These days, streetwear brands are more often flaunted as status symbols than cult jewelry pieces like the now-nostalgic Return to Tiffany heart, but that doesn’t mean that jewelry has lost its relevance. Now, colorful turquoise and lapis charms, opal earrings, and gem-encrusted necklaces are bringing semiprecious stones into the spotlight. Over the past decade, a wave of independent fine jewelry designers have forced us to reconsider our definition of luxury. By centering colorful semiprecious stones, designers create pieces that focus on aesthetic expression rather than the price of fine jewels.
Technically, there are only four types of precious stones: diamonds, rubies, blue sapphires, and emeralds. Any other stone, no matter how valuable, is considered semiprecious. For as long as humans have worn jewelry, they have used these semiprecious stones for ornamentation. Their origins reach back to ancient China, with archeologists’ discovery of jade beads in the country’s prehistoric sites. The green and white stone holds a special cultural meaning in China, but has come to be used in jewelry around the world for millennia. Turquoise is also steeped in tradition, as its use in Indigenous American jewelry has cultural significance, along with dark-blue lapis, which has been used to create art objects like Tutankhamun’s funeral mask and in Vermeer’s paintings.
Among the various semiprecious jewels, pearls in particular have a place in the contemporary fine jewelry industry. The pearl was a symbol of wealth and power in ancient China and Rome, and it has retained that status throughout the ages. Over 250 pearls were sewn to Elizabeth II’s coronation crown, and they’ve been a hallmark of the house of Chanel since Coco Chanel herself presented her first tweed suit. Now, with imitations and the real-deal, pearls are a staple everywhere from colleges to country clubs.
Besides these timeless stones, other semiprecious jewels that have been seen less often in recent decades are experiencing a rise in popularity. Materials like opal, moonstone, and labradorite take on some, but not all, of the light-reflecting qualities of traditional gemstones, but still have their own unique appearances. Some of these stones change color in the light or contain beautiful imperfections, which add to their individual character. With these semiprecious materials, fine jewelry pieces now experiment with new shapes and original uses of color.
The abundance of semiprecious stones has also translated into the commercial success of widely available crystals like quartz, which is believed to have spiritual properties. Though they were common in ancient times, healing crystals were considered a fringe practice until relatively recently. Now, celebrities like Bella Hadid keep crystals on hand for their spiritual benefits. Available at all different price points and with uses spanning from jewelry to beauty and wellness, crystals and other semiprecious stones tap into a sense of natural beauty that goes beyond their aesthetic value.
At the helm of the semiprecious stone trend are designers Irene Neuwirth and Wing Yau of Irene Neuwirth Jewelry and Wwake, respectively, who have popularized opals and other gemstones. Though the two designers have different styles—Neuwirth likes big, boulder cut stones while Yau gravitates towards small, dainty ones—both treat their materials like precious jewels.
In Wwake’s designs, an opal stone takes center stage, even if it is usually offset by more expensive materials, like gold or diamonds. Her pieces often feature tiny, round opals that sit like precious, small diamonds. Neuwirth, on the other hand, sets her semiprecious stones with un-manufactured gem cuts previously reserved for jewels. In treating opals like these rarer stones, the two designers center their work on each gem’s unique properties. While precious materials often refract and reflect light beams, opals and other semiprecious materials appear to almost absorb and emanate softer light.
The designers celebrate the seemingly imperfect aspects of their materials. Yau, who only sources sustainable opals, said she designs jewelry based on the stones coming in from mines rather than discarding material that does not conform to an initial vision. Similarly, Neuwirth works with non-uniform stones. Large pieces of turquoise may have dark ripples, and each boulder cut opal is marked by its own unique bright flecks. Embracing these qualities, both designers emphasize the source materials’ inherent aesthetic value.
Between their different aesthetics and massive success, it would be easy to see the designers as two separate entities serving different consumers needs and wants. In reality, however, the two are a part of the same wave of independent designers that have redefined the look and meaning of luxury in the fine jewelry and high fashion worlds.
Recent shifts in popular visual culture have allowed smaller independent designers like Neuwirth and Yau to disrupt the jewelry industry on a relatively large scale. The rise of social media has created a desire for unique, unexpected jewelry. Wwake pieces have been spotted on A-listers like Rihanna, Emma Watson, Jennifer Lawrence, and Cate Blanchett, while Neuwirth has accessorized the likes of Scarlett Johansson, Julia Roberts, and Reese Witherspoon.
The designers’ success among celebrities was also mirrored by a shift in runway accessorizing that would endure for several seasons. For Fall/Winter 2016, Proenza Schouler made earrings out of colorful rough cut stones, and Dries Van Noten presented several pieces of semiprecious stone-adorned accessories in various cuts. Givenchy’s series of oversize lacquer and geode necklaces was one of the highlights of the fashion house’s Spring/Summer 2017 collection.
For the past three seasons, designers have incorporated new and unexpected source material into their jewelry designs. For Fall/Winter 2020, Anna Sui and Christian Siriano presented chunky leather chokers, and Stella McCartney made earrings with bright string. On Spring/Summer 2020’s runways, Simone Rocha and Oscar de la Renta‘s featured raffia necklaces and earrings. Miu Miu models rocked wooden brooches, and Prada presented oversized seashell jewelry. These inventive approaches to accessorizing reflect the organic nature that designing with semiprecious stones promotes. This year, Victoire de Castellane’s Dior et Moi jewelry collection was defined by jewel-cut semiprecious opals surrounded by diamonds. Castellane’s work was widely praised for its spectacular and unique colors.
The rise and effect of the semiprecious stone trend reflects the increasing power of independent designers and changes in our conceptions of what luxury truly means. As social media spurs our image sharing, we place more and more value on the uniqueness and innovation of our jewelry, and less on the explicit material wealth it represents.
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createdAt:Mon, 15 Jun 2020 15:35:27 +0000