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Jewelry: A Cabinet of Curiosities

Wendy Kaur

Parisian Lydia Courteille’s career as a jewelry designer began with the purchase of a temperamental antique watch that would frequently stop, requiring her to return repeatedly to the dealer to have it repaired. On these visits, she often strolled among the shop’s displays of antique jewelry, running her fingers lightly over various items that caught her interest. Although the watch proved to be a loss in the end, Courteille’s excursions imbued her with an abiding fascination of vintage gemstones and their unique, sometimes eccentric settings.

Considered one of the top Parisian experts in this specialized field for the past quarter-century, Courteille is drawn to the concept of le cabinet de curiosités, the personal collection rooms maintained by European royalty and aristocrats during the 16th and 17th centuries. These Wunderkammern, or "wonder rooms," were antecedents of the modern museum, displaying a wide variety of natural and man-made objects ranging from dried insects, fossils, and skeletons to antiquities, works of art, and anything unusual accumulated in the course of the owner’s travels. These cabinets—small, secluded spaces, even in the largest homes—remained strictly private: Only a few honored guests would be invited to inspect their contents.

Courteille’s gallery is similarly hidden, on the quieter reaches of the rue Saint-Honoré, and only a select few customers—collectors and connoisseurs primarily—have perused its sprawling displays of one-off pieces that combine antique stones and exotic motifs. There, floral patterns crop up among Gothic skull rings, dragon collars, serpent-wreathed wristlets, and sundry other ornaments decorated with monkeys wearing devilish grins. "I wanted a secluded, elegant place where a collector could gather objects and artifacts from different origins," explains Courteille, a certified gemologist. "Not all of them [are] necessarily precious, but, most certainly, all of them [are] rare."

Although quite a few of the ancient gems and relics that Courteille finds date from the 16th to the 18th centuries, some, she says, are "anonymous, their history long gone." She travels the world in search of "lost" stones, and she has a particular fondness for unusual inclusions, making art out of imperfections. She also has a preference for iridescent stones—opals, moonstones, and tourmalines (particularly the Paraíba)—and she often mixes coral, turquoise, and jade with precious gems. Antique settings that are either damaged or discarded are transformed in her workshop: Courteille’s designs play not only with visual elements such as size and color, but also with historic patterns, allusions, codes, and symbols.

"I still wish to respect the ancient elements I use," she emphasizes. "I try to refer to their historical context. But I like to add unexpected details to the setting—a setting which is there not to overwhelm the original piece, but to add to its own inherent beauty and appeal in an unusual, novel way."

For her recent men’s collection, inspired by memento mori, Courteille chose black diamonds as the central gem because of their high density and masculine appeal. "I felt like one of the blacksmiths in Francois Boucher’s Les Forges de Vulcain," she confesses with amusement. The intaglios in Courteille’s pieces recall many of the ornate and ominous elements found in the 1757 painting, while the use of burnished white diamonds and blackened gold enhances the effect of great age. Among the collection’s highlights are the armorlike Excalibur bracelet, the Templar’s Shield ring, and a set of stylized coffin cuff links fastened with Templar crosses. The esoteric air, expressive edge, and allegorical echoes of these latest additions to Courteille’s cabinet will satisfy even the most curious of visitors.

Lydia Courteille, www.lydiacourteille.com

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