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.)
For Taffin’s James de Givenchy, a sapphire acquisition—an incredible pair of carved wings—inspired a 9/11 tribute piece. His epic brooch, likewise dubbed Phoenix, is worked up in blue, orange (a fire opal) and white (a South Sea pearl), the colors of the New York flag, and is meant to symbolize Manhattan rising from the ashes of the terrorist attacks. Although he already had the wings in his possession, after 9/11, Givenchy settled on the notion of a memorial item. While he has no idea for what the wings were originally created, “they’re very pretty,” he says. “I could have done something else with them—they’re perfect for earrings.” In the end, though, Givenchy found himself drawn to the idea of honoring his adopted city. “I’ve lived half of my life here now, so New York is my town,” he says. “I’m French, but America is my home.”
Solange Azagury-Partridge’s winged headpiece sprang from a far less serious place: a jaunty trophy she designed in 2006 for London’s Fashion Fringe awards. “He had a helmet and fringing, and I put these wings on him,” she says, describing the figurine. “The wings were so fabulous, I thought, I can’t bear to only ever do them once.” Named Mercury, after the messenger of the gods, the piece, which Azagury-Partridge likes to call a headband, features wings of blackened gold that nestle right above the ears. “It turns everyone who wears it into a bit of an angel,” she says. Well, actually, she corrects, “they look devilish and angelic at the same time because of the positioning of the wings.”
The winged variety of headbands, tiaras—whatever one chooses to call them—has been making the scene in high society for eons, says Lee Siegelson, president and owner of Siegelson, a New York jewelry house that specializes in fine collectibles. He cites a lengthy list of jewelry superstars who dabbled in them, including Giuliano, Cartier, Fouquet and Boucheron. “It all started in the second half of the 19th century,” Siegelson explains, pointing out the immense influence of the winged Valkyries in Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas. “It was at that time that Wagner’s operas went from just theater to fancy-dress balls,” he says. “And then the winged tiara became more fashionable.”
Although history has inspired countless winged items, Fred Leighton owner Ralph Esmerian, a renowned purveyor of estate jewels, believes blockbuster popcorn movies are driving a renewed interest in feathered adornments. “A great pair of wings in jewelry can denote so many things, whether it’s peace, tranquility or flight into dreams,” says Esmerian. “And then you have the other side of life, the wings of dragons, which in recent times may have been inspired by movies like Jurassic Park, The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. And suddenly we’re seeing a lot of tattoos with wings in them.” (Pharrell Williams, Balthazar Getty and Nicole Richie are just a few of the celebs sporting wings on one body part or another.)
“Dragons and tattoos don’t necessarily mean tranquility, but rather power and violence,” Esmerian adds. “Those, to me, are more explosive, and, in a funny way, more inspirational than the more dormant, peaceful wings of a dove.”
Like Siegelson, Esmerian can rattle off a tidy list of latter-day jewelers who worked feathers into their designs. “I wrote my senior thesis on jeweled wings,” he jokes before adding Castellani, Froment-Meurice and Lalique to the roster. “Wings come and go in cycles; they’re a recurring theme,” he says. “They can be escapist, because they read flight immediately. And though they aren’t like a cross, which can ward off evil spirits, they can also symbolize protection. Wings stand for so many things.”