My Favourite Pieces: How Nicole Farhi got the bug for bugs
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
An invitation to the Met Gala sparked Nicole Farhi’s collecting of insect brooches. Rather than using buttons to fasten the waistcoat of the bespoke white dinner suit she wore to the annual fundraising ball in New York in 2012, she pinned on costume jewellery.
At an event “where everybody has fabulous dresses”, her own outfit was a success. “Everybody came and looked at the buttons on my waistcoat,” says the French former fashion-designer-turned-sculptor.
Farhi, who designed for retailer French Connection and her eponymous label before leaving fashion behind in 2012, now has at least 20 bugs that she likes to wear on a jacket lapel or like a bejewelled bib on a shirt. Alongside this collection, she has jewellery that she treasures for its sentimental value.
1. Brooch attributed to Schiaparelli (c1940s)
One of the “most precious” of her insect and other creature-related brooches is her snail piece. Although it is unsigned, she thinks it was designed by fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, known for her eye-catching costume jewellery. The shell of the metal creature is a real shell.
“I love everything about it . . . that the shell is so big next to the slimness of the body, I like the eyes,” Farhi says. “It’s fun. It’s not pretentious.”
2. Wedding ring (2001)
Farhi designed her own wedding band, taking inspiration from the name of her husband, British playwright Sir David Hare: “I decided to do two hares running after each other for eternity.” She made a model of her design and then worked with jeweller Emma Paolozzi, daughter of her sculptor friend the late Eduardo Paolozzi, on the wax piece to be cast in gold. She kept the design a secret from Hare, whom she married in 1992.
The finished rings were a loose fit. “So we got used, both of us, to wearing our wedding ring on the middle finger,” she says.
When her ring was stolen in 2020, Farhi showed a private jeweller her maquette, photographs of her wearing the ring, and her husband’s matching white gold ring to enable him to produce the “exact replica” she wears now.
Despite having designed this ring and having worked with British jeweller Pippa Small on pieces for her label’s fashion shows, Farhi is not tempted to use her skills as a sculptor to make wearable works of art. “It’s another world for me, sculpture, and it expresses feelings,” she says. “It’s not something I want to wear. I want to touch [the sculptures] and I want them to move you, or make you laugh or smile.”
3. Diamond ring (18th century)
In a break with tradition, Farhi started wearing an engagement ring only after she married, as it took seven years to find the design she had in mind.
On her first trip to India more than 35 years ago she had seen a flat diamond ring, which had once belonged to a maharaja, in an antiques shop in Delhi. She did not buy it but says: “It stayed with me. I thought that if one day I get married and I want a diamond, it has to be a flat diamond.”
Farhi enlisted the help of her friend, antique jewellery dealer Sandra Cronan, to find her own flat diamond. When Cronan showed her an English Georgian gold ring that fitted the bill, “I loved it immediately,” says Farhi.
4. Chain necklace and pendant (both 19th century)
It was also Cronan, who is exhibiting at Lapada art and antiques fair in London later this month, who sourced Farhi’s gold and sapphire necklace. Farhi had owned a diamond chain necklace, but it was stolen at the same time as her wedding ring so she wanted a replacement on which to hang her French art nouveau pendant. Cronan’s find was an “even better” match, she says.
The pendant, which she bought from another dealer about 45 years ago, features sapphires, emeralds and diamonds mounted on gold, with a snake wrapped around one of the rubies. “You can see already my love for insects and animals,” she says.
5. Lapel pin (late 19th century)
After Farhi’s grandfather died, her grandmother gave her the “beautiful” pin he had worn in the buttonhole of his lapel. The unusual design is a gold claw of a chicken’s foot holding a fine pearl.
Her Turkish grandfather was a clockmaker and ran a workshop on the top floor of a building in Nice in the south of France, where Farhi grew up. She would visit him there as a child. “It was really special, that shop,” she says. “When it was the hour all these cuckoos were coming out from their boxes. It was so funny.”
She wears the pin frequently, mixing it with her other creature brooches, which can attract more attention than her “proper” jewellery. “People cannot not look at them,” she says.