I’m forever interested in how and why symbols and motifs cycle through jewelry design. As we know, trends never exist in a vacuum—they’re influenced by the culture at large, and further shaped by the national mood.
For example, at the close of WWII in the 1940s, women gravitated toward sunny, innocent motifs such as fruit and baby animals; Trifari’s friendly Jellybelly animal brooches debuted that decade. And during the scariest part of the COVID-19 pandemic we were all wild for mushrooms and cacti—natural and (literally) grounded motifs that brought us comfort.
Now, in 2023, we’re seeing the return of surrealism, in all its upside-down trippiness, which could be a reflection of several things—political division, the feeling that as a culture we’re ready to shake things up, or simply a pendulum swing away from the classic, gem-centric jewelry that’s been so popular in recent years.
Crosses have also returned, with jewelers including Harwell Godfrey, Theo Fennel, and Colette creating new and gorgeous cross jewels. Crosses are evergreen in jewelry in general, but what’s precipitated their return to fine fashion jewelry? My guess: There’s enough upheaval in the world to make beautiful talismans of faith attractive to designers and consumers. Also, crosses were big in the late 1980s-early 1990s (remember Madonna in circa-1989 Like a Prayer?), an era designers continue to mine.
Jewels that depict the squarish Maltese cross—which has roots in heraldry and as a military emblem—are among the chicest representations of this burgeoning trend. Which made me curious about the symbol’s origins.
Turns out, the eight-pointed cross is named for the Mediterranean island of Malta, where it was first used by the Knights Hospitaller, who used the symbol on their coat of arms and as a symbol of their military and religious affiliation.
The cross, which some perceive as a symbol of protection, dates to the 11th century and remains a widely used symbol globally for everything from national flags to social clubs. It’s been a motif in jewelry for nearly as long, and is most closely associated with the house of Verdura, founded by Fulco Di Verdura, whose iconic Maltese Cross cuff bracelets—which he first made for fashion designer Coco Chanel—bear bejeweled crosses. The NYC-based atelier offers them, and other, Maltese cross pieces to this day.
The cross’ points are said to represent the eight obligations or aspirations placed on the original knights that wore it, which include loyalty, bravery, and humility—traits I think we can all agree we could use a little more of in 2023!
Top: Harwell Godfrey one-of-a-kind Maltese Cross necklace (price on request)