Gothic. Edgy. Tacky. Which of these three adjectives would you would apply to the use of a skull in men’s jewellery design? It very much comes down to what sort of man you are. Are you the type to wrap up in leathers and hit the biker bar? The sort to start a conversation with a cheeky cufflink? Or are your tastes just far too minimalist to entertain such a piratical style statement?
Skulls are certainly divisive, but they were always meant to be. Skulls and skeletons were first depicted in jewellery as a momento mori, a way of reminding mere mortals of their transience. While this can be viewed as a morbid aide-mémoire of impending doom, it is actually considered a reminder to live well in the time you have.
In Elizabethan England, rings decorated with skulls also had a saucier undertone. Rakes and purveyors of sexual delicacies would use the symbol of the Death’s Head Skull – a skull missing the lower jaw bone – to signal intent to one another. While the Jolly Roger flying high above the deck of pirate ships of the time signalled intent of an altogether more dangerous kind.
The skull is a perennial symbol of so many conflicting ideas and a very beautiful thing – jeweller Theo Fennell
With such rich historical undertones of danger and menace, it is little wonder that the skull was picked up in the 20th century by the likes of bikers and punks. Keith Richards’ silver skull ring – gifted to him in 1978 by London jewellers David Courts and Bill Hackett, who used a real human skull to model it on – has become synonymous with rock ‘n’ roll.
London jeweller Theo Fennell has been designing men’s jewellery around skull motifs since the 1970s and his vast repertoire includes cleverly creative takes on this classic motif, including full black diamond pavé skulls with white diamond serpents snaking through the gaping eye sockets, or gold skulls dressed in hats that mark them out as NYC police, construction workers or sailors.
“The skull is a perennial symbol of so many conflicting ideas and a very beautiful thing,” says Fennell. “It stretches across the sexes, the ages and every divide. It has more symbolic heft than almost anything else and retains its ability to delight and shock in equal measure.”
Soon after rock n’ rollers fell hard for skull rings, sharp-suited business-types hoping to wreak a little havoc by flashing a pair of gemstone-encrusted skull and crossbones cufflinks in the boardroom would get in on the joke.
And not long after, the symbol was highjacked by brands high and low, leaving the high street awash with skulls of every shape, colour and countenance. Today, having a skull pendant showing through your shirt, or skulls strung up on a leather bracelet is no longer risqué; it is positively done, maybe even a bit common, perhaps?
So are we sick of skulls? Unlikely, says master jeweller, Fennell. With skulls carrying such a magnetic and poignant message of mortality and free spirit, we will never truly be done with skulls, said Fennell. “Why would they suddenly lose their appeal after thousands of years?” he questions. “The art is to find original ways of interpreting them and delighting new audiences.”
Richards, steadfast barometer of rock ‘n’ roll style, probably thinks not too. After all, nearly 40 years after first slipping his skull ring onto the third finger of his left hand, he’s yet to take it off. ML