The serpent—representative of good and evil, poison and medicine, death and rebirth—has found powerful symbolic meaning dating back to ancient times. Both revered and feared by numerous cultures and religions for their mysterious duality, the snake has long been established as a poignant motif in jewelry and the decorative arts.
In ancient Egypt, the Uraeus, or upright form of a cobra, symbolized sovereignty, royalty, deity, and divine authority while also serving as a symbol for the early Egyptian deity Wadjet. As such, pharaohs wore the Ureaus as a head ornament to both legitimize their claim to the throne and evoke Wadjet’s fierce protection. A pair of serpents may also be seen flanking the winged sun disk, a symbol known as Behdety. Much like the Uraeus, the Behdety functioned as a symbol of defense and was sometimes worn as a protective amulet during the Ptolemaic period.
During the Graeco-Roman period, the serpent’s significance was solely beneficent, primarily representing fertility, regeneration, and the eternal—drawing upon the creature’s ability the shed its skin and be “reborn.” Additionally, the serpent served as the symbol Asclepius, a Graeco-Roman deity connected to healing—an association leading to the modern emblem of medicine.
Serpents as a decorative motif, particularly in Victorian jewelry, experienced a burst of popularity during from 1837-1901. The resurgence of interest occurred after Prince Albert proposed to Queen Victoria with the very first engagement ring, shaped into the form of a snake biting its tail with an emerald-set head. Here, the serpent’s symbolic expression of eternity and everlasting love, paired with Queen Victoria’s status as a fashion icon, lead to its use as a ubiquitous motif during the period.
Art Nouveau, a brief but brilliant reaction to 19th century art, saw a fresh interest in the serpent motif with the help of Georges Fouquet and Jules Rene Lalique. Dismissing the symbolic value of serpents as secondary, Art Nouveau artists sought to emphasize the essence of nature, choosing to depict snakes for their highly fashionable curvilinear lines. According to Marie-Odile Briot, "The snake is the living abstraction of the line which Art Nouveau would see as the underlying 'biomorphic' structure of form."
In a similar vein, folk artists often employed the serpent motif, using the creature’s long slender form to decorate functional carved objects like canes and walking sticks.
As one of history’s enduring emblems, the serpent motif, with its array of symbolic interpretations and obvious allure, will undoubtedly continue to reign supreme for centuries to come.