Creative jewellery makers turn to ancient, fossilised materials
Jewellery designers and watchmakers are turning to fossilised materials to create artistic masterpieces, writes Francesca Fearon
Be warned! "This is not jewellery to do the washing-up in," Bibi van der Velden says as she slips on dragon, alligator and gecko rings finely carved from a 40,000-year-old woolly mammoth tooth. "It [the fossilised tooth] does not like soap."
Wearing a once-living creature preserved by nature in the permafrost of Alaska, Siberia and Canada for thousands of years should be done so with respect, and can be a spine-tingling experience. This is beauty that cannot be man-made.
"I am so amazed by what nature has created that I am constantly inspired," says the Dutch sculptress-turned-jeweller, who has been working with woolly mammoth teeth for five years. "I like the fact that this has been under the ice all these years, and I am bringing it back to life as a jewel."
The woolly mammoth teeth are being revealed in the Arctic tundra as global warming melts the ice. What is not salvaged would rot very quickly once air gets to it, van der Velden explains. The British Museum advised her on how to conserve the teeth, and it took two years before she produced her first ring.
Her sculpted designs are carved in a small village in southeastern China that has practiced the craft for centuries. Van der Velden is not alone in using mammoth relics for her jewellery. In New York, Monique Péan has been turning them into necklaces and bracelets, along with fossilised walrus ivory and agatised dinosaur bone.
The German jewellery house Hemmerle, which is renowned for its use of edgy materials, a couple of years ago started presenting jewellery created from woolly mammoth and walrus tusks set with precious stones.
Tomasz Donocik in London is using mammoth teeth for gothic-style pendants, while in Hong Kong, Dickson Yewn has just introduced his Zi Ran rings, carving the tooth into round or his signature square-shaped rings, then decorating the milky-white surface with sapphire and tsavorite flowers.
In the world of watches, Piaget is using the strangely beautiful fossilised mammoth tooth for the dial of a special edition of its Altiplano watches. The dial has been engraved with a map of the world using the scrimshaw technique, giving it an antique appearance. The method was perfected by the whalers of the 19th century, who used it to depict fishing scenes on whale or walrus teeth. These designs signify a growing trend to adorn ourselves with artefacts that one traditionally finds in natural history museums. There is clearly a movement among avant-garde jewellers to look beyond the traditional spectrum of precious materials for jewellery to find unique and sustainable sources.
We are seeing Delfina Delettrez using the fur from Fendi's workshops to make brooches and earrings to accessorise the fashion house's summer collection.
Van der Velden has just introduced a series of earrings and pendants made from natural scarab beetle wings - which are a superhard material - setting the reverse side with tsavorites that complement the shimmering golden-green surface of the wing.
Robert Tateossian is transforming dinosaur bone and fossils of trilobites and ammonites that were created millions of years ago by framing them in gold for cufflinks. Meanwhile, looking to the stars, David Yurman is setting cufflinks with small chunks of meteorite that plunged through earth's atmosphere from outer space, and Van Cleef & Arpels is slicing meteorite to make the base of the Poetic Complication movement for its Midnight in Paris watch.
There is undoubtedly a profound and deeply moving connection being made by jewellers and watchmakers between earth's past, or rare elements from other planets, and what they are creating today in modern jewellery design. These materials, especially those from the prehistoric creatures, are every bit as precious as a diamond or ruby.
"My favourite part of being a designer is being able to find new rare materials to work with that haven't been widely used in jewellery before," says American designer Péan, who melds eco-friendly practices with luxury items and has been able to successfully combine a covetable aesthetic with earth-friendly manufacturing for her jewellery.
Fossilised woolly mammoth and walrus ivory, which range from 10,000 to 150,000 years old, were the first materials that Péan worked with when she was introduced to them in Alaska seven years ago. She sets the fossilised relics in 18ct recycled gold with diamonds and black jade, highlighting the almost monochrome tones of the walrus ivory in a very contemporary way." I was recently introduced to fossilised dinosaur bone, which has been really amazing to work with."
These range from 146 million to 156 million years old and come from the Colorado plateau where over millennia the bone has become petrified during the fossilisation process, preserving the original bone cell structure in amazing colours. "The intricate patterns of the fossilised dinosaur bone remind me of abstract art," she says.
Such artefacts are clearly capturing the imagination of modern jewellers and the wonderment of those who want to wear a piece of history.
The exotic bone trend has been a long time coming, but when it comes to fossilised mammoth and walrus tusks, it does raise questions of ethics and sustainability. Mammoth tusks, which are curly and could grow to as much as 2.7m long, have the look of elephant ivory, with the veins. Does putting them in jewellery promote the illegal use of poached ivory, or is it an ethical substitute, because the animal became extinct during the Ice Age and substantial amounts are floating to the surface now as the ice melts?
Could an unscrupulous dealer try and pass off poached ivory as mammoth tusk, and why would they? Clearly a purchaser must look very carefully at the origins of what they are buying and how they are sourced.
One might argue that buying mammoth tusk in jewellery and watches aids their conservation and gives jewellers the opportunity to create pieces from animals that are not endangered. The jewellers interviewed confirm they buy from trusted sources. CITES certificates are not required as the animal is extinct, but Customs and Excise look very closely at the products and their accompanying certificates.
Bibi van der Velden explains that the Schreger lines are different between an elephant and a mammoth, and the colour of the mammoth tusk is slightly browner as the outer bark is darker. Schreger lines are evident in cross-sections of ivory and are like a grain pattern. They are usually referred to as cross-hatchings or chevrons and are positioned at a tighter angle, typically below 90 degrees on a mammoth tusk, but on an elephant tusk are at angles greater than 115 degrees.
Dickson Yewn admits, however, that it can be difficult for the consumer to tell the difference. Hairline cracks will occur in the mammoth tusk, but if dried in the right conditions this is less likely to happen. Van der Velden keeps her mammoth tusk in a humidor to maintain the correct humidity.