From beloved companions to mythic beasts, animals have inspired jewelry creations for many centuries. Antique jewelry collectors find the historical meanings of these creatures fascinating, as they differ from our current perspective. Read on for a glimpse into the jeweler’s animal kingdom.
Animals have held symbolic power across different cultures, as protectors and signifiers of luck and fortune. Some of the earliest examples of art, cave paintings, feature animals as an enduring theme. The famed Lascaux Cave in France is decorated primarily with animals, including horses, birds, bears, and of course, the spectacular and highly-studied Hall of the Bulls. Although scholars still debate the potentially ritualistic meaning of the thousands of paintings that decorate the cave walls, it is undeniable that animals have held symbolic power since the Paleolithic.
Ancient Origins and Myths
Burma Ruby Intaglio Ring. 17th Century. M.S. Rau, New Orleans
Thousands of years later in ancient Rome, carved intaglios often featured animals associated with power and success. Intaglio rings were commonly worn by men. The carved Burmese ruby above features the head of an eagle, symbolic of imperial power and seen as the king above all other birds. Its original owner was likely powerful and influential, especially considering the rarity of Burmese rubies throughout history. The majority of intaglios were carved into much less desirable stones, making this ring even more exceptional.
Ram's Head Necklace by Zolotas. M.S. Rau, New Orleans.
Even today, the stories and myths from ancient Rome and Greece inspire jewelers to create fascinating jewelry with animal motifs. This stylized ram’s head comes from the Greek jewelry house Zolotas, which draws on the rich mythology surrounding the ram. Often used as a sacrificial figure, the ram represented strength and virility in the Classical age. The most famous ram in Greek mythology is the golden-fleeced ram Chrysomallos, who was sacrificed to Zeus.
Journeying into the Victorian Era: A Golden Age for Antique Animal Jewelry
For the Victorians, jewelry was both a display of wealth and a personal statement. Highly sentimental and symbolic, jewelry from the Victorian period often features gemstones with hidden meanings. The use of animal motifs in Victorian jewelry conveys important personal values of the era, including fidelity and eternal love.
Victorian Gold and Diamond Snake Bangle. Late 19th Century. M.S. Rau, New Orleans.
One of the most popular animal motifs popularized by Queen Victoria was the snake. Her engagement ring took the form of a gold coiled serpent, accented with an emerald. As the period’s most prominent style icon, the Queen’s engagement ring inspired thousands to covet snake-themed jewelry. Though snake symbolism today might conjure ideas of jealousy and evil, for the Victorians, snakes represented love and eternity. A snake bracelet is shown in many Classical depictions of Aphrodite, goddess of love, which also played a role in the era’s fascination with serpents.
Demantoid Garnet and Diamond Lizard Brooch. Circa 1900. M.S. Rau, New Orleans.
More than slithering snakes alone, the Victorians were fascinated by reptiles of all sorts, including lizards and salamanders. The lizard brooch above features verdant demantoid garnets and glistening red eyes. Lizards held connotations of good fortune, while salamanders represented rebirth. The delicately curved tail and feet of this lizard brooch demonstrate the fine craftsmanship associated with Victorian-era jewelry.
Wisdom and Mystery: Exploring the Symbolic Power of Winged Animals
From butterflies to birds, the symbolic power of winged animals extends from centuries of animal fine art into the realm of jewelry.
Butterfly Portrait Brooch. Circa 1880. M.S. Rau, New Orleans.
This classic Victorian brooch combines the butterfly motif, viewed as a symbol of the eternal soul, with the period’s emphasis on sentimentality. When you press down on the butterfly’s body, both wings flip up to reveal hidden compartments containing portraits. The ingeniously crafted creation allowed the wearer to keep photos of their loved ones both close and intimately concealed. Considering the longstanding symbolism of the butterfly as parallel to the soul, the beautiful brooch takes on an even deeper meaning.
Tiffany & Co. Citrine Bird on a Rock Brooch by Jean Schlumberger. M.S. Rau, New Orleans
Of course, not every creature needs to be as purely virtuous as the butterfly; in the case of this cockatoo, animal jewelry can be humorous and fun. The Bird on a Rock was the ultimate creation of Jean Schlumberger, whose work with Tiffany & Co. propelled the brand into a new era of creativity and innovation. Schlumberger was known for his whimsical designs, but his choice to pair a monumental gemstone with a playfully perched cockatoo has become his most widely known creation. In this case, the cockatoo represents the artist’s playful spirit, which extends to the wearer of this quirky and amusing piece.
The Timeless Appeal of Antique Animal Jewelry
Whether your tastes lean towards the Victorian era or more ancient creations, animal jewelry can be found in every possible form. From brooches to rings and more, animal motifs found timeless appeal in each antique jewelry era, offering multitudinous options for a modern collector.
Cartier Sapphire and Pearl Poodle Brooch. Circa 1950. M.S. Rau, New Orleans
Many animal jewelry enthusiasts seek out pieces with personal meaning, like this Cartier poodle brooch — perfect for anyone who considers themselves a dog person. With a movable head and ears that flap, the brooch is full of personality and charm. Animal jewelry can often be found in the form of a beloved pet, whether a parrot brooch, frog earrings or cat pendant.
Diamond Panthère Ring by Cartier. M.S. Rau, New Orleans (Sold).
For many, specific animals are tied to specific makers, with the Tiffany & Co. Bird on a Rock, Cartier Panther and Bulgari Snake serving as prominent examples of symbols inseparable from their brand. These iconic designs from each jewelry house are classic and versatile, with both antique and contemporary versions to collect.
Preserving the Beauty: Caring for and Displaying Antique Animal Jewelry
In order to care for your antique animal jewelry, it’s important to know the metals and gemstones used, as each may have different care requirements. In general, using warm water and soap on a toothbrush can remove dirt and debris from your jewelry pieces. If you’re unsure what gemstones have been included, it’s best to bring your jewelry to a jeweler who can identify them before using any aggressive cleaning solutions, as certain gemstones may react poorly.
David Webb White Enamel, Pavé Diamond and Emerald Horse Brooch. M.S. Rau, New Orleans.
If your antique jewelry is crafted of delicate materials like this enamel horse brooch by David Webb, the use of cleaning solutions can cause damage. Always err on the side of caution when caring for antique jewelry. Most jewelry items can be displayed proudly when not worn, however, some gemstones and materials are susceptible to damage from sunlight and must be kept away from windows.
Showing off your love for the animal kingdom doesn’t have to end at jewelry. Consider adding furniture with animal carvings to your home, or a lovely objet d’art with an animal motif.