Why serpentine jewellery is still charming
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It’s a tale of shock and awe. To our earliest ancestors, the mere suggestion of a snake would have triggered a fight-flight-freeze response before they even had time to think. But over time, as snakes became more revered than feared, they evolved into one of the world’s most compelling and enduring symbols – one that lures the viewer with what jewellery designer Shaun Leane describes as “mystical intrigue and exciting caution”. They still get our attention. Fast.
“Serpents are one of the oldest motifs, rooted in the beliefs of numerous civilisations and with meaning across cultures – and they still have so much to say,” explains Henry Bailey, Christie’s head of jewellery in London.
Ouroboros (“tail-devourer” in Greek), the serpent with its tail in its mouth that inspires jewellers from Tiffany to Ileana Makri, dates back to the ancient Egyptians, but is also referenced in Hindu mythology and Renaissance alchemy. It was popular in the mid-19th century, especially after Prince Albert gave Queen Victoria an engagement ring depicting a coiled serpent. The loop represents the circle of life and the interconnection of things; rebirth, reinvention or immortality; health, protection and self-reliance; and, of course, everlasting love.
“It’s such a powerful symbol that it still captures the imagination of buyers,” says Bailey. “Also, I think buying behaviour across the luxury market has become more considered. People are more reflective; they’re looking not just for the quality and beauty of something relatively scarce, they want something that will hold great sentimental value for a long time.”
A growing appreciation of antique jewellery in Asia has increased interest in Victorian examples, Bailey adds. “But in general, a serpent will do well – especially if it’s by Bulgari or Boucheron, because their connection is so well understood.”
Bulgari began creating its signature “second skin” Serpenti high jewellery and bracelet watches in the late 1940s, but it was the pictures of Elizabeth Taylor wearing her coiled, emerald-eyed bracelet-watch on the set of Cleopatra in 1962 that propelled serpentine jewels to a new level of desirability (it was later auctioned after Taylor’s death, by Christie’s New York, for $974,500 – nearly 65 times its high estimate). “The animalier variants were in tune with the new female attitude in the 1960s – women no longer feared their allure, wearing a symbol of ‘sin’ and seduction,” explains Lucia Boscaini, heritage brand curator at Bulgari.
Just as the maison’s artisans articulate these extraordinary creations to slink along, “imitating the way a serpent moves in nature”, the concept never stays still, says Lucia Silvestri, the maison’s jewellery creative director. “For me, Serpenti is about seduction first. Then power. But it’s the unending metamorphosis that gives us the greatest challenge and opportunity.”
When Zendaya, the 25-year-old star of Euphoria, walked the red carpet at the recent Academy Awards, she wore a cropped Valentino shirt and fishtail skirt with a fine-jewellery Serpenti Viper collar, diamond ring, and sleek, minimal coiled bracelets at intervals along her arms, proving that the serpent can navigate the leap from classic glamour to cool and elegantly edgy.
“We wanted something with all the glamour but that also felt young, fun and modern,” says Law Roach, Zendaya’s stylist for more than a decade, who wears a Viper bracelet himself. “Starlets can access any high-jewellery piece they want for an event like this, but we wanted something quieter, softer and more harmonious. I liked the idea that a girl who looks up to Zendaya can afford a piece of what she’s wearing.”
Ilaria Icardi gold and diamond Snake ring, £4,800
c1965 Bulgari gold, diamond and emerald Serpenti bracelet-watch, sold this month by Christie’s for about £310,000
Shaun Leane, a master of form and translating theatrical concepts into wearable jewellery, recently revisited and expanded his deliciously visceral, spiny Serpent’s Trace collection, originally launched a decade ago.
“I find the contradiction between their appearance and form fascinating,” Leane says. “They appear slick and fragile but through the intricate form of their bone structure, their movement, speed and strength is so powerful and graceful. For years, jewellers have celebrated the serpent in its true form with pavé scales and luminous skins. I wanted to strip back the skin and celebrate the serpent’s remarkable bone structure – for its beauty is more than skin deep.”
For others, such as gemologist Olivia Young – who has worked under Marie-Hélène de Taillac and established her own line Ouroboros in 2017 – it’s about embracing the twisted side of the creatures. “There’s an ugliness, a viciousness there – it’s about drawing on the strength and finding beauty out of darkness,” she says.
Young’s tactile pieces allude to danger with dual connotations such as “the eye of the storm, which also looks like a vulva”, and lean heavily into eroticism: her writhing signature Sexy Sixtyniner ring, composed of two jewels that can be worn together or by two individuals, has often been bought by lesbians as a wedding ring.
“There’s a lot of darkness and strange energy around sex, and I’m all about moving the needle to a place of joy,” says Young. “If you could pass that down to the next generation with your jewellery, what a gift that would be.”
Women draw themselves taller when they try on a Serpenti necklace, says Lucia Silvestri. “They change before your eyes.” Perhaps the ouroboros has turned a corner, no longer about someone else’s promise of endless love but rather self-love and respect. And where’s the sin in that?