NEFERTITI WAS A GREAT QUEEN. SHE HAD IT ALL. Power, looks and unimaginable wealth. Her name meant ‘a beautiful woman has come’ and she ruled alongside her husband Pharaoh Akhenaten during the 14th century BC in ancient Egypt. Their palace was bedecked in gold, with painted vultures flying across the ceiling of the great hall. Having started a cult dedicated to the glittering sun god Aten – to whom they linked themselves in a divine triad – the couple made daily journeys in chariots tellingly made of gold. Nefertiti even had her own gold mines between the Red Sea and the Nile, and commissioned her smiths to make elaborate jewellery, using granulation and filigree techniques and employing such stones as turquoise, lapis lazuli and amethyst. Her attractions amplified by such pieces, she was quite literally a goddess.
It was extraordinary, more than 3,000 years ago, for a woman to rule as the equal of a man. But Nefertiti was anything but ordinary. ‘[The] strength [of the Egyptian queens] during this period is a perfect match to the spirit and mood of my jewellery,’ says Valérie Messika, whose new collection Beyond the Light is a retro-futuristic homage to ancient Egypt. Nestled among her golden chokers and diamond stacking rings is a magnificent necklace in white gold and diamonds – part of a set called Akh-Ba-Ka, which symbolises the transfiguration of a person towards light – and dangling from its winged scarab is a 33-carat centre stone. ‘A diamond is energy,’ she says. ‘The contact with your skin is a transfer of that energy.’
The humble scarab beetle runs riot through the history of ancient Egypt and stands for ‘renewal of life’ in the complex hieroglyphic writing system. The Rosetta Stone, a monument found in 1799, goes some way to deciphering these symbols which still appear in modern jewellery. In 1905, the art nouveau master René Lalique designed a giant scarab necklace in moulded green glass with black enamel, which is currently available at Wartski. Bibi van der Velden has incorporated the responsibly sourced wings of scarabs into her jewellery; Lito has included a shimmering blue and green chalcedony swarm of them in her Il Paradiso collection; and each piece is an amulet keeping history alive.
But the ancient Egyptians weren’t just beetles fans: they also believed cats were magical and gave them their own jewels to wear. Silvia Furmanovich has depicted a pair of felines in turquoise on marquetry earrings dedicated to the cat-goddess Bastet. Meanwhile, Pragnell’s sculptural cocktail rings and Liv Luttrell’s dramatic spear-tip earrings, anchored by cadillac-cut white diamonds, honour the pyramids.
Theo Fennell’s serpent Venym brooch, in tsavorite and yellow sapphires, and Oktaaf ’s fly pins and heart amulets really do conjure up the dust and heat of ancient times. Meanwhile, Angie Marei’s Pharaoh collection references the shendyts (kilts) worn by deities and royalty. But perhaps the most pervasive motif is the all-seeing eye – with Lydia Courteille suspending kohl-rimmed eyes from original artefacts in her Egyptomania collection, as sported by Nicole Kidman during the autumn 2022 Paris couture shows.
It was Napoleon’s doomed invasion of Egypt in 1798 that led to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and a deeper European interest in the ancient culture. But it wasn’t until November 1922, when the British Egyptologist Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings, that all hell broke loose. More than 5,000 treasures and jewels were excavated – among them serpents and scarabs in lapis lazuli, carnelian, obsidian and red jasper – as well as the boy king’s most precious coffin, made of solid gold. Its discovery sparked an Egyptian revival which, when fused with art deco, changed the course of jewellery design.
Heavyweights such as Cartier devoted whole collections to the subject. And the sacred lapis lazuli and turquoise combo – partnered with the animals so beloved by the Egyptians – continues to appear in its work. From 1920s vanity cases and scarab brooches to the gold collars of the 1980s and 90s, and last year’s Sixième Sens collection, the house has remained in thrall to the pharaohs – as has British jeweller David Morris, whose Asiyah collection is inspired by the treasures of Tutankhamun discovered a century ago. Then there are a host of dealers (not least Pushkin Antiques at Grays, the Mayfair antiques market) who sell revival jewels in solid gold.
What also emerged from all the archaeological digs was a language of colour which, according to Yasmin Hemmerle, who was born and raised in Cairo, continues to be spoken. ‘Blue is important in our culture because it wards off evil,’ she says. ‘Inside the tombs, the colours are still there,’ she adds. ‘Even in the jewellery from the enamel. Despite our technology, we’re not as advanced as they were.’ At Hemmerle, they often combine blues and greens in their wonderful Egyptian pieces, which range from micro-mosaic pharaoh earrings to faience birds in tsavorite. And they’re not alone: Glenn Spiro also has a thing for ancient Egyptian ceramic and turquoise combined with titanium, but gold was really the underlying colour of Egypt, as not only Nefertiti bore witness. More than 1,000 years after she came to the throne, another queen was born, so intoxicating that even Shakespeare wrote about her. Cleopatra. And she was all about gold.
Nefertiti was famed for her beauty, but Cleopatra had more than physical presence: she also had skills. Fiercely intelligent, a formidable naval commander and an arch-strategist, she was also a legendary femme fatale whose conquests included Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Taking the throne at 18, she ruled in Alexandria for 21 years – often adorned in huge emeralds – before her ancient kingdom was taken over by Rome. Her tomb has never been found. Rome may have waged a war on Cleopatra then, but in a twist of fate the city’s top jeweller, Bulgari, was commissioned to make Elizabeth Taylor sparkle in Cleopatra, the famously extravagant film released in 1963. And it was while wearing Bulgari’s jewels that Taylor entered into an explosive love affair with Richard Burton, setting social etiquette on fire. In the beginning, they were unimpressed with each other: he called her a ‘fat little tart’ and she defiantly stated she would be the one leading lady that Richard Burton would never get. But in the end, their romance eclipsed the film itself, particularly when it came out that they had ditched their respective spouses. They married shortly afterwards… the bride wearing Bulgari.
Taylor set the bar high, in life and in art. (Fingers crossed for Gal Gadot, who is set to play Cleopatra in a new film, rumoured for release next year.) And so did the real Egyptian queen. ‘When I was a little girl in Sierra Leone, we watched the film Antony and Cleopatra many times,’ says Satta Matturi, an African art-deco specialist, of the 1972 production. ‘She was strong, she ruled an empire and all the men were falling at her feet. She just controlled everything.’ But during her reign, there was another great female monarch to her south: the Nubian Queen Amanirenas, who held sway over a kingdom centred on southern Egypt. Famous for its riches, especially its gold, it was known as Kush. She was a supreme warrior, having won initial victories against the Romans. Her crown passed to her daughter Amanishakheto, and Matturi’s abstract Ta-Seti earrings from her Whispers of Meroë collection pay tribute to them, as well as to the black Pharoahs of the 25th dynasty.
All these queens had one thing in common. They were seductive, dangerous, powerful and bedecked. As deities, generals, lovers, mothers and monarchs, their flamboyant styles have affected everything from luxury design to tactical warfare. When we wear their revivalist jewels today, we slip willingly into their world of rebirth and transformation. Sharing their stories enables the spirit of who they were to live on. And what better way to honour them?
Written by Melanie Grant for The Tatler Watch & Jewellery Guide, October 2022.