5 Iconic Birds Interpretations In Jewelry

Jewelry designers have always been inspired by birds. They have interpreted owls and doves, peacocks and hummingbirds fascinated by their colorful and peculiar appearance, unusual energy and spirit. Eager to reflect their flight, distinctiveness and expressiveness, the artists recreated feathered creatures in various materials using a range of gemstones, metals and jewelry techniques. Carefully thought-out designs emphasized by each bird’s symbolism created an abstract mysterious perception of a jewelry offering a wide possibilities of its interpretation through different time periods. 

In this article I invite you to enjoy the originality and ingenuity of some iconic birds jewelry made by the important artists in the XX century and the variety of reading and emotions they convey.

Royal bird

Rose-cut diamonds, blue, green, yellow and golden brown enamel, 18k gold (French marks), 7 ins., 1905, signed Mellerio dit Meller, ‘9 Rue de la Paix, Paris’. From the Al Thani Collection, sold at Christie’s in 2019

In 1905 on his way to Alfonso XIII and Victoria Eugenia’s wedding in Madrid the Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala stopped in Paris to find sophisticated jewelry appropriate for the royal event. The great admirer of diamonds, european culture and way of life chose the store of the Mellerio dits Mellerio known as the favorite jewelers of royalty and nobility.

Since Empress Eugenie commissioned a peacock feather brooch to the jeweler in 1868, it became one of his favorite subjects.

In that period Mellerio produced a series jewelry with the oldest Indian symbol of royalty and power. A marvelous aigrette captured the attention of the Maharaja that probably would adorned his turban at the wedding.

The wings and luxurious tail of the golden bird were embellished with the smallest diamonds, and the enamel of a deep blue color with hues to a lighter blue, green, and yellow accurately reflected all the nuances of the plumage. The coquettish crest and small black eyes gave the bird the lively features of a real bird. The design fused together Indian influence and European vision.

During his visit to Europe not only Mellerio jewelry impressed him. In Madrid the Maharadja was attracted by seventeen-year-old Flamenco dancer Anita Delgado. She would become his fifth wife less than two years later. And we can see her wearing it on one of her portraits ad a hair adornment. The marriage of two people belonging to different countries, cultures, classes, and faiths would not last long. They would divorce in 1925. Anita got a generous financial settlement and returned to Europe.

Grace of a Swan

Enamel necklace with opals and amethysts, Rene Jules Lalique, made in Paris ca. 1897-98, ‘Jewelry-The Body Transformed’ exhibit, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC. Photo credit John Winder

Jewelry by Lalique was deeply influenced by Japanese vision of the natural world in which he found a way to explore it, re-discover its force in rhythmic lines, and represent it symbolically. Shintoism’s reverence for nature, a philosophy in which everything possesses spiritual vitality, supplanted the Christian undertone of European art and inspired a new sort of freedom.

The necklace has a two swans motif which was widely spread in that period. In 1875 Walter Crane, the first President of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, created an internationally popular figurative wallpaper design depicting two swans facing each other, profiled in perfect symmetry. Gliding with the utmost grace,the swan surpasses the peacock in popularity.

On the website of the Metropolitan Museum it’s said that it was designed for his second wife, Augustine-Alice Ledru, the daughter of the sculptor Auguste Ledru, friend of Auguste Rodin.

Still a married man, Lalique met Alice in her father’s studio in 1890 and they fell in love with each other.  In 1892, Alice gave birth to his daughter Suzanne. A year later, the artist finally divorced his first wife. In 1900, the couple had a son, Marc, and two years later they finally married.

Alice became a muse for Lalique. She received a good education in art, supported him and worked on some of his sketches as they say. Unfortunately, this marriage did not continue long because Alice passed away in 1909.

Knowing the common swan symbolism that is linked to love, trust and beauty, the necklace could be reduced to representation of two soul mates for life. But this is how we overlook all its poetry.

The design is eloquent, dramatic and at the same time contemplating: a nude female figure enclosed by two black swans merges with a plant and becomes a part of a general wavy configuration. It’s a fleeting moment of transformation. Lalique placed a Woman into the mythic, dangerous and mysterious realm. Everything continues here to be unfulfilled; although there is an ardent expectation. And in fact, the entire movement is only getting started.

Elegant Flamingo

Ruby, sapphire, emerald, citrine and diamond brooch by Cartier, 1940. Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s

The amusing flamingo brooch perched on one leg was commissioned by the Duke of Windsor to Cartier in 1940 for the Duchess. World War II has already begun; closure of trade routes and limitless supply of precious metals and gems led to the recycling of clients’ own jewelry.

The Duchess reused gems from a necklace and four Art Deco bracelets in order to have the exotic bird made. Its bordy, head, neck, and legs are pave-set with diamonds. The bird’s plumes are set with emeralds, rubies and sapphires. The beak is made out of a yellow citrine cabochon and a blue sapphire.

The design is stylized, geometric with a mere suggestion of movement: the hinged joint in the standing leg.

There were various guesses about the meaning of the flamingo brooch. Without doubt that was one of her favorite brooches that the Duchess wore frequently.

That fact makes me think that could have a special personal value to her and I’m not sure it was an occasional gift. Since there is no “official” version about the brooch symbolism, I share with you some my ideas.

The period the future Duke of Windsor and the Duchess started to see each other, she described like a fairytale. However, from her letters, Wallis makes it clear that she thought she was a distraction and called herself “Wallis in Wonderland.”

There is a wonderful chapter called The Queen’s Croquet Ground in the book “Alice in Wonderland” about a curious version of croquet played by the Queen. The croquet ground is ridged, the croquet balls are live hedgehogs, and the mallets are live flamingos. Alice has some trouble getting her flamingo tucked under her arm to strike the hedgehog. These oddities make it difficult for Alice to play and she attempts to escape.

Wallis liked to tell stories with her outfit and accessories and I like to think there was something more than “a jewelry inspired by nature”.

Bird of freedom

Labradorite and diamond brooch, Sterlé, 1960s. Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s

In the 1950s and 1960s, the bird was a common and recurring subject in jewelry, and the French jeweler Pierre Sterlé created his own, incredibly unique recognisable interpretation. Sterlé designed fanciful toucans, swallows, woodpeckers, parrots juxtaposing textures or shades of gold and using a range of unusual cut gems for the beaks, bodies and head, highlighting small details with diamonds and platinum. Birds with pearls, coral or colored stones bodies, on branches or in flight became his frequent motifs.

The stylized birds are often decorated with flexible feather-like chains.  Sterlé developed the “cheveux d’ange” technique in 1957, which involved weaving and braiding gold wire into short elements of dense chain to create articulated fringes that “flutter” when worn. This technique allowed him to obtain a sense of movement, playfulness and fluidity. They were imbued with vitality, expressiveness and elegance.

His birds perfectly encapsulated the vital and dynamic vibe of the time and were appreciated by prominent clients including some of the most significant jewelry collectors such as King Farouk of Egypt and Maharani of Baroda.

Amusing bird

Amethyst and Diamond Brooch, ‘Bird on a Rock’, Schlumberger for Tiffany & Co. Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s

Jean Schlumberger was known for his imaginative designs infused with humor and creativity. Traveling to Bali, Thailand, and India he absorbed colors of exotic flowers and whimsy of creatures that frequently were a source of inspiration for his work.

The Birds on a Rock is one of his iconic jewelry. It was originally designed in 1956 with the famous 128.54-carat yellow Tiffany diamond in mind.

One of the first Bird on a Rock brooches was purchased by philanthropist Bunny Mellon, his close friend and a supportive patron. Schlumberger made for her a gold bird with rubies and diamonds on the lapis lazuli rock in 1965.

This design is a quintessence of the artist’s approach to a design. With an inherent ease, he puts a crested funny diamond bird on a colored faceted gemstone. It becomes a synonym of individuality, self-expression and unconventional. In its simplicity the brooch combines preciousness with playfulness and spontaneity.

This design continues to be re-envisioned with different colored gemstones, becoming the icons of the Tiffany virtuosity and outside the box thinking. Lately the Bird design has been adapted for a pair of one-of-a-kind cufflinks worn specifically for the About Love campaign by Jay-Z.