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Shells have always been used to adorn the body: some of the earliest known pieces of prehistoric jewelery consist of beads made with drilled sea snail shells. More than 100,000 years later, the motif continues to provoke intrigue: on this season’s catwalks, designers such as Ulla Johnson and Coach’s Stuart Vevers fashioned orange-flecked mitra shells and molluscs into luxurious-looking necklaces and statement earrings, while David Koma layered jangly oysters -shell charm necklaces over frothy cobalt-blue dresses.
Ulla Johnson brass and carnelian Tumbled Stone earrings, £420
Isabel Marant bead and seashell earrings, £150, Farfetch.com
This season’s fine jewelery collections are awash with shell and beach motifs too. “Jewellery designers are eternally attracted to nature, and we all think of the ocean during the warmer months,” says jewelery historian Marion Fasel, who curated the 2021 Beautiful Creatures exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which explored the history of symbols such as starfish and seahorses in jewelery. She says that, much like at the turn of the 20th century when natural themes were used as a protest against the industrial revolution, “there’s a desire today, especially when we’re all staring at screens all the time, to have something that reminds us of moments when we connect to nature – and there’s a beauty and authenticity in the imperfections of something formed on the beach or in the ocean.”
New Zealand-based Jasmin Scott, founder of independent jewelery brand Jasmin Sparrow, says growing up by the beach in Aotearoa influenced her love for all things nautical. Her pieces – including the Mermaid earrings with cascading sea pearls and recycled gold and rhodium studs with wave-like ripples – blend delicate, organic forms with the sculptural silhouettes of vintage costume jewelery. “I am lucky enough to have been immersed in nature, which pulls me towards organic lines and materials,” she says.
London-based jeweler Jessica McCormack, whose handcrafted pieces are inspired by old heirlooms, was similarly dreaming of carefree days by the sea when designing her Beaches collection. “I have always loved shells as a motive,” she says of her diamond-encrusted scallop pendants and gold bangles, which mimic the curves of a conch shell. “They’re a real hallmark of Georgian jewelery, along with ribbon bows and naturalistic flowers – all of which I draw a lot of inspiration from.”
The collection, which also includes a necklace and anklet where mismatched freshwater pearls are laced together with seaweed-green thread, is designed to be “thrown on without much thought”, says McCormack. “You want to be able to pack the same jewelery for a beach holiday that you’re enjoying in the city.”
Jessica McCormack gold and diamond beaches Gypset earrings, £9,500
Goosens x Eres gold-plated-brass and assorted-stones four-way chain, £750
This idea is echoed by French jewelery maison Goossens, whose collaboration with swimwear label Eres includes a summery gold chain embellished with tropical charms that can be worn as a necklace, belt or double-wrapped bracelet – perfect when you’re trying to streamline your suitcase . Pascale Monvoisin, whose work often draws inspiration from aquatic imagery, designed her new men’s collection to be worn “on the idyllic beaches of Mustique and on the streets of cities”. Featuring green enamel pendants engraved with palm trees, as well as gold and silver charms shaped like conch shells and fossilized coral branches, the collection evokes the sun-drenched beaches of the Caribbean and the feeling of “getting away from the usual city life”, she says. She also has designs that incorporate real cowrie shells alongside colorful precious gemstones, offering a fresh spin on the puka shell necklace. “I find it very poetic – this simple, organic object that you can find on the floor, on the beach,” says Monvoisin. “They’re like little treasures from nature.”
Mother-and-daughter design duo Alexia and Stalo Karides, whose conscious jewelery brand YSSO draws on traditional Greek designs, were inspired by the delicate spiny spherical shells of sea urchins for their sculptural oversized stud earrings. “To us, they symbolize those early childhood memories of diving and seeing the hazy forms of sea urchins at the bottom of the ocean, the innocence and joy of discovery and the playfulness of summer,” says co-founder Alexia Karides. “They bring back a feeling of nostalgia and excitement at the same time.” It’s jewelery to dive for.