By Beth Bernstein
I can say with almost full certainty that most women do not want a live snake within 10 feet of them. I know because I am one of these women. At the age of 12, I came foot to face with one. My foot; the slithery creature’s face. It was only a garden snake, but still, it was hissing at me at very close proximity. Yet, when it comes to wearing and collecting snake rings and other jewelry, I am quite thrilled to have one coiling around my finger, slithering up my wrist or sliding around my neck.
Snake motifs are one of the earliest historical and culturally diverse mythological symbols, and figure prominently in jewelry, particularly rings. These intriguing creatures and the alluring pieces inspired by serpents through the ages, from the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, represent a host of meanings in different countries and civilizations. In ancient times, snakes represented a duality of good and evil, depending on the culture and time period. Since snakes shed their skin they are seen as are symbols of death, rebirth, transformation, immortality healing and fertility.
There is not much talk about the snake as an evil symbol in modern times, especially not by ring and jewelry enthusiasts. We tend to see it as one of the most ubiquitous symbols there is and see it through the eyes of the nobility and legendary people who wore them and the renowned jewelers who popularized them.
But before that took place let’s look at the earliest story of man. In the Old Testament Book of Genesis, a serpent slithers into the Garden of Eden, the earthly paradise that God created for Adam and Eve. And then the snake tricked Eve into eating an apple, the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge. When God learned of Adam and Eve’s transgression, he banished both of them from Eden.
Let’s also not forget about Medusa who in Greek mythology had live snakes for hair; she was one of the Gorgon women, who when they looked at people, they would turn them to stone had scales covering their bodies. But let’s go on to the snakes with more positive meaning…
To the pharaohs of Egypt, snakes represented royalty and deity and they wore them as sacred pendants around their necks. The Romans had different interpretations ranging from everlasting love to a symbol of wisdom. The Greeks looked toward snakes as sacred symbols of wisdom, and goddess of the moon and fertility. They looked to Aesculapius, the god of medicine, who had a snake wrapped around his staff - a motif that continues to remain the symbol of the medical profession and has translated into jewelry.
During the Hellenistic period, snake-shaped bracelets that climbed up the wrists were worn as a symbol of immortality and eventually became a scaled down silhouette for snake rings that climb up the finger. Hindu, African and Native American and Judaic cultures, and most of Asia, have all endowed the slinky creature with various meanings. Let’s just say that the snake has appeared as a symbol, legend or myth in almost every religion, culture and civilization.
But it was in 1839 that lore and legend made way for the snake to become one of the most iconic motifs in jewelry. This was when Queen Victoria was engaged to Prince Albert and received an entwined snake ring, with an emerald, her birthstone, centered in its head. The ring took its inspiration from the Romans who believed that the continuous snake signified everlasting love. These and other styles of sentimental snake rings had become popular again in Georgian times in the late 18th and early 19th century and the meaning of this type of ring, while not a typical engagement ring, seemed perfectly suited to the love story between the young queen and her Prince.
To say that Queen Victoria’s ring set a trend throughout England, and eventually throughout Europe is an understatement. Snake rings were hot and became one of the most fashionable style of rings in a diversity of incarnations. The entwining continuous snake ring that was designed based on the Queens was in high demand in 15k or 18K gold and could have diamonds or gemstones in its head and eyes. Sometimes the body of the snake would almost take the shape of an infinity knot which also displayed the constancy of love.
Gloria Karp of Glorious Antiques explains, “Fertility, power, balance, renewal, healing and infinity are a few of the symbols connected with snakes the world over and since ancient times. But for Victorians snakes symbolized endless love and Victorian jewelry used the form in jewels for every part of the body. Like the love knot, there is no end. Love is infinite. The buttery gold patina of the ‘coil styles’ of the time period which wrap around the finger multiple times are as sophisticated to wear today as they were then.
“Another version displayed large cabochons which seemed a bit more modern than their time, yet still had the feeling of a lover’s knot in the body of the snake.”
Another take on gold snake rings were originally from the Sumerian period and later in Greek mythology. This silhouette features two snakes intertwined with the two heads facing opposite ways—this symbolized fertility and healing. The double snake would continue into the Art Nouveau and early Edwardian periods and would sometimes be rendered in mixed metals of yellow and rose gold and in the early 1900s, yellow gold or rose gold and platinum.
Then there are three snakes wrapped around each other. If they are moving upward, which most of them are, then in various cultures they meant heading towards enlightenment and or victory which carried over into Victorian into Edwardian times.
Blue enamel styles with either rose cut or mine cut diamonds that curled around the finger were introduced in Victorian times as well and eventually grew into bracelets that wrapped around the wrist with flexibility.
Dana Kiyomura of Keyamour explains, “When you think about the Victorian period you can’t help thing about snake rings and all sorts of snake related jewelry. Every time I found an interesting unique ring or jewel in excellent condition, I buy it because they sell out really quickly.”
“Snake rings and jewelry was everywhere,” says Jacqueline Smelkinson of The Spare Room Antiques. “When we talk about the styles of prized rings we need to go back a little further to the Georgian era.”
The ouroboros, which is an ancient Egyptian symbol of a snake eating its own tail, which was depicted on King Tut’s tomb in the 14th century B.C. is associated with eternity and rebirth. This became strong imagery for gold and gemstone rings from the Georgian period and were ‘reborn’ in early Victorian period. Sadly, they were most popular after Prince Albert died and the Queen went into mourning. It was wrapped around locket compartments on rings which could hold hair and had enamel details on the shank. It also curled around mourning brooches in the 19th century.
The Archeological Revival period of Victorian times also spurred the nod to jewels from antiquity and snakes that climbed up the finger. Other snake jewelry of the period included turquoise set necklaces and bracelets that are flexible and wrap around the neck and wrist. The blue enamel for finger rings also worked their way into bracelets set with interesting gems such as moonstone in the head picking up on the blue in the piece. A heart dropped from the mouth of snake necklaces offered another take on professing enduring love in those Victorian times.
Slinking their way into the Art Nouveau period, snake jewelry became part of the rebellious movement that focused on naturalistic motifs in more organic shapes. Snake rings were more of a statement with thinner serpents enameled and wrapped around natural pearls. This imagery was also seen in necklaces and earrings.
By the time Art Deco rolled around, there was a distinct movement back to arm bands that were more streamlined and worked with the newfound freedom and the flappers of the day who danced the night away, smoked and went to speakeasies.
It wasn’t until after WWI that houses such as Cartier, Bulgari and Boucheron, translated the serpent with their own aesthetics and sensibilities. Rings were more diamond intensive as were snake charms. In between the two wars snake rings and jewelry went in and out of fashion but came back with a vengeance in the 1960s.
The most famous Cartier snake necklace was made in 1968 for the Mexican actress María Félix and was mounted in platinum with 2,473 diamonds. The underside is enameled in red, green and black, so the piece is completely reversible.
Keyamour’s Victorian turquoise snake and heart necklace
Bulgari also produced some of the most intricate snake jewels of the 20th century, with the house’s Greek and Roman heritage inspiring the Serpenti collection in which a technique called Tubogas was employed to allow the snake bracelet to wrap around the arm with ease. From the 1940s through to current times, Bulgari has created scaled enamel, vibrantly gem-set Serpenti bracelets and rings, and a watch set into a snake’s heads.
When Elizabeth Taylor was filming Cleopatra in Rome, she wore over the top snake jewelry produced for the film by Joseff of Hollywood. Her costumes included an Egyptian looking snake armband not unlike the way the Tubogas slithered around the wrist, snake belt and other snake jewelry all accessorized Taylor in the film. Richard Burton (who played Marc Anthony in the film) met and fell in love with Taylor and had a hot love affair while she was still married to Eddie Fisher and Burton to his wife, Sybil. Yet that didn’t stop the two. He bought her gifts secretly at Bvlgari. But the biggest secret of all is who purchased Taylor her diamond encrusted snake watch with a gold band and emerald eyes which was spotted on Taylor’s wrist in publicity stills while she was on the set filming. Stories went around that Eddie Fisher had purchased it, that the studio gave it to her as a signing gift, that Burton bestowed it on his new love and that she bought it for herself while working on the film. We will never know for sure.
Bvlgari also created one-of-a-kind bracelets for celebrities and legendary figures—a belt that turned into a necklace for then Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, who typed a memo in 1968: “Don't forget the serpent...it should be on every finger and all wrists...the serpent is the motif of the hours in jewelry...we cannot see enough of them.”
From top: Keyamour’s Victorian blue enamel snake bracelets with diamonds and moonstone cabochon head and ruby eyes,
Sandra Cronan’s Belle Epoque diamond snake bracelet with diamond head and emerald eyes, Glorious Antique Jewelry’s antique silver topped gold diamond snake bracelet with emerald eyes
After Vreeland sent off the memo, snake rings came back into favor and were revival styles of antiquity rather than those made in the Victorian era (it was only in the late 20th century up until now that the Victorian rings began being interpreted). Prior to that, sculptural versions of entwined two headed snake rings with a polished or brushed finish, rings with intricated gold wire work that curved and curled up the finger lengthwise and a host of other styles that were inspired by history’s symbols went in and out of style from the ‘70s through the ‘90s. The Italian designers in the 1990s successfully brought the snake ring back in bold statement making styles and all different types of gemstones.
Vreeland’s statement holds as true today for collectors and designers of modern pieces. And intriguing Victorian snake rings and other snake jewelry and snake charms are still the hit with collectors that they were in Queen Victoria’s day. The snake is one motif that will continue to be eternally loved and will endure the test of time.
At Monica Rich Kosann, our snake rings and snake motif necklaces are often coupled with our Never Fear messaging. If they become a part of your jewelry style, we hope you will find them as empowering as we do.
Beth Bernstein is a jewelry historian, collector of period and modern jewelry and a purveyor of all things sparkly. She has penned three books—'My Charmed Life,' a memoir; 'Jewelry's Shining Stars,' a modern jewelry design coffee table book; and 'If These Jewels Could Talk,' an in-depth look at celebrities and the stories behind their legendary jewels on the silver screen and in real life—with a fourth one in the works. She has written and continues to write for major print and online magazines on all subjects pertaining to jewelry and style.
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