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Antenna: Back to the baroque

In her regular column in which she appraises remarkable objects, Meredith Etherington-Smith picks out a group of rare and startlingly contemporary 18th-century survivors which feature in our Important Jewels  sale in London on 13 June

I have always loved 17th- and 18th-century baroque jewels. Their soft stones, set into exuberant ribbon-inspired designs, appear to strike a chord with contemporary fashion, which is becoming more elaborate and, dare I say it, prettier through its emphasis on embroidery. 

Visitors to the recent view for the Magnificent Jewels  sale in Geneva evidently shared my excitement over these three pieces from a vanished age, where they were being presented on tour before being offered in London on 13 June. After admiring vitrines full of top-quality monochrome modern gems and D-coloured diamonds, they were visibly charmed by this group of elaborate 18th-century Portuguese jewels in leather fitted cases. After the cool clarity of flawless diamonds, these softly coloured pieces provided an unexpected and pleasant diversion.

A late 18th-century Portuguese quartz and topaz ring. The navette-shaped quartz, within a double colourless topaz border, raised on a reeded double hoop, foiled backed in silver and gold, circa 1770. Estimate £3,000-4,000. This lot is offered in Important Jewels on 13 June at Christie’s London

A late 18th-century Portuguese quartz and topaz ring. The navette-shaped quartz, within a double colourless topaz border, raised on a reeded double hoop, foiled backed in silver and gold, circa 1770. Estimate: £3,000-4,000. This lot is offered in Important Jewels on 13 June at Christie’s London

‘These jewels have turned out to be among the most popular items from our London sale for a variety of reasons,’ explains Keith Penton, Head of Department for Jewellery in London. ‘It’s chiefly because they all have the charm and the soft appearance of foil-backed stones of the period, which were used to emphasise the colour and brilliance of the stones. Original tooled leather cases from this period are scarce and put these jewels into quite a different league for collectors.’ 

When I saw them, I immediately thought of devoted followers of fashion who might be on the lookout for colourful, elaborate jewels that echo the baroque couture embroidered dresses of Dolce & Gabbana, which are currently so sought after by private clients across the world. In their day, these jewels were not regarded as cheaper substitutes for more precious gem-set jewels, but as highly fashionable pieces to be worn by aristocrats and the wealthy merchant classes.

‘The navette-shaped outline of the Portuguese ring [above], which is so typical of the last quarter of the 18th century, is exceptional,’ Keith Penton tells me. ‘Both private and professional clients surrounded this elegant ring and its beautiful fitted case, which is a rare survivor from 250 years ago. Most were astounded to hear that the estimate was a modest £3,000-4,000, especially when they had been looking through the highlights of the Geneva sale, where estimates are routinely in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions.’

A late 18th-century Portuguese topaz demi-parure. The necklace composed of a series of stylised bud-shaped panels, each set to the centre with a pear-shaped topaz within a similarly-set vari-cut border to the central bow motif, suspending a detachable pendant with similarly-set flowerhead cluster and a bow motif panel, foil-backed in silver, together with a pair of ear pendants en suite, circa

A late 18th-century Portuguese topaz demi-parure. The necklace composed of a series of stylised bud-shaped panels, each set to the centre with a pear-shaped topaz within a similarly-set vari-cut border to the central bow motif, suspending a detachable pendant with similarly-set flowerhead cluster and a bow motif panel, foil-backed in silver, together with a pair of ear pendants en suite, circa 1770. Estimate: £12,000-15,000. This lot is offered in Important Jewels on 13 June at Christie’s London

The two other pieces in this group are also highly desirable and, one might also say, appealing to contemporary tastes. The colourless topaz demi-parure (above) which, Keith Penton tells me, is typically Portuguese, still has the looped terminals for a ribbon fastening. The ear pendants, meanwhile, even retain their original hinged fittings. You could wear this suite with a plain black dress to show off their elaborate design, and be confident of making quite an entrance at a cocktail party.

A group of late-18th-century Portuguese topaz jewellery. Comprising a bodice ornament and ear pendants of girandole design, a tiara, three hair combs and a crescent-shaped hair pin (not illustrated), each modelled as a scrolling ribbon with floral and foliate motifs entirely set with vari-cut topaz, foil-backed in silver, circa 1770. Estimate £15,000-20,000. This lot is offered

A group of late-18th-century Portuguese topaz jewellery. Comprising a bodice ornament and ear pendants of girandole design, a tiara, three hair combs and a crescent-shaped hair pin (not illustrated), each modelled as a scrolling ribbon with floral and foliate motifs entirely set with vari-cut topaz, foil-backed in silver, circa 1770. Estimate: £15,000-20,000. This lot is offered in Important Jewels on 13 June at Christie’s London

The group of topaz jewellery above consists of a typical girandole bodice ornament, in original condition; a near matching pair of ear pendants; three hair combs in their own fitted case; and a tiara. The glowing apricot colour obtained by foiling the back of the principal jewels was as much prized in the 18th century as it will be now; I am quite sure that these three lovely jewels created almost 250 years ago will inspire similarly elaborate jewellery designs in the future.