February 10, 2013 marks the Chinese New Year. While 2012 was the year of the dragon, this time we’re ushering in the year of the snake. Those born under the sign of the snake are said to be wise, philosophical and communicative with a taste for the finer luxuries of life. The zodiacal snake is a canny creature imbued with creative determination and the ability to act decisively. The ascendance of the year of the snake brings interesting and exciting prospects to the coming months. Yet, the Chinese are not the only ones with a cultural connection to snakes. The slithering creatures figure prominently in various cultural lores as well.
From the ancient Egyptian and Greek “ouroboros” – the snake that eats its own tail – to the figure of evil that instigates the fall in the biblical Garden of Eden, the image of the snake has wended itself deep into the collective human conscience. Many people still suffer an almost instinctive fear of the creatures; they are, after all, often lethally poisonous. Still, that very lethality along with the cunning attributed to the biblical snake has lent a powerful aura to the creatures… an aura that extends to the snake’s symbolic presence.
An antique, diamond set Victorian snake ring in the style made popular by Queen Victoria.
For thousands of years, the snake has appeared as a decorative motif. The figure of the ouroboros, a circular image depicting a single snake with its tail in its mouth or a pair of snakes connected to each other in an unbroken chain of tails in mouths, has long symbolized infinity, divine wholeness, and has acted as a representation of the cyclical nature of elements. Other manifestations of the snake symbol have shown it as representing both good and evil, simultaneously healing and destroying. A perfect example of this is the caduceus or rod of Asclepius. Both icons feature a winged staff with either a pair of snakes (the caduceus) or a single snake (rod of Asclepius) twined around the staff. Whereas the caduceus is meant to be a symbol of the god Hermes and therefore related to communication and commerce, the rod of Asclepius is a symbol of healing and the medical profession. (Though the two are often confused)
In jewelry, the snake has been a favored design element for centuries. Ancient Indian legend holds that serpents are sometimes the guardians of precious gemstones – sapphires, rubies and diamonds – so it comes as no surprise that they figure prominently in jewelry. The Victorians in particular were inclined to incorporate the iconic creature into their accessories especially after Victoria began wearing her engagement ring from Albert – a golden snake ring with an emerald-set head. The association of the snake with the eternal or infinite also associated it with eternal, never-ending love and it was therefore used as a romantic motif between lovers. The fact that the staid Victorians had a taste for the occult and mystical and the snake has mythological, alchemical and occult meanings certainly helped increase the popularity of snake jewelry.
Contemporary designer Renee Lewis suspends an antique Victorian crescent moon with a twining snake as a pendant for a modern look that hints at history.
Today, serpent or snake jewelry has taken on a different signification. The sinuous curve of the snake’s body lends a femme fatale sexiness to jewelry designs. Beautiful enameling can capture the bright colors of a snakes body in a naturalistic fashion, or the dangerous design can be highly stylized in high polish gold or platinum and set with precious diamonds with glowing ruby or emerald eyes. A twining bracelet in the form of a snake can emphasize a beautiful wrist or arm and add an extremely feminine quality that seduces even as it cautions. Modern snake jewelry is a combination of rock and roll fierceness and sensuality that is a perfect and expressive accessory style for the contemporary fashionista.
French designer Mauboussin adds a feminine frill to a snake ring with creamy mother of pearl and diamonds.