Surrealist Jewelry

James T. Murray

Diamond melting clocks and sinister sapphire eyes are warped, Salvador Dalí–inspired mini works of art.

Of all the outrageous things Salvador Dalí did during his lifetime—dragging his pet ocelot all over New York, stuffing his Rolls-Royce with cauliflower, almost suffocating himself in a deep-sea-diving suit—perhaps one of his most overlooked acts was elevating the shocking tropes of Surrealism to the realm of fine jewelry. The glamorously perverse pieces he designed in collaboration with jeweler Carlos Alemany in 1941 include his diamond-encrusted Eye of Time and the pearls-for-teeth Ruby Lips brooches, works that Dalí pundits consider some of his most important.

Fast-forward more than half a century and those lips, eyes, hands and fantastical creatures appear to have crawled into the subconscious of certain jewelry designers, like Delfina Delettrez, who spurred the revival with her glittering critters, gilded skeleton hands and oneiric enamel faces. British designer Solange Azagury-Partridge’s enameled and pavéed pouts, which scan like miniature movie posters for the cult 1972 Luis Buñuel film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, are now permanent fixtures at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. In 2012 the eccentric Parisian designer Lydia Courteille introduced her Homage to Surrealism collection, which appeared to be a direct nod to Dalí with its fire-opal lobster earrings, anthropomorphic moonstone tree men and pearl-and-ruby lips. And last year Cartier reissued its Crash watch, a cult collectible, first introduced in 1967, that mimics Dalí’s melting clocks.

Perhaps no designer understands the enduring allure of Surrealism more than Victoire de Castellane, the visionary creative director of Dior Fine Jewelry. Her dreamlike flora-and-fauna creations are forged from various multicolored gems and accented with psychedelically hued lacquer. “I don’t set out to create something Surrealist,” she says. “It has to be something you are feeling.”

De Castellane recently brought that free-associative ideology to her own personal exhibit, “Precious Objects,” which ran at Gagosian Gallery on New York’s Madison Avenue. The 20-piece series shifted jewelry into art, with necklaces, bracelets, earrings and rings resting on small sculptures to become part of decorative reliefs. Said de Castellane of the show, “It speaks about concept and form as opposed to objective value.” Dalí couldn’t have put it better.