Jewellery designers opt for the unconventional with new tradition breaking pieces

Titanium and other unconventional materials are making their way into high-jewellery designs

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 September, 2016, 11:28am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 September, 2016, 11:28am

It’s a metal prized by the military and the aerospace industry because of its strength and corrosion resistance, but titanium is working its way into the world of high jewellery.

Named after the Titans from Greek mythology, Titanium is also biocompatible with the human body and boasts the highest strength-to-weight ratio and, as such, it was traditionally regarded as a material unfit to be used for high jewellery.

Nonetheless, it has become a coveted metal used in high-end jewellery design, especially by Cindy Chao and Wallace Chan, who have successfully bent titanium to their will.

Chao, an independent Taiwanese jewellery designer best known for her Black Label Masterpieces collections, started using titanium in 2012 for a piece called Transcendence Butterfly. The piece, which used titanium as the base metal, took her nearly two years to complete.

Because of its “hardness, titanium settings take five times more time and effort to work on than the usual 18ct gold used in fine jewellery,” Chao says. “It requires a completely different skill set to heat and form the metal in much higher temperatures.”

Her latest creation, a stunning necklace called “Winter Leaves”, is large and extravagant, yet the titanium portion of it only weighs 40 grams. The piece, which will debut this year at Biennale des Antiquaires, features titanium sculpted to water-like effect.

Chan, famous for his multiple innovative jewellery-making techniques and designs, also attests to titanium’s uncompromising character. He spent eight years trying to tame titanium before his big breakthrough finally came in 2007.

“It is very stubborn; its memory is much stronger than that of gold, meaning that if you bend it, it bounces back,” he explains.

His latest masterpiece, a 2.2m multicoloured peony flower sculpture titled “Rise of Heart”, is made of titanium and was carved by hand, a testament to his unique savoir faire.

Clients love it when we experiment with new materials
Lucia Silvestri

A veteran manipulator of stones and metals – he pioneered his Wallace Cut where a design is cut directly inside a stone – he is constantly driven by a need to make his fantasies a reality.

“I am really interested in metallurgy and when I am not creating, I am in my lab mixing materials,” he says. “There are unconventional materials and there are unconventional ways to use conventional materials. My challenge is to explore the potential of each material.”

Luxury brands are also looking towards atypical materials for inspiration. Boucheron, for example, used Indian Makrana marble – the same type of marble used to build the Taj Mahal – in its Bleu de Jodhpur collection last year. Lapis lazuli, prized in ancient times and used to decorate King Tutankhamun’s funeral mask, now adorns the dials of Hermes’ cocktail watches. And at Bulgari this year, the iconic serpenti motif for its high-jewellery necklace was re-imagined using South American snakewood for scales.

“Clients love it when we experiment with new materials,” says Lucia Silvestri, the high-jewellery creative director of Bulgari. “They love the reinterpretation of the classic motif and they expect it from a brand like us. It’s an exercise for both materials and designs.”

Claire Choisne, the creative director of Boucheron, shares Silvestri’s sentiment.

“The client love [it] when you can propose something new and different that they can’t find in another place,” she says.

The maison has seen a revival of the use of rock crystals in its designs, a nod to its founder, Frederic Boucheron, one of the first high-profile jewellers who used it for jewellery. The results are breathtaking: the Lys Radiant and Hôtel Paticulier necklaces, from its 26 Vendome collection,  which debuted during Paris Haute Couture Week this year, features diamonds placed over and under rock crystals to play with the illusion of depth.

While some may question whether rock crystals, wood or titanium may warrant the price tag it commands, the value of these pieces lies in the level of craftsmanship and artistry it demands, rather than the market value or availability of the materials itself.

“The way it was used in the past was quite simple, and today to bring something new, we work on the technique with crystals … to give something new,” Choisne says. “The value of the rock crystal is not the point, [but rather] the value is the talent of the craftsmen [who] works with it.”