Since the ages of prehistory mankind has been fascinated by snakes. These alien creatures, limbless and covered with intricately patterned scales were both extremely beautiful and, in some cases, dangerous. This combination of beauty and power over life and death means that they have been woven into the folklore and myth of virtually every human culture.
Snakes have been immortalised in carvings, paintings and sculptures that stretch back into ancient antiquity, and each culture has attached their own significance to these works.
In ancient Egyptian culture the likeness of a rearing cobra was attached to the crown of the pharaohs themselves. This ‘uraeus’ represented the primal goddess Wadjet, daughter of the sun god Ra and the protector of Egypt. These centrepieces were elaborately crafted in pure gold with a multitude of precious stones embedded within them, and were intricately linked with the concept that the Pharoah was a living god.
The same culture also believed in Apophis, the great serpent of darkness and enemy of Ra whose purpose was to prevent the sunrise. Priests would engage in rituals designed to destroy the snake god and ensure that Ra was able to raise the sun into the sky each morning.
The Aztec and Mayan cultures venerated the serpent in the form of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent. Quetzalcoatl was the god of the air and of learning, and his sign was a conch shell cut in cross section to reveal the spirals of the shell’s formation.
Snake symbols have also existed in multiple different ancient cultures in the same form. The ‘Ouroboros’ is an ancient symbol which depicts a snake devouring its own tail. This represents the endless circle of life and death, or the infinite itself.
The bible’s book of Genesis contains Christianity’s most notable serpent. In the Garden of Eden it was the snake who encouraged Eve to sin against God’s commandments. The fruit offered to Eve was from the Tree of Knowledge of Life and Death, and once it had been tasted the innocence of the first man and woman was lost, along with their place in the garden.
The later book of Revelations directly associates the form of the snake with the devil, saying:
“He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.” (Rev 20:2)
Given these negative connotations it would be reasonable to assume that the serpent had shed some of its earlier, more positive meanings, but that is not true.
Queen Victoria’s Serpent
During the early years of her reign Queen Victoria, even then much beloved by her people, began a courtship with Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg. The public was fascinated by their young love and followed news of their exploits reported in the papers of the day. When Albert gifted Victoria with a snake ring with emerald eyes such creations suddenly became intensely fashionable. The serpent came to represent the purity and unending nature of the young queen’s love for her prince.
Unfortunately the queen’s love was not to last, as Prince Albert contracted typhoid fever and died in mid December 1861. Victoria was to reign for forty more years but she did so alone. She took to wearing mourning jewellery and sombre colours, and these fashions spilled over into what most people recognise as the enduring tone of the Victorian era.
Perhaps as an antidote to this tragedy in the present the Victorian people looked to the past. Archaeological digs had unearthed treasures that the world had not seen in thousands of years. The tombs of ancient Egyptian pharaohs were unearthed, and magnificent items were found within.
These discoveries led to the Etruscan Revival movement, which sought to recapture the designs and styles of the ancient past. The ureaus prominently displayed on the crown of each pharaoh or rising from the pure gold of their elaborate death masks showed the earlier cultures associations with the snake – Life and death, power and the infinite.
It was the combination of this ancient myth and the memory of Victoria’s pure doomed love which spawned a multitude of beautiful objects. Some pieces were crafted as Victoria’s had been, as emerald-eyed rings, but the jewellers of the day took the snake and explored it with a variety of forms and materials.
This Victorian snake ring is formed from 18ct gold, forming a shank with three loops of the creature’s body and ending with two emerald eyes in a similar style to Victoria’s famous ring. The craftsman has increased the intricacy of the piece by adding a cabochon cut opal atop the serpent’s head, which glimmers with an ever shifting inner fire.
The Victorian brooch above has focused on detail, outlining a much more true-to-life depiction of the serpent’s face through fine engraving. The loops and swirls of the creature’s body are organic, but balanced on either side in a figure-eight loop representing infinity. The yellow gold it is crafted from has taken on a rosy patina over time, creating a two-tone effect that further highlights the realism of the carving.
This brooch, also crafted in the Victorian era, is inlaid with turquoise and garnet, mimicking the blue lapiz lazuli and rubies often found in the ancient Egyptian pieces which began to Etruscan Revival. Once again the infinite is represented by the snake’s figure-eight body, and the addition of a heart clutched in the snake’s mouth adds a romantic element to it.
Just as the Victorians were not the first to create jewellery inspired by the form of snakes nor were they the last. The above piece was crafted during the Art Deco movement, when jewellery began to be constructed using new technologies which were not available to Victorian jewellers.
Rather than realistically depict the snake, the jeweller has chosen to stylise the serpent’s scales into a repeating geometric pattern, a common design choice in the Art Deco period. During this time the focus was on the aesthetic appeal of a piece rather than the value of its materials exclusively, hence the decision to use a bright pink paste stone in the snake’s head.
The detail in this piece is a testament to the patience and skill of the original craftsman, and it speaks to the enduring quality of snake imagery. Jewellery has been forged in the likeness of snakes since prehistoric times, and it seems likely that the jewellers of the future will continue to immortalise these creatures for many years to come.
At Laurelle Antique Jewellery we have spent many years acquiring new and interesting pieces of antique snake jewellery for our customers. Our collection is constantly being updated with new pieces, and you can view the full selection here.
Have a question about one of our pieces? Our expert staff are always happy to provide more information, images or footage of our pieces in motion. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or give us a call on England: 0333 700 4500.
Find out more about the jewellery of the Victorian era here.