and Enamel Snake Bracelet

Gold, Blue Enamel and Diamond Snake Ring, David Webb

A Pair of Amethyst and Diamond Ear Clips, Aletto Brothers

Serpentine earrings in sterling silver with spessartite, rose-cut diamonds, rubies and 18-karat gold by Lotus Arts de Vivre

Nicholas Varney Snake Bracelet

The Cobra Royal necklace by Roberto Coin

Kieselstein-Cord Gem-Set Snake Bangle

A diamond and emerald snake ring

An emerald necklace by Shaun Leane.

Emerald earrings by Shaun Leane

Mimi So Couture Cleopatra Snake Ring

18 karat gold and diamond snake bangle-bracelet, Tiffany & Co.

The two-finger Temptation of Eve ring, made of rose gold and studded with rubies and black diamonds. Designed by Stephen Webster

A diamond, orange sapphire and green garnet snake ring

 

Related content: 2013: Year of the SnakeGilded Diamondbacks Rattle Paul Morelli’s Fall 2012 Collection

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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8 Comments

  • Reply
    Jan Cullum
    October 21, 2012 at 10:59 am

    Thanks for your article. I have a 1800’s mid century snake necklace very similar to some shown here. It has been in my family for generations. It is solid gold leaf scales and turqoise on the head with ruby eyes and pearl teeth. The tail clasps into the mouth. If anyone is interested in seeing it, please let me know and I can post a few photographs.

    • Reply
      Natalie
      October 23, 2012 at 1:21 pm

      Hi Jan,

      I’d love to see a photo of your snake necklace. My email is nataliebos@gmail.com – thanks for your comment!

    • Reply
      Mar
      November 13, 2014 at 10:39 am

      I would love to see photos of your necklace!

  • Reply
    2013: Year of the Snake | Jewels du Jour
    January 7, 2013 at 11:20 am

    […] by Elle.com‘s recent article and my own earlier post, Wrapped In History:  Snake Jewelry, I’ve decided to revisit the serpent motif and celebrate the snake in honor of the Chinese […]

  • Reply
    Victorian Serpent Jewelry |
    January 12, 2013 at 9:39 am

    […]   Mid to late Victorian gold duel serpent ring set with diamond and sapphire Christie’s Sale 5893, 14 July 2009, Jewels at South Kensington, London Lot Description: A mid 19th century gold, diamond, enamel and emerald serpent bracelet The engraved graduated flexible link bracelet to a pale blue enamel head with old-cut diamond cluster decoration, rose-cut diamond points and emerald eyes, the reverse with inscription dated 1857, approximately 20.0 cm. long For more information see here. Soon less affluent women began to make their own serpent bracelets from hair, cord, silk and steel beads. It wasn’t long before the serpent fashion had spread across to the other side of the Atlantic and across Europe.  The fashion for serpent jewelry in all its dazzling array continued throughout the early Victorian era. It peaked in the 1840s but continued into the 1850s.  In the 1850s fashion became very influenced by the ancient world because of an abundance of archeological discoveries and the tours of Egyptian tombs now offered by Thomas Cook.  Serpent jewelry now often took on a more exotic and ancient flavor. Victorian Gilt Serpent Head Belt Clasp set with amethyst glass eyes and engraved detailing After the death of Albert in 1861, the whole of England was thrown into mourning along with Victoria and this in turn influenced fashions world-wide.  Serpent jewelry was now created in dark materials such as jet, vulcanite, gutta percha, wood, hair work, onyx, ebony, bog oak and French jet.  It was sometimes set with gems, particularly garnet, amethyst, emeralds, diamonds, ruby and pearls. Paste was still popular. Mid to late Victorian Serpent Mourning Bangle, wood or horn, inlaid with silver   ‘The naturalistic movement’ had already begun to emerge as early as the 1850s.  It was seemingly an independent and non-mainstream artistic movement.  This movement favored natural motifs, including snakes. The naturalistic movement can really be thought of as the beginning of the Art Nouveau movement, although the Art Nouveau movement is officially considered to have begun in 1890 and last until 1910.  Rene Jules Lalique (1860-1945) was one of the foremost Art Nouveau designers.  He loved to use exotic and natural motifs and he rediscovered the snake motif in his own unique way.  The workmanship in Art Nouveau design was more important than the value of the materials used, and now jewelry was created using an even broader range of materials, such as horn, ivory, tortoise shell and glass but particularly colorful enamel work. Marie-Odile Briot, writing in the catalogue for a Lalique show at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, said, ‘‘The serpent takes pride of place in Lalique’s heraldry of the feminine.” She continued: ”The serpent is an archaic underworld god, chased out of the Christian Paradise. Just like a gemstone, its plastic perfection makes it a striking sign of the sacred in nature. The snake is the living abstraction of the line which Art Nouveau would see as the underlying ‘biomorphic’ structure of form.” Serpent necklace by Lalique, owned by the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.   In the late Victorian era (1890 to 1901) mass production of jewelry was now fully under way.  The Art Nouveau movement, Darwin’s controversial theory and numerous botanical discoveries, led to a strong interest in the natural world.  Serpent motifs were now more colorful, naturalistic and delicate.  Jewelry was set with amethyst, aquamarine, chrysoprase, sapphires, chrysoberyl, opals, moonstones, turquoise, peridot and rubies.  Egyptian and Etruscan design influence was still prevalent and serpent jewelry continued to reflect that. ‘The Temptation’ Engraving, circa 1860 It seems that serpents have always had a certain air of wickedness and daring, perhaps ever since Eve’s pivotal encounter in the garden.  I suspect that serpent jewelry would often have been worn by a more seductive type of women in the Victorian era. In October 1891, The Ladies Home Journal, reported, “A wiggling gold serpent having overlapping scales of various hues, forms on of the latest queen chains. The tail terminates the swivel for the watch, while the hold holds suspended in its wicked looking jaws a struggling bird of pearls and rubies.”   The writer appears to be taking delight in the wickedness. I believe it is this long cultural association with sensuality, passion and danger that gives serpent jewelry its cache and why it is still so very popular to this day. Further reading / sources: http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/jewelry/a-mid-19th-century-gold-diamond-enamel-5224277-details.aspx?from=searchresults&intObjectID=5224277&sid=82a55d91-cc5c-4e10-b72d-601591188114 The Lady’s Home Journal, October 1891 http://www.jewelsdujour.com/2012/10/wrapped-in-history-snake-jewelry/ […]

  • Reply
    The Year of the Snake «
    March 25, 2013 at 2:58 am

    […] Cartier Serpent Ring Via: Jewels du Jour […]

  • Reply
    Beats By Dre USA
    June 14, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    Splendid, as being a gentleman would mention. Brilliant work on this unique writing. I genuinely adore it

  • Reply
    Eternity Rings: An Illustration of Eternal Love - Moody Mama Says
    July 29, 2013 at 11:42 am

    […] couples are infusing eternity rings with style by using the traditional serpent eternity ring design to illustrate their never-ending love and endless connection to each other. The typical, classic […]

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