It was the bathroom wallpaper at the Hotel Raphael in Paris that inspired Waris Ahluwalia to fly among the clouds, creatively speaking. The peripatetic House of Waris founder (he splits most of his time between New York, Rome and Jaipur, India) was so taken with two birds in the pattern that he immediately envisioned them morphing into elaborate, hand-enameled pendants. “It was love at first sight,” he says of the winged creatures, which he christened Raphael and Roma. “And I saw what was to come.”
Before long those feathered friends were joined by others—Liberté, Octavian, Spero and Virgil—in his Omnia Vincit Amor (Love Conquers All) collection. And from the get-go, Ahluwalia felt his flock would be best realized in a format that puts a fresh twist on old-school Indian jewelrymaking. By featuring the enameling on the front of each of the 24-karat gold pieces rather than the back, where it is traditionally relegated, Ahluwalia fused convention with modernity. “With this collection,” he says, “I’m exploring the old techniques and updating them.”
Simply by deploying wings as a motif, Ahluwalia is tapping into a centuries-old tradition. Inspired by some seriously creaky iconography—from mythology’s Icarus, Mercury and Hermes to Renaissance putti dotting the cathedral ceilings of southern Italy—jewelers have been gussying up gowns and anchoring lapels with wings for ages.
Take, for instance, the archives of Verdura, which owner Ward Landrigan says are positively chock-a-block with them. “Wings were one of [Fulco di Verdura’s] favorite motifs,” Landrigan says. “He was born in Palermo in 1898, and his home was very grand. Every square inch is decorated with flying this and that, putti, angels, you name it. He was steeped in it.”
Many of the house’s winged items wound up in famous hands. According to Landrigan, a brooch featuring diamond wings flanking a pink topaz was worn by Joan Fontaine in the 1941 Hitchcock film Suspicion. “There’s a marvelous still of Cary Grant pouring tea for her, and she’s wearing the piece,” Landrigan says. “It’s a sexy picture.” Later, the brooch was snapped up by Henry Fonda as a gift for one of his many wives.
To this day, Verdura continues to craft winged pieces from archival sketches. After Landrigan’s son happened upon a spectacular sapphire a few years ago, the company earmarked it for a Forties-style brooch in the shape of a phoenix ringed with diamonds. Although there’s no buyer in mind, Landrigan is convinced that finding one won’t be a problem. “Someone will fall in love with it,” he asserts. “Women like feathers.” (The fashion industry appears to be banking on the same assumption; fall collections, including those from Fendi, Marchesa and Burberry Prorsum, featured a panoply of plumes.)