Minimalism is out, pure opulence is in – from Alighieri to Joanna Burke and Georgia Kemball, a new wave of jewellery designers are putting a small, gilded lining on a world that, right now, seems grey and bleak
Near the beginning of Sofia Coppola’s 2006 period drama Marie Antoinette, the film’s titular dauphine enters the halls of Versailles for the very first time. With sheepish delight and genuine wonder, she absorbs the opulence of her new private quarters: the walls garlanded in floral damask, the toilette draped in powder blue brocade, the two crystal chandeliers framing her canopy bed, which is wreathed in golden roses, birds, cherubs. Everything is gilded.
Versailles’ lush interiors represent an early iteration of 18th-century Rococo, an artistic movement characterised, primarily, by excess. French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau perhaps verbalises its ethos best: “You must either do away with ornament – or make ornament the essence. It’s not something you add. It’s not icing on a cake. It’s everything – or it’s nothing.” This philosophy takes form in the era’s painting through themes of soft hedonism: pastel scenes of Roman mythology and courtly romance shot through with eroticism. In fashion, through bows, ribbons, ruffles, blown-out silhouettes. And, of course, across architecture: the embrace of asymmetry and imperfection, an abundance of undulating curves and twists, dioramas of gilded flowers, animals, angels.
It seems that for S/S20, jewellery designers are taking a gilt page from Watteau and company’s book, moving away from Bauhaus-inspired austerity (think Sophie Buhai tubular silver hoops) and on to extravagant statement pieces à la Joanne Burke. Minimalism is out; pure opulence is in.
And it makes sense considering this season’s fascination with the French courtesan look. Vivienne Westwood’s iconic 90s corsets were reissued just in time for Spring. At Loewe, Jonathan Anderson showcased dresses that could only be described as aristocratic, with the showpiece: a modern pannier dress in macaron purple. Regal square necklines continued their reign at Khaite and Instagram-favourite label Orseund Iris. The corseted decadence of Brock Collection and Simone Rocha’s perennial pastel ruffles. How else would one ornament a Cecilie Bahnsen lace confection than with a golden cupid, the likes of which could have been plucked from the very mouldings of Marie Antoinette’s bedchamber?
The creations of Joanne Burke, Georgia Kemball, and Alighieri – all labels that have cropped up and dominated the fashion landscape in the last few seasons – have come to represent a new breed of jewellery designer, whose intricate and mythical wax-cast gold pieces wouldn’t look out of place in the ornate interiors of an 18th-century chateau or castello.
Like the Rococo goldsmiths who crafted elaborate gold-leafed interiors for the era’s aristocracy, London-based jeweller Georgia Kemball weaves mythical narratives into her work. The central motif of her Spring/Summer 2020 collection: a gold-cast cupid. Drawn from the annals of Roman antiquity – or from its airy outpost on the muralled ceilings of Venice’s Church of Santi Giovanni. The mischievous winged son of Venus hangs from Kemball’s delicate hoops, fine rope-chain necklaces and, in a more modern context, Judy Blame-leaning safety pins. Elsewhere, miniature orgies – perhaps a nod to the discrete bacchanalias of Rococo painting – find abstracted lovers entangled across a ring or an earring.
Rome-based artisan Joanne Burke considers the concept of sovereignty essential to her craft: “I absolutely imagine that I’m making all of this for kings and queens.” Each of her pieces exudes an elemental nobility, as if regalia of ancient royalty. Hand-sculpted earrings twist and turn in on themselves like the curved and counter-curved accents used to decorate 18th-century doorways, wood panels, and furniture. The cockles, conches, and snail shells that appear across bracelets and rings bring to mind Rococo’s origins in rocaille – a method of decoration using carved seashells and pebbles. The jeweller’s collaboration with French designer Lemaire saw Burke cast elongated bronze drop earrings from wax sculptures of dried flowers. When worn, the earrings cascade across the wearer’s shoulders like acanthus leaves that stream from the crown of a Corinthian-inspired column.
This season, London-based label Alighieri, famous for its hammered coin necklaces, pieces that seem millenia-old, eschewed some of its Etruscan ruggedness for a softer approach. Sinuous curves drip from ears, dance around wrists. Even resolute minimalist Sophie Buhai seemed to embrace Spring’s air, swapping pristine tubular jewels for S-curves and spirals.
Opulence reigns supreme at the moment, but, unlike Rococo’s raison-d’être, the cultural mood is not about frivolous shows of extravagance and privilege. The intricate and elaborate nature of this season’s jewellery springs from a desire to bring meaning to the world around us: jewellery as narrative or symbol. To AnOther, Joanne Burke puts this concept simply and sincerely: “I guess I have a lot of complex feelings about navigating this super surreal time we’re living in. I’m just processing it all through my work.” At the very least, these ornamental accessories are a small, gilded lining on a world that, right now, seems grey and bleak.