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Nature is drawing jewellery-makers towards the timelessness of earthy materials like wood

Sarah Royce-Greensill
July 4, 2024
8 min

When architect Sarah Emilie Müllertz came across mpingo wood, also known as African blackwood, as a potential sustainable building material, she sensed its aesthetic appeal immediately. “I was drawn to the hardness of mpingo as well as its density and quality – it’s one of the finest (woods) in the world,” says the Danish designer. “It’s the hardest living object on earth, and I became fascinated by its composition and its deep black colour.” Mpingo was suitable not only for what we live inside, but, as Müllertz realised, what we wear; soon, she had repurposed offcuts of the wood for Kinraden, her sustainable jewellery brand.

These leftovers – from wood sourced from an FSC-certified Tanzanian forest, originally destined for oboes and clarinets – feature in Kinraden’s minimalistic collections. Sometimes it is faceted like a diamond, emitting an intriguing matte-black lustre; elsewhere, stripes of mpingo alternate with recycled gold using a technique inspired by Japanese joinery. “The wood is so hard that it quickly dulls saws and machinery,” explains Müllertz. Instead, her craftspeople use CNC lasers to form the precise, sculptural shapes her designs require.

© Kinraden

As technical as this process is, it’s actually a contemporary reinterpretation of one of the very earliest materials used as adornment. Ancient Egyptians and Romans wore carved wooden amulets as talismanic charms. In the fifteenth century, wooden beads were strung into rosaries; by the late 1800s, carved wood was used in mourning jewellery as an alternative to jet (itself a form of fossilised wood). Today, wooden jewellery primarily calls to mind the bohemian glamour of the 1960s and 1970s: Diana Vreeland in her supersized wood and horn cuffs; Talitha Getty in an embroidered kaftan, wrists stacked with wooden bangles.

In the 1970s, houses such as Cartier and Chaumet juxtaposed glossy hardwood with textured gold in oversized, artistic jewellery that was the antithesis of conservative post-war platinum-and-diamond designs. The former’s snakewood Touch Wood pendants were strung onto black cord, an aesthetic the house revisited in 2021 with its Berlingots range. Van Cleef & Arpels’ Magic Alhambra range featured the distinctive quatrefoil motif as carved from letterwood, another name for snakewood, an Amazonian hardwood from the Moraceae or fig family. The house still produces limited-edition Vintage Alhambra pieces inspired by this era, using the romantic term Bois d’Amourette for the dense, reddish-tinged, flecked wood, now one of the world’s most expensive varieties.

The free-spirited nature of 1970s jewellery continues to exert an influence over today’s designs, from Marie Lichtenberg’s colourful cord Knock On Wood necklace, to Rosa de la Cruz’s curvaceous, 18kt gold-studded ebony wood bangles. Brazilian brand Sauer’s wooden toadstools and magic beans are a playful nod to the era of psychedelia, while Dior Fine Jewellery reimagines a seventies-style chunky gold chain with the house’s monogram picked out in ebony, walnut, maple and, for added shine, diamonds.

© Marie Lichtenberg

The era also inspired Lebanese designer Joelle Kharrat, who in 2022 launched her Totem collection of architectural pendants, each comprising six modules of gold, mother-of-pearl and ebony, which slot together in an almost-endless array of combinations. “I’ve always been intrigued by the social changes brought by the 70s – when women (really) started to express their individuality through fashion and jewellery,” says Kharrat, who was inspired by the interlocking sculptures of Lebanese artist Saloua Raouda Choucair in her designs. “My pendants talk to the women who want to make a statement with their jewellery.” She incorporated wood in order to “give the pendant a more natural feeling. Once polished, it’s soft and enjoyable to touch.”

© Boucheron

Victoria Lampley, founder of jewellery consultancy The Stax, believes that the sculptural simplicity of Kharrat’s Totems are what attracts her clients. “People are drawn to sculptural jewellery with an abstract form. It’s timeless yet somehow retro.” The ebony elements, Lampley says, appeal to our intrinsic affinity with natural materials. “I think people are increasingly drawn to the beauty of nature. To wear something so raw and beautiful feels like a gift. Wood really beckons the ‘quiet luxury’ consumer, as it can feel understated and elegant, or dressed up and opulent depending on how it’s styled.”

© Joelle Kharrat

Long before that phrase was a trend, German jeweller Hemmerle was exploring the creative harmony between traditionally humble natural materials and traditionally precious gemstones. The house began crafting jewellery from wood back in 1995; fourth-generation family member Christian Hemmerle, who now runs the house alongside his wife Yasmin, says he is constantly “treasure hunting” for wood with nuances of colour and graining, sourcing it just as judiciously as he does the gemstones set alongside it. There is “no material hierarchy”, he says; each substance is prized for its unique aesthetic merits.

“We are always exploring working with different woods: from amaranth that changes colour with oxidisation, to olive wood which retains an incredible smell, and pock wood with its unusual spots,” says Hemmerle.

He lists the qualities of at least nine different varieties, from the “painterly” contrasts within petrified peanut wood to the “spiderwebbing” within Ziricote from Central America and Mexico, and the striking bright-orange colour of freshly cut Padauk from tropical West Africa. “We pair many of our rare woods with anodised aluminium, bronze or patinated copper, to achieve a tonality of colours that melt into one another with subtlety.”

Hemmerle’s most recognisable wooden creation is its deceptively simple, open-ended Harmony bangle, a design first conceived in gold in 1991. Engineered with an invisible hinge, each one-of-a-kind bangle is hand-carved from a block of wood which might reveal a completely different pattern of markings on the inside. Such situations require creative agility, but the crafting process bears no such flexibility.

© Hemmerle

“The malleability of wood is both a positive attribute as well as a challenge. There is no room for error,” says Hemmerle. If a craftsperson makes a mistake, they need to start again from scratch. The result of such conscientious sculpting is a jewel with tremendous tactility and warmth. “I wear my Harmony bangle every day. I call it my second skin,” says Yasmin Hemmerle, whose own bangle is crafted from olive wood and capped with brown diamonds. As a “superstitious” Egyptian, she says, the bangle also serves a talismanic purpose: a constant means to knock on wood.

Hemmerle is not alone in re-evaluating the concept of preciousness in jewellery. Claire Choisne, creative director of Boucheron, experiments with novel materials to create unique pieces whose value lies in their artistry and craftsmanship just as much as their carat weight. The house’s 2022 Ailleurs High Jewellery collection featured an extraordinary brooch carved from petal-thin layers of Santos rosewood to resemble a flower on the cusp of decay, its organic, delicate petals set with diamonds. In Brazil, Silvia Furmanovich draws on the almost-extinct marquetry skills of master craftsmen in the state of Acre to create artistic depictions of flora and fauna from veneers of indigenous salvaged wood, as found in myriad natural hues. The preciousness of her earrings, rings, pendants and brooches arises from these one-of-a-kind marquetry creations just as much as the diamonds and gemstones that complement them.

© Silvia Furmanovich

American jewellery house Lugano Diamonds sets rare coloured diamonds within geometric surrounds of matte black ebony, sourced from the flatlands west of Trincomalee, Sri Lanka. “It stands out as the finest option,” says CEO and co-founder Moti Ferder, whose family background in the rough-diamond trade affords the house access to exceptional stones. The ebony is carved and polished to fit seamlessly around each individual gemstone. “Incorporating wood introduces warmth and texture to the hardness of the diamonds. It’s a beautiful balance between nature's raw elegance and fine craftsmanship,” he adds.

London-based Brazilian jeweller Fernando Jorge also juxtaposes earthiness and glamour in his Surround collection, in which conker-brown discs of petrified wood are topped with brilliant-cut diamonds. “I was looking for material combinations that would express my view of so-called precious materials, such as gold and diamonds, as a part of nature,” he says. “I chose to surround the diamonds with natural materials that were previously alive, part of the surface of the Earth, such as seeds and wood.” He adds that the Indonesian variety of petrified wood he uses is associated with volcanic eruptions that happened up to 20 million years ago – all of which serves to make the material yet more fascinating.

© Fernando Jorge

The backstory is also the magic ingredient in Hannah Martin’s carved ebony and gold creations, part of her New Act of Rebellion collection. “It’s a beautiful story of the fates aligning,” says the London-based jeweller, whose anarchic designs have always pulsated with a beat inspired by the intoxicating thrill of live music. When she discovered a craftsman whose supply of ebony had been handed down to him by a renowned maker of musical instruments, the deal was sealed. “This ebony was destined for musical instruments, but found its way into jewellery,” she says of her intricately-engineered ebony carabiners which are finished with polished gold in dramatic, punkish hoop earrings and sculptural pendants.

From New Age hippies to punk rockers to fans of a quiet luxury aesthetic, the appeal of wood in jewellery transcends styles and eras. As designers continue to celebrate the material’s versatility, tactility and talismanic appeal, a whole new generation of jewellery lovers are adorning themselves with this most humble of earth’s materials.