When you consider great artists’ sources of inspiration throughout history, you’re unlikely to think of dentistry as one of them. In fact, it was Doctor Chatagnier, a dentist in France, who inspired Pablo Picasso to venture into the world of jewelry. In 1948, the Spanish artist was living in the commune of Vallauris, and was so taken with Chatagnier’s medical tools—drills, curettes, molds—and their ability to to shape, cast, and engrave that he created a small number of silver and gold necklaces.

Leaving in 1955, Picasso continued to explore jewelry as a creative outlet. This includes a limited run of 23-karat gold medallions finished by Atelier Hugo, a workshop run by François Hugo, great-grandson of writer Victor Hugo. In the meantime, a number of the artists’ contemporaries also experimented with gems. Fascinated with the making of jewelry since childhood—aged eight, he crafted necklaces for his sister’s dolls—American sculptor Alexander Calder artfully shaped metals to form organic, swirling, and curlicue shapes (as seen above on model Anjelica Huston in 1976).

Pablo Picasso and artist Jean Cocteau signs autographs at a bull fight he organized in Vallauris, France
Pablo Picasso, pictured next to artist Jean Cocteau, who also worked with François Hugo, signs autographs at a bull fight he organized in Vallauris, France, in 1955. Image: Alamy

Other artists partnered with expert makers to realize their jewelry designs. To Picasso’s commission, François Hugo added work with Jean Cocteau: from 1960 onwards, Hugo and Cocteau authored a total of 13 gold pieces, including a 1961 double-horned Taureau pendant. Man Ray turned to Milanese specialist producer GianCarlo Montebello to create his jewelry. Cast from gold-plated sterling silver, Man Ray’s Optic-Topic mask limits eyesight through strictly placed pinholes.

Salvador Dalí first collaborated with designer Fulco di Verdura in 1941, which resulted in five rare pieces, before his sketches took shape in Manhattan’s St. Regis Hotel, where Argentine jeweler Carlos Alemany ran his workshop. Until 1970, the duo created many unique designs from precious metals and high-carat stones. Their work includes The Eye of Time, a platinum brooch in the shape of a human eye finessed with diamonds, enamel and a ruby, and fitted with a watch movement.

A model wearing jewellery designed by the Surrealist artist, Salvador Dali
A model wears a striking piece designed by Salvador Dalí, who collaborated with other jewellers to create his Surrealist pieces. Image: Getty Images

Earlier this year, Persistence of Sound—Dalí’s 1949 impression of two melting telephone receivers, earrings in 18-karat gold with rubies, emeralds, and diamonds—was one of the star lots of Christie’s online selling exhibition Art to Wear: Jewelry by Artists From the Collection of Didier Ltd.

“The current market for artist jewelry is a fascinating one, and one that is gathering real momentum. There is a sense that there are excellent opportunities for collectors and enthusiasts alike,” says Christie’s International Senior Specialist (Design), Simon Andrews. “These items are essentially miniaturized art, and that they are intended to be worn, not locked away.”

Wearable Ambitions

Contemporary artists too have turned their hands to jewelry. At his South London studio, Anish Kapoorhas imagined Torpedo-shaped earrings and circular cufflinks, their white-and-yellow gold surface diamond-cut for a textured effect. Also in London, Young British Artists Gavin Turk, Marc Quinn, Sam Taylor Wood, and Damien Hirst have all previously unveiled jewelry. Says Andrews, “There is incredible diversity within this subject, offering opportunities for all tastes.”

Botticelli Rose earrings by Sophie Bille Brahe, featuring white and pink freshwater pearls that recall the Birth of Venus.

And while artists discover ways to make their work wearable, independent jewelry designers are referencing art history and famous paintings in their creations. Today, the relationship between fine art and jewelry is multifaceted, expressed in, for example, a pair of Botticelli earrings by Copenhagen-based designer Sophie Bille Brahe, their delicate clusters of pearls a nod to the artist’s Birth of Venusmasterpiece.

In Rome, art history inspires the work of Delfina Delettrez Fendi. The jewelry designer’s great-grandparents established luxury brand Fendi in 1925; Delettrez Fendi introduced her eponymous business in 2007. A collector of mid-century furniture (Gio Ponti and Franco Albini count among her favorites) and artworks by Alberto Burri, Lucio Fontana, and Sterling Ruby among others, it’s Delettrez Fendi’s inspired take on Surrealism and its lexicon of motifs that have helped her make her name.

Delfina Delettrez Fendi’s Anatomik brooch
Delfina Delettrez Fendi’s Surrealist-inspired Anatomik brooch, with its black diamond eye, pearl lashes, and ruby lips.

Her creations include rings featuring golden-lashed eyes and white marble earrings shaped like index fingers or ending in a sparkling pair of lips. “Surrealism gives you the possibility to daydream and escape from reality,” she says. Since launching, two of Delettrez Fendi’s gems have been included in the permanent collection of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

Emerging Creativity

In late 2019, the museum also added one of Cindy Chao’s unique butterfly brooches to its collection. Chao takes a sculptor’s approach to jewelry-making. Since launching her enterprise (Cindy Chao The Art Jewel) in 2004, the creative has been mastering the art of lost-wax casting. With a Hong Kong team and artisans working in Switzerland and France, Chao issues a very limited number of Black Label Masterpieces per year, spearheaded by her annual butterfly piece.

Cindy Chao’s Aurora butterfly brooch
The Aurora butterfly brooch by Cindy Chao has a total of 6,023 gemstones (spot sapphires, yellow diamonds, and Burmese rubies), set on lightweight titanium.

“As a child, I was surrounded by creativity and most of my days were spent with two masters,” says Chao, connecting her aesthetic to previous generations of Chaos. “My grandfather, a noted architect, always took me to the construction sites of his works, so I could see the world in a structural and spatial way. My father, a sculptor, taught me to consider each angle, form, and expression of what I observe, and to transform observations into well-rounded creations.”

There’s artistry too in the work of Bibi van der Velden, who operates from a light-filled studio located in an Amsterdam courtyard, sheltered from view. Trained in sculpture and fine art—van der Velden studied in Florence, at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, and the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague—she today authors detailed jewelry that holds its shape both on and off the body. Then, there are the full-scale sculptures she finishes in partnership with her mother Michèle Deiters.

Model wearing rings by Bibi van der Velden
Bibi van der Velden’s range includes the Mammoth Alligator Ring, Bird Ring, Panther Ring in rose gold, and Lion Stackable Ring.

Van der Velden often draws from nature and zoology—statement rings presided over by iguanas, rams, and seahorses—and is noted for her use of recherché raw materials such as scarab beetle wings, which have a painterly sheen, and a mammoth tusk. “What I realize myself, designing jewelry as a sculptor, is that these are two separate entities but that they are also so deeply connected. Casting a piece of jewelry after hand-carving feels very tactile, it’s human-made,” she says. “All of my jewelry designs are miniature sculptures in themselves.”

Pop Art Inspiration

When discussing contemporary art, few can match Suzanne Syz’s credentials. The Swiss collector and designer moved to Manhattan in the 1980s. In the Big Apple, she was introduced to Andy Warhol and his set by venerable art dealer, curator, and collector Bruno Bischofberger. Syz sat for her Warhol portrait with her baby son and soon, her clique of friends included Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel, Jeff Koons, and Francesco Clemente.

Suzanne Syz’s Warhol earrings in the shape of Campbell’s soup cans
Warhol earrings in the shape of Campbell’s soup cans by talented colorist Suzanne Syz, who creates striking gems, many with a Pop Art twist.

Now back in Geneva, Syz draws inspiration from her own art collection, which is overseen by curator Nicolas Trembley, and it’s her intuitive approach to her craft that aligns her most with the artists she collects. “I didn’t have a background in jewelry. I just mixed what I thought looked good,” she says. “I thought you should put some whimsy and fun into jewelry and for me that was contemporary art.”

Banner image: Alexander Calder’s 1940 Jealous Husband necklace, modeled by actress Anjelica Huston. Estate of Evelyn Hofer

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