A short history: jewels for cats and inspired by cats

We’re all familiar with the “big cat” jewels typified by the Cartier panther. I’m here to talk about jewelry inspired by the garden-variety domestic shorthair, the kind that prowls the jungle of our living rooms.

We’ve seen $3.2mil diamond dog collars, but what about the feline? Such elegant creatures. Surely there must be high-octane bling out there for them? Not so much. There are some cute “non-precious” baubles cat owners may find hard to resist. The cats themselves? Well….

Cat necklace from TrendyKitty, Etsy

“How long is she going to torture me?” Turquoise cat necklace from TrendyKitty, $13.80 on Etsy

(I took the liberty of retitling this necklace, apologies to TrendyKitty.)

We don’t “show” cats publicly, as we do dogs. Cats are more of a private pleasure, which may be why you won’t find many show-stopping baubles designed for them. You can find some cheap but fetching faux-pearl cat collars and a few handmade ones with gemstone pendants to dangle from them on Etsy, but most are tagged “dog” as well as “cat.”

This one by Ravenmood, while pictured on a cat, is listed as a “fashion collar” for “cat or dog or any pet with a neck.”

Handmade beaded dog/cat collar from Ravenmood, Etsy

Handmade beaded dog/cat collar from Ravenmood, $89

TOM K gemsone cat pendants

TOM K dog/cat pendant of gold-filled sterling with smokey quartz, lemon quartz, amethyst, or rose quartz, $75 each

I’d feel offended by this lack of luxury for my feline friends, except I suspect they’d roll their perfect eyes: Honey, who needs help when you look this good? Mine always resented any attempt to collar them anyway. My last two were males and neither would keep a collar on for long. I don’t know how they managed to ditch them but they did, the moment I turned my back. I had to resort to those plastic lock-tabs: not exactly high-end.

Paddy would have rocked this skull collar by TOM K of Etsy. Paddy was pretty bad-ass, a brawny ginger tabby who was always getting into street fights, then charming saucers of milk from neighborhood ladies.
TOM K skull collar on Etsy

High-karat gold would have better suited Fred: tall, sleek, black and housebound. In fact, a small version of the ancient gold collar I showed here would have transformed him into the Sphinx. People were always comparing Fred to the Sphinx, despite what a goofball he actually was.

Why do we make automatic associations with Ancient Egypt when we see a slender cat sitting upright, in that graceful, mysterious, unflinching way? Maybe because stylized cats are always popping up in Greek art.

Cats were revered in Ancient Egypt, which is why the seated cat is a classic motif of ancient Greek jewelry.

Egyptian amulet necklace, c. 1550-332 B.C.

Egyptian necklace (detail), c. 1550-332 B.C. of carnelian beads with amulets including a glazed composition seated cat, a lapis lazuli uraeus with cat’s head, and pomegranate vessels. Sold for $1,059 at Bonhams, London, September 2014.

Egyptian bead necklace, c. 664 B.C.

Egyptian necklace (detail), c. 664-30 B.C., of green glazed-composition beads in the shape of the god Bes and small seated-cat beads. Sold for $963 at Bonhams, London, Oct. 22, 2013

Bastet, from Egypt, c. 664-30 BC. (©Trustees of the British Museum)

Bastet, from Egypt, c. 664-30 BC. (©Trustees of the British Museum)

This bronze figure of cat-headed goddess Bastet, right, now in the British Museum, was made around the same time as the second necklace, Late Period Egypt, about six centuries B.C. Bastet translates literally to “she of the ointment jar,” the museum catalog tells us, reflecting her soothing and peaceful nature.

“Bastet was the protective aspect of the feline goddess, perhaps because the cat takes good care of its kittens,” according to the museum. “The aggressive aspect is represented by Sekhmet, goddess of destruction.”

Well, that about sums up the cat, doesn’t it?

Egyptians worshipped both extremes with great fanfare, including the festival of Bastet, which sounds like the ancient version of a rave.

Around four centuries B.C., Greek historian Herodotus described the lead-up to this festival, a procession by boats filled with musicians playing instruments, singing and clapping. When the boats approached, villagers would run out and dance along the banks, calling out to the band. The festival itself, held at the temple of Bastet, involve “a large number of sacrifices and the consumption of copious amounts of wine by the crowds that attended.”

Jade carving of cat with dragonfly

But it wasn’t only Egypt that held the cat in high regard. The feline is lovingly depicted in paintings and gem carvings from ancient China and Japan as well.

Some jade cat pendants, carved in relief during the Qing Dynasty, 18th/19th century, are coming up for sale this month at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, including a couple cats cuddling up with giant dragonflies. This cat at Sotheby’s Asian Art auction is curled up on a palm fan. He’s being sold with another pendant with a jade cat on a plantain leaf.

“The cat, a symbol of longevity, and a dragonfly, represents wishes for a long life, and would have made a suitable birthday present,” according to Sotheby’s catalog.

By turn-of-the-century Japan, the cat has gotten lazy, fat and happy in the form of ivory netsuke.

Cat netsuke Cat netsuke, back view

Netsuke by Miyagi Chokusai, late 19th/early 20th century, sold for $5,395 at Bonhams

Made around the same time in England, this is how the wearable cat was being depicted in Europe – as a girl’s best friend.

Girl with cat locket

This one is in the form of locket on a sapphire and diamond rosary bead necklace sold at Bonhams, Oxford, in 2013. It depicts a maiden holding a cat, her arm accented with a cuff of rose-cut diamonds. The catalog doesn’t specify when it was made, but it looks Pre-Raphaelite.

Doesn’t look like Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted a girl with a cat, but American painter William Morris Hunt did. Here is Hunt’s “Girl with Cat” from 1856, from Boston’s Museum of Fine Art, beside my niece with hers.

"Girl with Cat," 1856, by William Morris Hunt (MFA) and Audrey Walton with Potter, 2015

“Girl with Cat,” 1856, by William Morris Hunt (MFA) and Audrey Walton with Potter (current incarnation of Sekhmet, feline goddess of destruction), 2015

Just to make the point that, while we might not be making diamond collars for them or worshipping cat goddesses, some things (about cats) haven’t changed.

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6 comments for “A short history: jewels for cats and inspired by cats

  1. Suzeee
    September 2, 2015 at 6:02 pm

    I think I must buy some cat bling! Love this story

  2. September 2, 2015 at 6:14 pm

    Is this Suzeee, mother of the keeper of Sekhmet? I think Potter will tolerate cat bling for, oh, about five seconds. Ziggy might put up with it for a full minute, just to make you happy.

  3. SAhrendsen
    September 3, 2015 at 11:10 am

    Thanks so much for the cat follow-up to the dog bling. So true that cats barely tolerate getting dolled up for any occasion. I always enjoy your giving me a deeper look into the fabulous world of jewelry and all things gem-wonderful. For me, the cat represents quiet strength and dignity on the outside and adventurous, devilishness on the inside. Purrfect….

  4. kat newkirk
    September 3, 2015 at 11:26 am

    How about a follow-up story: Jewels that Depict Cats ? Not the big wild cats of Cartier fame, but the ‘domesticated’ feline? There are tons of costume jewelry makers that have cat-themed jewelry, but I don’t know of any contemporary fine jewelers with this theme.

  5. September 4, 2015 at 4:20 pm

    I will keep an eye out, Kat. The ones I’ve seen so far were kind of cartoony/cutesy. I think a lot of cat lovers do see their cats in those wild cats. I can see mine!

  6. September 5, 2015 at 1:46 pm

    I love the stone carvings! My cat liked it too.

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