Signs of the times

Growing up in the 1970s, I was fascinated by my mood ring’s ability to reflect my emotions, I looked to my horoscope to predict the day’s fate and I believed fervently in the talismanic power of my Scorpio medallion. 

So the resurgence in popularity of astrology-related jewelry is all the more exciting for me.  Now I get to re-experience what the “grownups” got to wear back then — jewelry that was both fashionable and personal. And, with some zodiac-related pieces commanding thousands of dollars at auction, it’s certainly worth taking a closer look at these pieces — and a look inside your own jewelry box.

The market for astrology-related jewelry has grown enormously in the last five to 10 years, according to Gus Davis of Camilla Dietz Bergeron in Manhattan. Davis has a waiting list of customers and when a zodiac piece comes in, it’s sold straight away. The heyday for this material was the late ’60s and early ’70s. Van Cleef & Arpels, Cartier, Buccellati, Tiffany & Co.  and David Webb all produced zodiac-inspired material. Today, the best way to locate your star-sign jewelry is at auction or through a dealer.

Topping the list in terms of desirability are the iconic zodiac pendants of Van Cleef & Arpels. The venerable French firm produced circular gold medallions to be worn as a pendant necklace or as a charm on a bracelet. They were fashioned in the form of ancient coins, right down to the splits and millgraining. Each medallion featured a zodiac symbol on the obverse, with the sign and dates on the reverse. Van Cleef & Arpel’s larger pendants made a much bolder and more colorful statement. Intended to be worn with a heavy gold chain, the symbol was gem-set, with hardstone backings of malachite and lapis lazuli.

The jewelry of David Webb (1925-75) is instantly recognizable, characterized by its bold scale and use of yellow gold and color, and his zodiac-inspired brooches, bracelets, belt buckles, rings and pendants are all true to form. Webb moved from Asheville, North Carolina, to New York as a teenager and by the time he was 30 had established such a presence that his jewelry appeared on four Vogue covers in one year alone. Webb designed incessantly until his early death at age 50 from pancreatic cancer. While his subject matter varied widely — from African animals to astrology to pre-Columbian artifacts — he always remained true to his taste for bold colors and large scale. Webb’s zodiac brooches are his most dramatic. First made circa 1968, they are still in production today at David Webb. The brooches feature sculpted, textured and chased gold, some set with diamond accents.

The inventive zodiac jewelry of designer Aldo Cipullo is also highly sought after today. The Italian-born Cipullo immigrated to the United States in 1961 and designed for David Webb, Tiffany & Co. and Cartier before opening his own studio in 1974. Like Webb’s, Cippulo’s career was cut short. He died of a heart attack in 1984 when in his early 40s. Cipullo is best known for designing Cartier’s iconic bracelets — the Love Bracelet, made of gold with tiny screws and a screwdriver to secure the two halves; and Juste un Clou, a bracelet of a single bent nail surrounding the wrist. Cipullos’ line of zodiac jewelry for Cartier and, later on his own, features hardstones such as rock crystal or lapis lazuli into which the zodiac sign is carved and then set into a gold frame. 

Among boutique jewelers, works from the firm of Jean Mahie are highly coveted because they are considered wearable art. Mahie’s handcrafted, one-of-a-kind pieces are always made in high karat yellow gold. Jacline Mazard, a painter, and her father-in-law, Jean Mazard, a retired businessman, began producing gold jewelry in the late ’60s, despite the fact that neither was a trained goldsmith. Their unusual partnership and a savvy marketing campaign brought early success to the firm, and Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier promoted Mahie’s work. Soon after, Neiman Marcus became and remains the sole distributor of Mahie’s jewelry in the United States. Examples of Mahie’s zodiac work from the early ’70s feature hammered gold pendants with riveted zodiac symbols.

With the resurgence of interest in astrology-related jewelry, is there any chance we’ll bring back  “What’s your sign?” as the go-to cocktail party icebreaker?

For more, contact Jenny Pitman at jenny@ragoarts.com or 917-745-2730.

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