Symbolism in glass jewellery

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Pictured above: Some of Alexis Berger’s glass jewellery

Symbolism has always been integral to human culture. Often much more than just a pretty trinket, jewellery can inform us about the wearer, whether it be through a wedding ring or a good luck talisman, writes Catherine Rose. 

Written and narrated by Catherine Rose 

Listen to Catherine narrate her feature

Although the Mesopotamians produced glass beads 2,000 years ago, and used pâte de verre to inlay jewellery, it was the Romans who proliferated glass jewellery making. Working alongside a glass blower, a cutter could refine the material until it resembled a gemstone. They would add metal oxides for colour, and invented dichroic glass by incorporating small pieces of silver and gold. Glass became so valuable that it was recycled and slag traded across the empire.  

Superstitious Ancient Rome was fond of its emblems. Symbols that could have been found in jewellery included the Herculian knot – a precursor to the wedding ring – symbolising fidelity, fertility and a happily married life; the mano figa or “fig hand” – a charm against ill; and the cimaruta or “sprig of rue” – a branched amulet representing the moon goddess Diana Triforma as a maiden, mother and crone. Used as a protection for babies and children, it was either hung above the crib or worn around the neck. 

During the 15th century, Venetian glass artists developed highly secret lampworking techniques that were kept within the confines of the island of Murano under penalty of imprisonment. Their exquisite beads were so valued, they were used as currency.  

Intense patterns of colour 

Incorporating intense patterns of colour, Murano glass jewellery has been described as “like wearing the entire Italian Renaissance colour palette drenched in the magical mosaics of the most romantic Venetian vistas”. Whether it be the iconic 14th century chevron or rosetta beads, lattimo (milky porcelain-like glass ideal for enamelling onto gold and silver) or wedding cake beads (fiorato), Murano jewellery is a longstanding metaphor for luxury and wealth. Venetian glass jewellers use the same techniques today. 

The reticent Victorians perfected the art of symbolism on a universal scale, from the language of flowers to the meanings hidden within Pre-Raphaelite artworks. Jewellery was no exception with the colours, theme and placement of stones all having hidden codes. The 19th century popularised gems made from paste, a type of flint or lead glass invented for jewellery during the 18th century as an effective substitute for precious stones.  

Innovations in glass in the 20th century 

The advent of the 20th century saw a great innovative age for glass-working with outstanding masters like Emile Gallé, Louis Comfort Tiffany and René Lalique pushing its boundaries.  

Jewellery makers of La Belle Époque preferred to combine precious materials with non-precious ones, creating a craftsman-like synergy and aesthetic that was both novel and versatile. Lalique would incorporate glass into his jewellery alongside diamonds and pearls.  

Subjects were ethereal and feminine – women, dragonflies, foliage and butterflies were popular, embodying nature and eroticism.  

Pâte de verre was rediscovered alongside plique-à-jour (French for “letting in daylight”), an almost entirely lost 14th century glass enamelling technique. It was used to create delicate stained-glass effects in jewellery – ideal for the representation of insect wings and gossamer dresses. 

Historical elements can still be found in contemporary glasswork. 

Alexis Berger creates glass jewellery steeped in history  

Californian jewellery artist Alexis Berger designs and crafts glass jewellery reminiscent of a bygone age in its colour and fine detail, while symbolism drawn from mythology, history and nature is one of her driving forces. 

Persephone in Repose by Alexis Berger

Alexis graduated from SOTA (San Francisco School of Arts) and RSID (Rhode Island School of Design) with a Bachelor of Arts in Industrial Design in 2005, giving her a strong foundation in how to tackle all kinds of materials, from metal and ceramic to plastics. A keen crocheter, she traded crochet lessons for glass beadmaking classes while teaching at Buck’s Rock summer art camp in Connecticut. Completely hooked, she set up a lampworking studio in her basement and began to experiment.  

Alexis became a full-time glass jewellery artist 14 years ago, founding her own studio in Berkeley, California, where she works using soda lime glass and findings sourced worldwide. With a refined lampworking method, her beautifully detailed beadwork is reminiscent of the intricacy of 15th century Murano glass. 

“Part of the reason my beads look antique is because I use a cooler torch which is similar to older set ups” she explains. “I prefer that because I like a lot of surface detail.” 

Alexis Berger wearing her mano figas and eye earrings

Symbolism in Alexis’s glass 

One of Alexis’s main motifs is the aforementioned Ancient Roman mano figa. “It has always been slightly taboo,” explains Alexis. “It refers to female genitalia, and that shocking and forbidden quality adds to the gesture’s power to frighten away evil.  

“Considered especially effective as a fertility talisman, it gained popularity in Victorian Europe worn as jewellery and is commonly found in Italy, Portugal and Brazil as a charm to protect children. The duality of fertility as sacred and sex as profane makes this symbol incredibly powerful and loaded with meaning across many cultures and belief systems.” 

Inspired by her mother’s small ebony mano figa from Brazil, it took Alexis a while to figure out how to reproduce it in glass. Now she sells an array of mano figas in different designs, strung on either ribbons or crocheted chains she fashions herself. All of them make a symbolic statement. 

“A customer once said when they first saw my work, it was as if they remembered it. I connected with that,” Alexis says. “Like many women, I find it hard to set boundaries. We are trained to be accommodating. What I love about the mano figa is that it’s a beautiful feminine object that says very politely ‘f*** off’, which is a strong place to sit mentally.” 

Birds are another favourite symbolic motif for Alexis Berger as demonstrated by these earrings

Enthusiastic about mythology and drawn to duality, Alexis’s latest mano figa is “Persephone in Repose”. Because Persephone was both the Greek goddess of spring and Queen of the Underworld, the mano figa holds a miniature pomegranate (fruit from the land of the dead), a flower and a leaf.  

The ocean has long been a particularly strong poetic metaphor. Alexis’s Birth of Venus mano figa carries a bouquet of bubbles, a reference to Venus’s emergence from sea foam.  

Another mano figa was inspired by the well-known Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. Painted later in her reign, it is replete with Tudor symbolism, including a jewelled snake with a heart embroidered on the Queen’s sleeve to show that although a woman, she was in control of her intellect and emotions.  

One of Alexis Berger’s mano figas

“Elizabeth understood the strength of symbolism to convey her power to the public,” explains Alexis. “Every little thing [in the painting] means something. I wanted the mano figa to be an echo of female strength. It tells us that every woman is a queen who knows her own heart.” 

Echoing the emblematic embroidery on Queen Elizabeth’s gown, another common motif in Alexis’s work is the eye, which she renders with eerie realism. Reminiscent of the ancient “evil eye”, she believes it is as important as the hand.   

“They are the two things I use to both create and enjoy the world,” she says.  

The jewellery we wear can speak volumes, but with its infinite capacity to be moulded, cut, coloured and shaped, perhaps it is glass jewellery that has the last word. 

Instagram: @alexis.berger