Call of the wild: Finding inspiration in baroque pearls

June 15, 2017

Photos courtesy Llyn Strelau

By Llyn L. Strelau

“I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all”
– Joni Mitchell

Yes, clouds present a world of illusion and opportunity for infinite interpretation. In our world of jewellery design, baroque pearls have provided the same opportunities. They have offered inspiration to generations of jewellery designers time and time again reaching back centuries to at least Medieval and Renaissance times.

There are many fine examples in museums around the world. One of the most famous is the Canning Jewel—a large torso-shaped natural pearl set as the body of a merman holding the head of Medusa and accented with enamel, coloured gemstones, diamonds, and more baroque pearls.

The perfect fit
I have been fascinated by baroque pearls for years and have a large collection of them. Some have turned into finished pieces, others are still waiting for their turn at the bench.

Looking at baroque pearls, like clouds, requires a degree of both belief and imagination. You must also look at them from not only ‘both sides now,’ but every angle. Some pearls, of course, will simply jump out at you, and others require more thought and consideration. Cultural background can also influence what you may see ‘hidden’ within a particular pearl.

Part of my collection of baroque pearls waiting to become jewellery. What does YOUR eye see? The possibilities are endless.

Love at first find
One of the first baroque pearls I worked with was a freshwater pearl that one of my suppliers showed me more than 30 years ago. He thought it was an oddly shaped flattish pearl, but the moment I took it out of the little round plastic box and turned it over, I immediately saw the Madonna and Child. It wasn’t very large at approximately 15 mm (0.6 in.) tall, and to make it more substantial, I made a Gothic-style frame in yellow gold over a textured white gold that was slightly dished to provide a recess for the pearl. The addition of two 24-karat halos, pegged onto the head of the two figures was all it took to complete the piece.

Duck tales
Later, another pearl dealer showed me a Japanese akoya pearl that simply walked, talked, and quacked like a duck. The extension of the round body of the pearl was perfect. After a significant search, I found a Chinese freshwater pearl that’s oval shape terminated with a perfect, turned up duck tail.

Inspired by Donald Duck, I added 18-karat yellow and white gold clothing, diamond-set buttons, a bowtie, and domed white gold eyes with tiny yellow diamond irises.

Since I like to create jewellery which tells a story, I added a walking stick with a tiny duck head, complete with 0.5-point diamond eyes, and finally a miniature diamond solitaire ring in his other hand, just in case a suitable lady duck happened to show up, so he could ask for her hand in marriage. The band of the ring also works as the bail, so when he is not standing on display he can be worn on a chain. Sadly, I never did find him a mate and he currently lives happily in the collection of a client.

Duck sculpture and Mr. Spud looking for love.

New spud in town
Similarly, I found a dumpy pear-shaped grey South Sea pearl with a perfect knob of a nose, and thus, Mr. Spud was born. He had 18-karat gold ears, eyes made from black diamond centres, and feet pegged and glued, and a little gold beanie topped with the tiniest Japanese keshi button pearl. He also had white gold buck teeth. Originally, I had planned to make the ears, moustache, and eyes removable with alternative styles able to be pegged in, but at this scale—the main pearl was only 11 or 12-mm (0.44-0.48 in.) tall—I was worried they would be too hard to hold onto, and be easily lost. I made his arms able to rotate, however, so he can lift the hand holding his diamond engagement ring, and also be able to propose to a Mrs. Spud if she came along. I am still looking for the perfect pearl for his mate, and have come close a few times, but they were just not right.

I kept this pendant (the shank of the engagement ring doubles as a bail), for several years before a woman in the U.S. contacted me after seeing a published photo of the duck. She wanted to purchase it, but since I had sold the duck already, I was able to offer her Mr. Spud instead.

Two not-so-blind mice
The next time I found myself perfect pearls was at GemFair Tucson while visiting a couple of my favourite dealers. I had spent hours combing through their collection of baroque pearls. Once I got started it was difficult to quit and, just like those clouds, there was inspiration everywhere.

Here, I found two pearls with heads and ears. One was a pink-ish Chinese freshwater pearl and the other a grey South Sea. I decided to make a pair of mice.

I added black South Sea keshi pearls for their noses and white gold with black diamond eyes were pegged on. Her eyelashes are mascaraed with black rhodium plating as were their mouths. I used sterling silver for their arms and legs with plated black rhodium to provide contrast.

A freshwater pearl frog prince, just waiting for eyes and maybe a body and lily pad.

They both wear white gold gloves and he is holding a diamond solitaire ring. This time they have found each other and I think marriage is imminent!

The pink pearl has a rose gold bow, which also disguised an extraneous bump on the back of her head, which was studded with small pearls. Her dress and shoes were also pink gold accented with white gold ruffles, a diamond pave flounce, and tiny seed pearl polka dots. Her ‘boyfriend’ sports rose gold shorts with bezel set diamond buttons. His oversized shoes are yellow gold. While they are primarily objets d’art, they can be worn on a chain. Her clasped hands provide the bail function as does his ring.

No trout about it
Another South Sea pearl provided instant inspiration for a piece. The sleek elongated pearl had to be a fish. This pearl became ‘David the Trout,’ in memory of a brilliant jewellery designer and friend, Dave Trout, who tragically passed away at far too young an age. For this pearl project, I added the white gold tail, fins and head complete with diamond eye to complete the stickpin.

The elegant elephant
For this Chinese freshwater coin-type pearl, I recognized its three conjoined nuclei, turned it into an elephant with the simple addition of a white gold trunk and tiny brown diamond eyes. It was completed with four round coin pearls connected by simple links and attached to a white gold rollo chain.

Bacchanalia necklace detail of grape leaf pearls.

Up next at the bench
While I find it impossible to stop looking for new baroque pearls to see what creatures are hidden in them, I already have an extensive collection in my safe. Some of them are pretty obvious to the onlooker, others take a bit more imagination.

I have a couple pearls that may make the perfect beaver, perhaps an ode to my Canadian patriotism, though others may see an otter or seal. There is also a Chinese freshwater pearl just waiting to be made into a frog prince—he won’t take much to complete, just gemstone eyes and perhaps a metal body and a lily pad to sit on.

Returning to the cartoon world, I found a golden South Sea pearl to make a great Pluto the dog, all he needs are ears, a cap, eyes, and maybe a body as well. I have four other pearls, mostly South Sea that are all heads with noses, and I eventually plan to make them into four of the Seven Dwarves. I am still searching for the remaining three heads to complete the set.

With this large, highly-metallic freshwater pearl, I see Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh coming to be. All this creation takes are a pair of ears, an eye, and a tail with a bow to complete the character.

Not all baroque pearls turn into animals. When I saw this freshwater torso-shaped pearl it reminded me of Renaissance jewels. Then I found a South Sea pearl that, when turned just the right way, exhibits a classic Roman profile, nose and all. It’s rather haughty, but it will be fun when it is finished.

Endless options
Having covered animal and human creations, there are also pearls that can mimic the plant world. A rosy metallic pearl looks like a plump cherry complete with one leaf. I will add a stem and a couple of green gold leaves to make a pendant.

Another supplier I work with had made a collection of freshwater pearls in a variety of pastel metallic colours to resemble leaves. I don’t know if the pearl farmer had deliberately inserted tissue nuclei to cause this shape, or if it was nature having fun. In any case, being a wine lover, I turned them into grape leaves with stems paved with different colours of natural fancy diamonds. Next, I added multi-coloured gold grape leaves plus clusters of grapes created from tiny round freshwater pearls glued to a stem armature.

The selection of baroque pearls is endless, and will offer the opportunity to set your imagination free. Start looking closely and see what the ‘clouds’ say to you!

Llyn L. Strelau is the owner of Jewels by Design in Calgary. Established in 1984, his by-appointment atelier specializes in custom jewellery design for local and international clientele. Strelau has received numerous design awards, including the American Gem Trade Association’s (AGTA’s) Spectrum Awards and De Beers’ Beyond Tradition—A Celebration of Canadian Craft. His work has also been published in Masters: Gemstones, Major Works by Leading Jewelers. Strelau can be reached via e-mail at[5].

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