Wildlife in jewelry, be it as a theme or as a material, is one of the oldest and most original ways humans have adorned themselves and their surroundings. Archeologists have found shells drilled for stringing on a necklace near the Principality of Monaco that were forty thousand years old. The Chauvet Cave, “only” some ten or so millennia more recent, a mere six hours northwest by car from Monte Carlo contain fabulously preserved paintings of wildlife motifs.
It is hard to find any culture or civilization that has not made animal motifs a central theme alongside the usual suspects like flora, ritual, religion and authority. Like the eternally employed floral motifs, animal motifs are extremely versatile. Many creatures lend themselves to being the focus of an animal theme based upon the esthetic and appeal of their appearance, or their movement. Then there is their mythological-cultural meaning, e.g. an owl might signify wisdom and insight in one culture, another might regard it as a trickster figure because of its capability as a stealthy nighttime hunter and nocturnal spirits — an unwholesome lot. The association we appear to be most familiar with in the present-day western culture is that of power and authority. On one hand, this might refer to an animal’s symbolistic value, such as the prowess of a lion, or the size of an elephant. By implication, this reflects upon the hunter’s prowess as the one who is able to overcome their prey.
None of these criteria stands isolated from the other. Rather, they are part of a dynamic that is decided by a given society’s values and its belief system, and its reflection upon the individual’s perception.
The comfort zone of jewelers in large urban centers is typically with precious metals and precious stones. They have little contact, if any, with down-to-earth, original animal jewelry components like floating bones, teeth or even claws. These are organic and thereby porous and potentially less stable than precious metals and gemstones. So how do you know that you and the trophy from your latest hunting trip are in good hands when you are looking to have it incorporated in a most personal piece of jewelry? A professional artisan whose knowledge and experience includes the vast and wonderful world of organics will be your best choice. “It seems like most jewelers don’t know how to handle organic materials and I have redone many attempts by them over the years,” says Richard Koskovich, an independent goldsmith from Homer, AK, who specializes in combining ivories, baleen and claws with precious metal into wildlife jewelry. He readily admits that his expertise comes from years of trial and error.
KFB Jewelers of Chambersburg, PA, have come to pay close attention to organics. There are many hunters among their patrons who bring in, ”teeth that are not ivory, and some claws that are aged and particularly challenging.”
As organic materials are porous, they retain the bacteria that were part of the animal’s microbiome during its lifetime. Although many bacteria die off, those that survive are potential contributors to rot and decay. Taxidermists know how gradual dehydration can crack even teeth as the years go by, in spite of their best efforts.
Although the details may vary, the underlying method is first to eliminate, or at least minimize the bacterial population before sealing the surface of an organic material in order to stabilize it, both with regards to soiling and humidity. “I clean teeth inside and out to sterilize them, prepare the surface and finally seal it with a high-quality varnish to bring out a fabulous luster that will last for years,” says Dan Toledo, an independent wildlife jeweler from Whittier, CA. Not far away, Madeleine Kay in Juniper Hills agrees. “I was taught by a famous stone carver in Los Angeles, so I use dental tools and dental waxes,” reminding us of how professional luthiers and piano builders and top-of-the-line fine woodworkers approach their porous and organic medium.
With the appropriate variances, this method is applicable to most animal components destined for wear in a precious metal setting. Unlike gemstones, organic materials cannot take the physical stress that comes with traditional setting methods where metal is closed around and upon it as in bezels or prongs. Instead, the standard method is to connect the organic with the metal by means of durable glue. Although today’s epoxies have become so durable, strong and stable, the contact surface is typically enlarged by means of a post that is carefully adjusted to fit snugly inside the trophy. Complex designs might require an entire arrangement of posts, which, ideally, are so discreetly placed that they are not apparent and able to maintain an aura of mystery about the attachment. A properly executed piece of jewelry incorporating an organic component such as floating bone, or a claw can last generations of reasonable wear.
Robert Ackermann, G.G. is an award-winning goldsmith, jewelry designer, gemologist, and teacher and lecturer.