Near the end of Paris Fashion Week recently, jewellery designer Delfina Delettrez staged a presentation for her spring 2014 collection at the Galerie Almine Rech. In the main space, a series of porcelain plates appeared to be levitating and spinning above a long milky-white table – an illusion created by a concealed magnetic mechanism. On the plates were three-dimensional plaster hands and ears dressed in her baubles. The surrealist mise en scène – one marvelled at by a crowd of fashion insiders that included designers Haider Ackermann and Erdem Moralioglu, model Natalia Vodianova and Numéro Russia editor-at-large André Leon Talley – underscored the dynamic nature of her collection. Rings studded with tiny topazes cradled fingers instead of encircling them, while pearls and stones floated on either side of the earlobes.
Delettrez, who has winked at art references since launching her namesake label in 2007, is one of several designers sculpting a new niche in contemporary jewellery. More substantial than costume baubles but less precious than haute joaillerie, the designs stand out for their boldness, their scale and their function as wearable art.
There's Gaia Repossi's column of rings that inch up the finger, Monique Péan's pieces made from ecologically sourced fossilized dinosaur and woolly mammoth bones framed by pavé diamonds, Pamela Love's double finger rings and neo-art-deco bracelets and chokers, Dean Davidson's ear cuffs and Ana Khouri's architectural wrist cuffs that could just as easily be mistaken for a 3-D rendering of a Daniel Libeskind building.
"I can say I'm a jeweller of my generation," Delettrez says from Milan. "Not having the didactical background helps you to be very free and break the rules."
Whereas Lanvin's Alber Elbaz showed an exaggerated version of nameplate necklaces for fall that read "Love," "Happy" and, most cheekily, "Help," designers who specialize in jewellery are making bold statements without being quite so obvious.
Jewellery right now is in a "discovery" period, according to Caroline Gaimari, director and executive editor of Purple magazine. "In the sense that a ring is a ring is a ring, it now becomes about who can make something that's different."
Demonstrating the point that jewellery can indeed be art, Paris's Musée des Arts Décoratifs recently featured the work of 55 contemporary jewellers in a museum-wide installation, weaving their designs into the permanent collection in a show that runs until March, 2014. Occasionally, it is difficult to discern jewellery from sculpture.
Then there's Canadian jewellery designer Rita Tesolin, who notes that many of her new designs are being driven by clients who are pushing her work into edgier territory. Pursuant to the punk trend, she incorporated nails from Home Depot into a recent necklace. Her pewter and gunmetal earrings, featured on page 27, look like the offspring of Riccardo Tisci's door-knockersized pieces from his spring 2012 Givenchy Haute Couture collection.
"There has been a shift in attitude," she admits. "Two years ago, clients may have thought [the earrings] were too big for them. I have clients from all over, but [right now] they do all want [to make a] statement."
Delettrez, conversely, says she arrives at her designs by using herself as a model – and then figuring out ways to break with convention. "I use the body to hide settings. I want to hide the skeleton part of jewellery. When I draw these pieces, I observe my hands or head [to] arrive at new settings and shapes. It's a constant challenge that I find very stimulating." Does she ever worry about running out of ideas? "We have many body parts" to study and be inspired by, she says. "We've just been limiting ourselves."