Indulge me with an experiment: take a quick look around you, wherever you are, and count off the number of metal objects you see. Feel free to stop when you’ve run out of fingers. Now repeat that with stone objects. The result, invariably, is that metal far outweighs stone. It’s a fact of human progress: in prehistory, dating back millennia, periods are named after the metals copper, bronze and iron because they leapfrogged our collective development as a species so much.
There is, however, one noble metal that goes back furthest and which has endured longer than almost anything else when it comes to preciousness. Lustrously yellow and desirable, in stark contrast to the mucky brown earth that it’s uncovered from, gold has been in archaeological finds as ancient as 6,500 years old as objects of adornment, rank and status. It is hoarded by national reserves, and used to be both the guarantee and basis of currency as we know it, hence the term ‘gold standard’. And even today, the precious metal is traded as a commodity that, though it may shiver and fluctuate, never truly depreciates.
Though advances in technology have helped things along, the principles of working with gold to create jewellery remain roughly the same. Pure gold, too soft and malleable to be worn as jewellery, is mixed with other metals to obtain 18-carat alloys. It is then heated and hammered or chiselled into the desired shapes and forms. The work, in the past, was essentially muscle-powered. Modern tools make it less back-breaking, but it is at its core still a physical process.
But there’s something in the air. Jewellery houses are increasingly putting a renewed emphasis on the unsung art of goldsmithing. At the moment, the leader of the pack looks to be Bulgari, which has unveiled a brand new collection of fine jewellery dubbed Cabochon. The rings and pendant necklaces that the line launched with look deceptively simple: ovoid shapes, sliced with two neat notches. It’s actually an amusing twist on a piece of the brand’s history. Back in the 1950s, sharp-edged faceted gemstones were de rigueur for jewellers. The Roman brand broke with tradition by setting its high jewellery creations with round cabochon-cut gemstones to highlight the character of coloured gemstones, creating a signature for itself.
So, from a cut of stone and back now to gold. The Cabochon rings and necklaces from Bulgari are offered in yellow or rose gold with surfaces polished to a brilliant finish. The rounded shapes are meant to evoke two cabochons of molten gold melting into each other, with a geometric purity not unlike a Constantin Brâncuși sculpture.
It’s a modern approach to finessing the precious metal; and a perspective you’ll also find at the New York brand Tiffany & Co. Its newly debuted collections have all centred on sculpting gold. There’s the Lock, with oval shapes abstracted from archival padlocks; Knot, with a twisted and tied motif; HardWear, a modern interpretation of industrial gauge links; and most recently Forge, a line of sterling silver open-link chains. The brand has even added Full Heart variants to its sweet Return to Tiffany collection, with the famous heart medallions plumped up through a special casting technique for three-dimensional volume.
At Chanel, meanwhile, solid gold is used to evoke the quilted textures of lambskin. The Coco Crush collection features precise incisions that evoke the diamond quilting found on the house’s handbags, with subtly curved edges that soften the look. This year, the house is introducing a new range of mini bracelets—thinner and more supple than before—that are outfitted with a newly developed clasp style, dubbed Coco Twist, that is virtually seamless and invisible to the eye.
That’s not to say that a smooth and shiny look is the only mode. At the Milanese brand Buccellati, craft from the past rules the day. It has carved out a niche for itself creating jewellery using techniques as old as the Renaissance. Every piece is carved, engraved, filed and shaped by hand to create a smorgasbord of textures and finishes. In the Macri range, for example, gold is so finely engraved that its surface looks like satin grosgrain; and the Opera collection’s four-pointed flower motifs are carved with curved volumes that resemble Renaissance architecture.
The style isn’t strictly limited to jewellery too. At the latest edition of the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève, nicknamed the Oscars of watchmaking, the top prize in the ladies’ watch category went to a golden creation from Piaget that more than blurs the lines between jewellery and a timekeeping tool. The Hidden Treasures cuff watch references a high point of the Swiss brand’s creativity in the 1960s and ’70s, tapping into the more organic and free-form design tastes of the decade. It has an oval dial that looks as if it’s been carved free from its richly textured gold cuff bracelet—the latter being where the work and focus is really at. Each cuff is hand-engraved with a burin, a line at a time, to create the brand’s lustrous Palace Decor pattern that’s reminiscent of raw silk. The entirely handcrafted nature of these pieces means that no two gold bracelets have the same pattern. It’s a level of handwork that the brand dubs its métiers d’or (gold professions), and which elevates the craft of goldsmithing into veritable art.
The Jan/Feb ‘Intentions’ issue of Vogue Singapore is available for sale online and in-store from 11 January 2024.