‘The Golden Menagerie’ Explores Creatures of Myth and Gemstone

Temple St. Clair sums up three haute couture jewelry collections in new book
By Catherine Yang
Catherine Yang
Catherine Yang
December 4, 2016 Updated: January 31, 2017

The mythical creatures, animals of folklore, and romanticized, extinct creatures immortalized by jewelry designer Temple St. Clair have been bound together in “The Golden Menagerie,” a book of 100-plus illustrations to be published on Dec. 5.

The book gives the the reader an exclusive view into the artistry and process of creating gold and gemstone haute couture jewelry, with luminous photography that brings each jeweled creature to life.

“The Golden Menagerie” shows St. Clair’s three haute couture collections in three different chapters, complete with her writings on the subjects and watercolor works.

“Mythical Creatures,” the first chapter, views subjects through a fairy tale lens, with pieces like The Phoenix Chicks, The Sea Dragon, and The Frog Prince.

Chapter two, “Wings of Desire,” looks at history and folklore, with three sculptural rings showing the life cycles of birds of prey; a series of five rings depicting mythological and mythologized winged creatures like the hippocamp, swan, and Pegasus; and a series of earrings titled “Fantasy Birds.” 

Sketches for 'Wings of Desire' from 'The Golden Menagerie.' (Temple St. Clair)
Sketches for ‘Wings of Desire’ from ‘The Golden Menagerie.’ (Temple St. Clair)

The third and last chapter, “The Big Game” (on view at the DeLorenzo Gallery from Dec. 8 to Feb. 14, 2017), documents St. Clair’s exploration of animals that are extinct or currently threatened. St. Clair creates romanticized portraits of these animals in a peaceful environment, encapsulated in exquisite, individual marble boxes. 

'Wolf,' part of the haute couture collection 'The Big Game.' (Temple St. Clair)
“Wolf,” part of the haute couture collection “The Big Game.” (Temple St. Clair)

A native of Roanoke, Virginia, St. Clair said she grew up in the countryside with many animals around and has always been fascinated by both land and marine creatures. Many of the creatures she chose to depict come with a personal memory or story in the book.

“With my haute couture work, I take complete artistic liberty to explore themes that are very personal and dear to me,” St. Clair said. “I chose animals that, either there were some memories or experiences attached to them, or animals I just have great love and respect for.”

St. Clair is at her very core a storyteller and explorer. When inspiration sparks, she is compelled to research and delve deeply into her subjects. 

She also draws from a deep well of history and human culture to create her inventive pieces. 

Creative Core

St. Clair has been a high-end jewelry designer for over 30 years and in 2016 won the GEM Award for Jewelry Design, the jewelry industry’s most prestigious honor.

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 08:  Temple St. Clair 2016 GEM Awards Gala - Inside at Cipriani 42nd Street on January 8, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images)
Temple St. Clair awarded at the 2016 GEM Awards Gala – Inside at Cipriani 42nd Street on January 8, 2016 in New York City. (Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images)

“I was born to be creative,” she said. “I could have been a writer, I could have been a painter, but I happened to meet these artisans in Florence.”

In her early 20s, she had been studying 14th-century Italian art and literature in Florence when her mother basically sent her on an errand that dropped her into a fascinating world. St. Clair’s mother had bought an ancient coin and tasked her with finding a goldsmith to turn it into a necklace.

What St. Clair found were artists who were working in almost the same places and using the same techniques that artisans had for generations and generations.

“It was as if I had gone back through a time machine into this period I had been studying and was so involved with,” she said.

Gold is a durable, valuable substance that has lasting power and has been handed down from antiquity. Take the ancient Greeks and Romans, or the ancient cultures of India and China. “Gold has been so important and so sought after by every culture,” St. Clair said.

“I see myself as a part of a bigger history, part of human tradition and culture,” St. Clair said.

The human tradition of the craft drew St. Clair in, and gold and gems became her palette for creativity, her vehicle to create and tell stories important to human beings.

“To be an artist … you’re deciding to make something out of nothing; to express something, create something, paint a picture,” St. Clair said. “I want to express myself and explore things. … That is what is important to me.”