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Our obsession with shells isn’t new. Botticelli deemed the scallop shell a form fit to carry a goddess way back in the 1480s. For 17th-century Dutch painters, they represented the transience of life and were placed alongside skulls and fruit in still life paintings. The architect Frank Lloyd Wright used shells as the structural inspiration for New York’s Guggenheim in the 1950s.
This season, shells have captured the imaginations of fine jewellery designers, who are casting back through art history for their inspiration. For her surreal shell earrings — which show a rose gold man climbing into the mouth of the left earring and emerging from the mouth of the right — Bibi van der Velden looked to her Dutch compatriot, the 16th-century painter Hieronymus Bosch. “The tiny small creatures and humans featured in his iconic Garden of Earthly Delights haunted me,” she says. “The painting shows all manners of human desire, fantasy and insanity mixed with incredible mermaid and merman creatures. My designs echo these fantasy humans with fish tails and shells.”
French designer Yvonne Léon’s yellow gold Coquillage bracelet puts a vintage spin on the trend by using a scallop shell. With a twisted gold band and rows of glitzy white diamonds, Leon offers a nod to the Art Deco era’s obsession with scallop-edged designs.
Inspired by the tribes that live along the Omo Valley in south-west Ethiopia, Brazilian duo Aron and Hirsch became interested in the practice of fabricating clothing and adornments with natural materials for their shell heavy Ethiopian collection. Their designs still have a heavy dose of glamour, but unlike most fine jewellers, they use real shells alongside precious gems, giving their pieces a beachier vibe.
For her Seashells collection, LA-based designer Jacquie Aichie wasn’t interested in using classic shell shapes but in the strange imprints left by their preserved remains — ammonite fossils. “The spiral shape just takes me into a trance each time,” she says of her pavé and ammonite fossil hoops. “They represent rebirth and evolution, something I try to practice daily.”
Jeweller Sophie Buhai, who also works from LA, was drawn to the shell through the sensual black-and-white photography of 20th-century California-based photographer Edward Weston, and the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe. “I prefer jewellery that is not ornate or overly ‘pretty’,” says Buhai. “I think that is what those artists did with the shell, distil it to its simplest form, making it sculptural, rather then decorative.”
Indeed, O’Keeffe was long interested in the strange and sculptural beauty of animal bones, but it was only later in her life that she concentrated her painter’s gaze on the shell. “Each shell was a beautiful world in itself,” the artist once said. “I have always enjoyed painting them — and even now, living in the dessert, the sea comes back to me when I hold one to my ear.”
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