While beautiful jewellery has always been synonymous with luxury, exceptional pieces have also been a source of mystery and intrigue. Revealing the secret language of jewellery from the past to the present day is Nick Koss, the founder and president of Volund, a Vancouver-based jewellery house.
“I’ve always loved the ancient belief that the gods gifted humans with jewellery,” Koss states.
Jewellery functioned not only as an object of beauty but also as a way to symbolise and define a message the wearer wanted to convey. Throughout history, it remained accessible only to the upper echelons of society, signalling status, affiliation, and power.
Possessing a deep love for philosophy, history and art, Koss notes “in my travels to the great museums of Europe it became apparent to me that jewellery has the potential to be deeply endowed with symbolism and meaning, far beyond its material components. It is this illusive beauty that I want to capture in the spirit of my works.”
For example, the famous Nostradamus declared that a diamond could render a man invincible and St. Jerome claimed that a sapphire freed the wearer from all enchantments. And of course, most know the classic account of Cleopatra dissolving a pearl in wine to create an aphrodisiac to seduce Anthony.
The invention of the poison rings brought heightened sophistication to the repertoire of those embroiled in intrigue. These inconspicuous jewels served as vessels for perfume, love notes, or as their name suggests, poison. In the Renaissance, the Borgias made extensive use of poison rings and similar objects to intimidate and remove unwanted competition.
“Not all the secretive purposes of jewellery were sinister or malicious,” Koss adds. The tradition of wearing a mourning ring in remembrance of a loved one dates back to the 14th century. A lock of hair or portrait was hidden inside and allowed for the private expression of grief, important in a society where stoic outward appearances were synonymous with nobility.
Similarly, Acrostic jewellery that flourished in the Georgian era hid expressions of affection. A person would use the first letter of each gemstone’s name to spell a word or phrase. DEAREST could be spelt out by an arrangement of Diamond, Emerald, Amethyst, Ruby, Emerald, Sapphire and Turquoise.
The most elaborate forms of communication through jewellery came in the Victorian era. Thus, a heart with a flame signified burning passion, a crescent moon – new relationship, Scarab – endurance. Multiple symbols could be combined to reveal an elaborate narrative. Often these items were exchanged as gifts between lovers to stoke the fires of passionate affairs.
Modern day jewellers occasionally dabble in this secretive language, though few take it as far as Volund. Nick Koss, who descends from a family of master jewellers to the Imperial Court of Russia, has taken on the mantle of this venerable art tradition. Koss states “Volund’s logo, a swirling sun, contains three sevens alluding to the mystical number of creativity, seven continents, seas, and classic planets.”
Koss says “I always ask my clients to look closely at each piece, to see beyond the metal and stones. Take for example the Algu Ring – on the surface you see the two magnificent heart shaped Alexandrites framed in gold. When you present this to your loved one over a candlelit dinner, the stones will glow softly burgundy, like a fine wine. The next day when she wears the ring out into the sunshine, she will be amazed to find the stones have changed colour to a vivid aquamarine. The colour changing nature of the Alexandrite is an allegory for the dynamic moods of human beings.”
One client wished to have a Skull ring created that somehow reflected his Dutch heritage – an unusual combination. Koss says “I fulfilled his request by adding Delft patterns in enamel on the surface and then going a step further to make the whole into a poison ring. For special occasions and people, the client can open the skull to reveal a panorama of Amsterdam hidden inside, complete with picturesque canal houses and a starry diamond sky.”
“The Lion Earrings are one of my favourite works because they showcase how symbolism can bring a piece to life,” Koss says. “Imagine a proud lion standing upon a crescent, while a full moon shines brightly above.” The Lion is the traditional Astrological symbol of the Sun and is in close relationship to the Moon, who reflects his brilliance. In turn, the Moon exercises her influence upon the Earth, and especially the oceans, represented by Japanese Akoya pearls. As Koss puts it, “altogether, a map of the cosmos hangs from the wearer’s ear.” It is no surprise that these earrings won the prestigious 2016 Award of Excellence from Canadian Jeweller Magazine.
“When I meet a client I take the time to reveal some of the meaning and inspiration behind a piece”, Koss says. “But other secrets will be up to the wearer to discover for themselves.”