Snakes, which have slithered through lore and ritual since time immemorial, traditionally symbolize both good and evil. In many Abrahamic cultures, they represent seduction and sexual desire, while in others they represent health, fertility, growth, transformation and rebirth. In Egypt, Nile cobras, regal symbols of sovereignty, adorned pharaohs’ crowns. In Greek mythology, Asclepius, the god of medicine, carried a snake-entwined staff. In contrast, Medusa, a monstrous winged gorgon, had live snakes in place of hair.
The snake’s alluring duality, combined with its sinuous, fluid lines, has inspired jewelry designs ranging from wrap-around rings to coiled earrings. Greeks favored gold circlets whose snake-head terminals devoured their tails – an age-old motif symbolizing spiritual transformation as well as the eternal cycle of life, death and rebirth. Others wound wondrously worked gold bangles sporting double-snakes, symbols of wisdom, beauty, and protection from evil, around their wrists or arms.
Slender, spiraling, snake-themed Roman gold hair rings, earrings, armlets and bracelets have survived to the present to reach the auction block. In May 2022, Hindman sold a gold scaly-skinned Roman-Egyptian snake bangle, its double-heads poised to strike and its tongues flicking, for $4,750 plus the buyer’s premium.
Snake-themed jewelry spread through Europe from the mid-1800s, after Prince Albert marked his engagement to Queen Victoria by designing an ornate coiled-snake engagement ring as a symbol of everlasting love. Other pieces linking snakes with love soon appeared. Snake-head pendants suspended on slinky gold chains dangled plump, tender hearts from their reptilian mouths. Elegantly enameled snake-shaped bracelets shimmered with gemstones. Brooches coiled coyly into snaky figure-eight infinity symbols or, as with a radiant garden snake (lazing-at-his-leisure) pendant-pin that realized $1,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Reverie auction house in September 2020, looped into remarkably realistic replicas.
Still other pieces, such as an exceptional gold and silver amethyst, emerald and diamond snake necklace featuring an articulated coiling body in adjustable lengths and dating from the same era, earned £26,000 (about $31,390) plus the buyer’s premium at Elmwood’s in August 2021.
Asymmetrical snake motif brooches, stick pins, pendants, cufflinks, rings and earrings also cunningly curled though the Art Nouveau Era. Beginning in the 20th century, prestigious jewelry houses offered interpretations all their own. Cartier introduced its famed undulating platinum snake necklace in 1919 and its spectacular, fully flexible life-size snake necklace, scaled with 2,473 brilliant and baguette-cut diamonds, followed decades later. In addition, the company produced a series of vibrant 18K gold snake rings set with small round-cut pave set diamonds and gleaming ruby eyes.
In the 1940s, the Italian luxury fashion house Bulgari, inspired by ancient Roman armlets, introduced its popular and powerful Serpenti collection. Although some of its watch-bracelets reflected the hues of actual snakes, the majority were produced in more striking scaly palettes. A circa-1970s multi-colored enamel bracelet-watch featuring two pear-shape diamond eyes and a Jaeger Le Coultre movement achieved $132,500 plus the buyer’s premium at Bidhaus in May 2021.
Bulgari also gained fame for its sensational snake-like Tubogas timepieces, rings, bracelets and necklaces. These supple treasures, created by interlocking coiled bands of steel or gold horizontally around long flexible tubes, seemingly brought reptilian forms to life.
Maison Boucheron, a jewelry house based in Paris, distinguished itself with its Serpent Boheme Collection. The line’s delicate, subtle designs employ slim, chased, scale-like strands of gold enfolding elegant, teardrop-shape diamond, lapis lazuli, coral, citrine or garnet “snake heads.” But Boucheron’s Kaa collection, inspired by a massive rock python indigenous to Pakistan, India and Southeast Asia, is far more fearsome. Kaa clip-on cocktail earrings, glinting with rubies and emeralds, rival Kaa crossover rings, fashioned with mouths agape and fangs flashing, for imbuing a superlative jewelry design with a hint of malevolence.
Snake motifs are timeless, uniting primal beauty with long-established cultural allusions. When worn as jewelry, these mysterious curving shapes can project personal strength, self-confidence and power.