There is a glorious floral brooch in the collection of Queen Elizabeth II with the 23.60-carat pink Williamson diamond at its centre. Designed by Cartier’s Frederick Mew and completed in 1953, the edelweiss-like bloom is often worn by the Queen. When a similar brooch appeared at auction in 2020, the Bonhams’ catalogue read: “It was not until the 1940s, that Cartier produced more naturalistic interpretations of flowers, with Frederick Mew in London and Peter Lemarchand in Paris leading the way. Mew was a gifted designer and watercolourist adept at drafting realistic studies of flowers.”
From Leonardo da Vinci to Robert Mapplethorpe via Rachel Ruysch and Leendert Blok, the visual power of flowers for artists and photographers has been indisputable for centuries. Ever the scientist and draftsman, da Vinci’s flower studies are as much botanical observations as they are art, and Mapplethorpe’s photographic lens never misrepresents, merely focuses so closely on the sensuous form of the blooms that the viewer is lost in the image.
Artists again and again have turned to the botanical world for inspiration, and with about 300,000 known species of flowering plant, that inspiration is unlikely to run out quickly. “They inspire artists; they inspire lovers – everyone is inspired by flowers,” says Orlando Hamilton, a leading floral designer of more than 20 years, who has worked with royalty and celebrities. “Flowers connect us.”
Jewellery designers and makers, too, have used flowers as a source of creativity, taking their representation of floral forms from two dimensions into three, with the best, however, going beyond the literal.
Can the power of flowers, from the ordinary daisy to the most extravagant exotic, really be understood? Why do we find flowers so intoxicating? Even the seemingly simplest of flower is a masterpiece of symmetry and complexity when looked at closely.
Orlando cites Anna Pavord’s classic book The Tulip: the Story of a Flower That Has Made Men Mad. “A bit like a gold rush – the notion that a flower could be as valuable as jewels,” says Orlando, admiringly. Indeed, tulips were once more valuable than gold. Is it any wonder that this velvety bloom came to represent the first flush of love, alongside roses?
While our floral jewellery gives permanence to the fleeting forms of nature, the language of flowers is in turn returning to our modern lives. Messages hidden in gifts of jewellery were popular during the Victorian period. Violets created from amethysts may have represented modesty, while forget-me-knots hidden in the patterns of bracelets meant remembrance. A pansy said: “Think of me.” And orchids had many meanings – from capriciousness to virtue, from maturity to beauty – depending on the type being imitated.
“We welcome life with flowers and we say goodbye to our loved ones with flowers,” Orlando reminds us. “What extraordinary things they are.” There will be garden after garden of extraordinariness as the Chelsea Flower Show returns for 2022, but while the gardens and their flowers move on at the week’s end, in our jewellery, nature’s beauty can stay with us forever.
As the turn-of-the-century German photographer Karl Blossfeldt said: “The plant never lapses into mere arid functionalism; it fashions and shapes according to logic and suitability, and with its primeval force compels everything to attain the highest artistic form.”