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Jewellery as art: Unique pieces make a statement at Bonhams Fine Jewellery Sale
An art deco laque burgauté and coral box by Cartier, £10,000-15,000. Photo: Bonhams.

LONDON.- Art jewellery is making a statement. Seen at fairs such as Design Miami, art jewellery, created by legends of the design world such as Coco Chanel, Cartier and Andrew Grima, is taking centre stage.

Bonhams has a wonderful series of pieces by these artists in its forthcoming Fine Jewellery sale on 22 April, where in addition to dazzling jewels, items showcasing creative expression take pride of place.

One of the lots, a retro twist necklace by Coco Chanel, set with oval citrine cabochons, is estimated at £4,000-6,000. Fine jewellery by Chanel is extremely rare, and the undulating links of this choker-style piece are designed for both style and comfort. As Chanel said herself, “Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury.”

The signature on this piece dates from between 1954 and 1971. Chanel often designed clothing and accessories to go together as one cohesive statement, and this necklace would have perfectly suited the changing post-war fashions of the mid-20th century.

The talents of German-born Wilhelm Schmidt (1845-1938) were such that he is rightly regarded as a sculptor. A late-19th century opal cameo brooch that is attributed to him, estimated at £10,000-15,000, is a minutely detailed piece carved from a single piece of opal matrix, depicting the head of Mercury in profile. The front of the brooch features the god’s feathered helmet in precious opal, while his bearded face consists of contrasting dark opal matrix.

Schmidt claimed to be the first to carve opal into cameos in the 1870s. Originally from Idar in south-west Germany, a town known for mineral and gemstone trading and engraving, Schmidt was sent to a workshop in Paris at the age of 15 where he first learned the art of cameo cutting from the Parisian masters.

After the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, Wilhelm and his brother Louis, a mineral importer, emigrated to London and set up a business at Hatton Garden. The move was well timed given the prosperity of Victorian England and the popularity of ‘archaeological’ jewellery which resulted in a demand for engraved gems by first-rate artisans. Although there is no complete record of Schmidt’s work for individual jewellers, it is known that he collaborated with John Brogden whose opal cameo necklace won a gold medal at the Paris International Exhibition in 1878.

The House of Cartier is well-known for its artistic verve and two stunning examples showcase the talents of the legendary French jewellers. The playful side of art jewellery can be seen in the Cartier enamel, coral and diamond ladybird brooch, circa 1925-30, which carries a pre-sale estimate of £6,000-8,000.

A small art deco laque burgauté and coral box, circa 1925, features lacquer panels inlaid with mother-of-pearl and engraved silver sections (£10,000-15,000).

Laque burgauté refers to the exquisite East Asian technique of decorating lacquer with intricate inlays of tinted mother-of-pearl, often engraved and combined with gold and silver foil. The technique originated in China as early as the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century, and remained popular for centuries afterward spreading to nearby areas including Japan. Cartier in the 1920s and 30s had reached their zenith as master craftsmen by reviving these ancient techniques.

Andrew Grima, the 20th century master, also contributes to this strong showing of art jewellery. One piece, a gold and diamond-set 'Super Shell' necklace (£8,000-12,000), features a large spiral seashell pendant 'wrapped' in gold and single-cut diamond detail. Launched in 1972, Grima’s ‘Super-Shell’ range of jewellery was inspired by exotic shells that the jeweller had acquired in Australia, which he then converted into stylish and wearable pieces.

Andrew Grima is renowned as the father of contemporary jewellery design. He became the foremost modern jewellery designer in the 1960s and 1970s, selling designs from his gallery in Jermyn Street, Mayfair. His clients included members of the British royal family, as well as glamorous names such as Jacqueline Onassis and the sculptor, Barbara Hepworth. Grima’s work was revolutionary: he mined the potential of semi-precious stones such as tourmalines, topazes, and opals, to dazzling effect.

Another superb Grima piece is a wood opal and diamond pendant necklace and ring suite (£6,000-8,000), also dating to 1972-3. Wood opal is a form of petrified wood which has developed an opalescent sheen. This striking stone is enhanced in these pieces by subtle diamond accents and arresting 18 carat gold settings.

Jean Ghika, Head of Jewellery UK and Europe, comments, “Art jewellery is about so much more than making a statement of wealth. These striking and often bold pieces reflect both the personality and taste of the wearer.”

The sale takes place at Bonhams, 101 New Bond Street, at 2pm on 22 April.

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