High Jewelry’s Walk on the Wild Side


PARIS — At a time when many luxury collections are focusing on nature, Elie Top is going all the way back to the forest primeval.

With what he calls his most technically accomplished high jewelry collection to date, three years in the making, the designer has moved beyond the gothic, “Game of Thrones”-style aesthetic that he had favored since founding the brand that bears his name in 2015.

“I wanted to do things that were primordial, more reptilian, like a branch of evolution that stopped,” Mr. Top, 44, said during a preview in June in his salon on the Rue St.-Honoré. “I also wanted to show that I could do something different, and, at the same time, structurally, it’s not unlike a gothic cathedral. Or gargoyles.”

But while his Magica Naturae collection evokes elementary creatures, it also nods to Mr. Top’s earliest impressions in the fashion industry — as a 19-year-old intern and fledgling illustrator (also responsible for unrolling fabrics) at Yves Saint Laurent.

One of the first pieces of art that Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Bergé, acquired was a bird sculpture by the Senufo people of Ivory Coast, purchased in 1960. The wooden totem was displayed prominently in all the designer’s homes in Paris, and it now stands in the Musée Yves Saint Laurent in Marrakesh, Morocco.

In Mr. Top’s hands, the statue’s form has been rendered as the Calao (hornbill) pendant in rose and yellow gold, the belly of the bird set with a row of old mine-cut diamonds, and its wings with two lines of smaller diamonds. Its scale-like finish was inspired by a pair of 19th-century pétanque balls that Mr. Top bought on eBay. (Pétanque is a tossing game played in France.) Made of wood, the balls are sheathed in nails with wide heads in coppery, silver and black patinas.

“There’s something animal and organic about that surface,” the designer said, “but it’s not figurative — it’s urban. It reminds me of the pavés de Paris,” he added, comparing the scale-like finish to the French capital’s cobblestone streets.

That effect inspired a bestiary of five creations: In addition to the pendant, there are a chameleon ring; an emerald crocodile ring spanning four fingers; a snake bracelet; and a large tortoise pendant, the carapace set with orange, yellow and cognac sapphires and diamonds, and a beryl.

Mr. Top designed figurative pieces, like turtles and snakes, during the 17 years he worked with Alber Elbaz, first at Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche and then at Lanvin. But those were made of resin and strass (imitation diamonds).

“I kept the volumes I used to use for costume jewelry, but now they’ve become as sophisticated as possible,” the designer said. “It’s like working with real little characters; the atelier even gave them first names.”

The Senufo-style pendant and the tortoise are each priced at 90,000 euros (about $105,530), but their distinctive scales can also be seen on less expensive pieces, including a saber tooth-shaped pendant or the sculptural Dorsale ring, both in gold and distressed silver with diamonds (€12,500 and €9,800), as well as a handful of fine-jewelry designs in polished and hand-patinated silver with touches of gold, priced from €2,300.

“I wanted to make a statement in terms of style and design, but also incorporate pieces that are more accessible,” Mr. Top said. “You can’t be submerged by the preciousness of a thing. If wearing jewelry means losing your freedom, it’s hell.”

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