Selling particularly well at auction, ouroboros jewellery often referred to as 'snake jewellery' has a large following of collectors and achieves fantastic results under the hammer. Our specialist Liz Bailey MA dives into the history behind these fascinating pieces, with examples of pieces sold here at Wilson 55.
Figure 1: A Victorian turquoise, split pearl and garnet snake necklace, sold in 2014 for £1,643.
Serpent or snake jewellery dates back to ancient Egyptian times, and the Victoria & Albert have examples of Roman snake jewellery dating from the 1st century in their collection. Ancient reverence for the snake stemmed from its association with Ascelepius, the Greek God of Medicine as well as various guardian spirits. As a result, the snake was seen as a symbol of both wisdom and regeneration, both great properties for talismanic jewellery.
Figure 2: A late Victorian diamond snake ring, sold in 2018 for £455.
Found curving in intricate swirls, wrapped around itself, or most commonly seen in sentimental jewellery, coiled with its tail in its mouth (known as the ouroboros), the popularity of snake jewellery has stood the test of time, in spite of a commonly held fear and revulsion of the animal in question!
The ouroboros symbolised eternity, applicable for sentimental purposes, perhaps one of the reasons why this motif has flourished in jewellery design right up until the present day, culminating in the sensational Serpenti jewellery by Bulgari, launched in the 1940s and now a best-selling collection for the brand.
It is, however, the Victorian era in which snake jewellery was particularly popular. Indeed, the serpent motif in jewellery was one of the most successful Victorian fashions in jewellery.
With irrevocable ties to the greatest love story of the 19th century, snake jewellery was enormously popular as a token of everlasting love. A favourite of Queen Victorias, the snake jewel played a huge part in her betrothal to Prince Albert, with her engagement ring a snake, set with her birthstone of an emerald, finished with ruby eyes and diamond accents. As well as this, Victoria chose to wear a serpent bracelet to her first council meeting of 1837, ensuring that by the 1840s, the popularity of snake jewellery was at its peak.
Figure 3: Diamond, ruby and enamel snake jewellery components, later mounted as fobs, sold in 2016 for £1,643.
In 1844 Queen Victoria was said to present "a richly jewelled turquoise serpent bracelet, value £25 as a prize in the lady's archery contest at Prado" (Hinks, 1975). The sought-after serpent jewel is found variously modelled in necklaces, rings, brooches and bracelets, with the most luxurious necklaces of the time decorated with royal blue enamel, ruby eyes and diamond flame, whilst other popular gemstone combinations included turquoise, garnet and split pearl.
A 'typical' snake necklace of the 1840s is seen in Figure 1. These snake necklaces feature a clever clasp linking the tail to the head of the snake, and suspending a lovely heart shaped locket or drop pendant. These are often seen in the royal blue enamel or turquoise combinations, with supple gold linking reminiscent of a snake's scales. The piece in Figure 1 is undoubtedly romantic, featuring the heart locket drop, turquoise scales and forget-me-not decoration. Turquoise was used extensively in sentimental jewellery, with the colour relating to the forget-me-not flower, signifying love in the popular Victorian language of floriography.
Figure 4: A late Victorian turquoise and garnet snake brooch, sold as part of a group lot in 2017 for £606.
The symbol of the serpent representing eternity also applied to memorial jewellery. Indeed, Dawes & Collings (2018) pointed to the serpent as a "symbol of royal bereavement" alongside crosses, torches and crowns to be worn by loyal subjects from the turn of the 19th century. The first notable example of this in the 19th Century was the death of George IV's daughter Princess Charlotte in 1817, plunging the nation into an atmosphere of national bereavement.
Snakes in their ouroboros form are seen in memorial brooches, and rings and bangles, often decorated with black crosshatched enamel or split pearls representative of tears and bordering a glazed hairwork panel. Other gemstones to be used extensively in memorial jewellery include onyx, banded agate (see figure 5), and even diamonds! Some bangles can be found designed with gold snake heads and tails, supported by braided hairwork bodies. Small mourning brooches in good condition and with engravings sell well at auction, and these were pinned to black ribbon to be worn either around the wrist or the neck of the mourner.
Figure 5: A late Victorian diamond and banded agate snake ring.
Figure 6: An early 20th century 9ct gold snake bangle, sold in 2017 for £606.
Snake jewels continue to enjoy their appeal with collectors, and top prices are achieved for Victorian enamel snakes in good condition, closely followed by Victorian turquoise-set snake necklaces, especially enticing to buyers when sold within their original cases. As seen in Figure 3, condition and later modifications to snake pieces can still attract a healthy hammer price, particularly when the pieces are set with larger diamonds and rubies.
Early 20th century snake jewellery also sells well, with gold snake bangles from goldsmiths such as Smith & Pepper and Cornelius Desormeaux Saunders & James Francis Hollings (Frank) Shepherd attracting attention from our bidders. Art Nouveau snakes, enamelled and figured in sinuous lines are more rarely seen and can fetch a premium.
Figure 7: A set of early 20th century 9ct gold snake jewellery, sold in 2017 for £606.
Present day snake jewellery is produced and sold by the top jewellery houses including Bulgari and Cartier. These pieces can reach tens of thousands at auction, depending on the scale, gemstones and design of the piece. Snake jewellery is particularly fashionable and enjoying its time in the spotlight currently, with Serpenti pieces gracing red carpets worn by Charlize Theron, Jessica Biel, Naomi Watts, Bella Hadid and countless others over the last few awards seasons. To be sure of the potential value of your own collection do get in touch with our specialist team, who will be able to advise on valuation for auction, insurance or probate purposes.
For a free valuation of your own antique jewellery, fill in our online valuation form or contact our jewellery specialist Liz Bailey MA FGA DGA CPAA via firstname.lastname@example.org