How lust inspired the British designer’s iconic Bumblebee pendant.
Dubbed a memoir of making things, Alex Monroe has released Two Turtle Doves, a book that details the stories behind his best-loved jewellery collections and the influence of his life growing up in the Suffolk countryside. In this extract, he describes the inspiration behind the brand’s bestselling Bumblebee necklace.
The purest moment of creation is right at the very start: that tiny inkling, the appearance of the spark of an idea. It’s got to have enough about it to keep you at the bench, grinding away, hour upon hour and day after day.
And it doesn’t stop there. It has to grow into a full collection. A beautiful simple centrepiece that anyone can wear.
One of those moments came to me once in Switzerland, when I was climbing up through the forests of Grindelwald, retracing the path taken by Sherlock Holmes on his way to his final, fateful meeting with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. As Watson did Holmes, my companion had briefly abandoned me, and I was enjoying the solitude.
Eventually I sat and rested, settling on a cool rock. The lower branches of these tall pines were bare. Thin shafts of light pierced the scented canopy and fell on puddles of rainwater collected in the rocks and mosses. It smelled of damp woody earth and pine, and promises of a summer to come. Delicate flowers grew in the crevices – dog’s-tooth violets and mountain pasqueflower, with downy purple heads drooping like bells. Others, tiny ones, I didn’t recognise. A scattering of mushrooms had popped out from the lush brown peaty soil, fleshy caps on spindly stalks, looking as if they hadn’t been there a few minutes earlier. As I sat and watched, a couple of ants went about their business. I tracked their path from where I sat. They were purposeful, and oblivious to me. A few bees flew low. It was early summer so I guessed they were looking for a good place to nest. You could almost see them deciding, bumbling around over crevices and rotten tree trunks, checking out one spot after another. One was distracted by an encounter with a violet with curled-back petals and irresistibly laden stamen.
I could see the bee suspended, hanging on, legs powdery with pollen.
This is exactly it, I thought. This has got it. It wasn’t so much the scene itself, but the moment, which had an element of fantasy and magic about it, exactly what I wanted to explore in the new collection. Dark and light. A kind of fairy tale. But it was also very real. I breathed it in, felt it on my skin. I was part of it, and I wanted to tell the world about it.
This is how my bee is born. As it happens, at this particular time – it’s 2007, a lingering summer – I’d just made a particularly delicate and pretty collection in silver with gold highlights. All very English countryside, teensy-weensy and self-consciously cute. So I want to move away from that mood and get a little bit saucy. A counterpoint. Something grown up. And that’s when, among a great muddle of ideas whirring round in my head (picture an open filing cabinet with a fan trained on it at full blast) good old sex leaps to the fore. Sex is saucy, and so is lust. And I’d always felt I was better at the latter. But lust is a sin. I wonder why? Suddenly, I have a starting point…
I’m cross with myself because I’ve just missed a Lucas Cranach exhibition at Somerset House, but he’s still on my mind. In fact he’s probably what lodged this idea in my head. So I pull out all my old history of art books and do a bit of reading up. Forget about lust, I decide. Lucas Cranach is reminding me of the sauciest sin of all, the first and the best: original sin. Now I’ve got forbidden fruit to play with. Adam and Eve. I like this painting a lot. The crispness of each detail: the subtle curve of Eve’s big toe; the gentleness of the animals and the way each one seems to fix you with a forgiving gaze. But then I realise that I like Cranach’s painting Cupid Complaining to Venus even more. Funnily enough, the pale crags and pine trees in the far distance remind me a little of Grindelwald. Here’s another tree, more apples, another beautiful elongated nude with a branch twining suggestively through her bare legs. Venus’s toe is remarkably similar to Eve’s, and they stand in just the same way too, one straight leg slightly crossed in front of the other.
And there’s poor little Cupid, hand on golden head just like Adam, quite baffled at what’s happened. Bees are crawling all over his fleshy arm, bees on skin and feathery wings; huge bees, one with a head like a grinning skull and bizarrely, an extra pair of hairy legs. Cupid looks thoroughly fed up with them, as if he can’t believe his bad luck. And I look at him and think, You suck the honey, you pay the price. Adam and Eve learned that one the hard way too. The inevitable pain of love.
Apples and snakes and passion flowers all present their own challenges, but my plan is to focus first on one piece to tie the whole collection together. That centrepiece. The agony that comes with sweetness. The unavoidable sting. The bee.
Cranach is in my thoughts as I sit low at my bench. Searching through a small cardboard tray full of scraps of silver rod, I pull out a piece 15mm in diameter. It’s about 10cm long so I can carve the bee from one end while holding the other. This is a piece that needs to have some weight. Physical weight, that is. But it’s looking for presence too. Sorrow, regret, pathos. And also strength and femininity. Taking my piercing saw, I cut into the silver. I cut away the shape I’m imagining, first from above, and then from either side. Hours pass.
It’s not till after lunch on Monday that I can cut myself off from the outside world again. Surrounded by my notes and my pictures and my drawings, I start again on Day Two with a fretsaw whose blade is as thin as a hair. Again I begin to cut out the essential form from a thick silver rod. Each leg then has to be carved out separately and soldered on. Last of all the wings, tiny shapes traced from my sketchbook and cut out in wafer-thin silver. Each one is cautiously soldered in place, then I engrave the fragile vein pattern into all four wings.
I sit back and look at her, and she looks wonderful. Just as I’d imagined. Everything I wanted to say, all my thoughts over the past months, finally encapsulated in this little piece of silver.
Reader Offer: To order Alex Monroe’s Two Turtle Doves at 30% discount please visit www.bloomsbury.com/alexmonroe and enter AlexMonroe30 at the checkout when you place your order. Offer ends December 31 2014.
This Book Club extract was taken from the April issue of Professional Jeweller. To read the issue in full online, click here.