It is an ancestral art that almost vanished. In high jewellery, there are only a handful of feather artists left today.

Carine Claude
1st November 2023

Her craftsmanship is unique in the world. Feather artist Nelly Saunier, who will be speaking at the round table “Feather and Jewelry, the enchantment of color” on 4 November, creates enchanting jewellery composed of multicolored feathers intertwined with precious materials with remarkable and noticed dexterity and a sense of poetry — a Chevalier of arts and letters, she was awarded the title of Master of Art in 2008. Because while feather artists are rare, high jewellery feather artists are even rarer.

The most famous Maisons are all vying for her. Harry Winston, Chopard, and Piaget seek her talents. For the latter, Nelly Saunier created a signature cuff “Secrets & Lights" adorned with a bird-flower in 2015, a spectacular feather marquetry where an emerald encrusted with sapphires and diamonds presides. For the “Sunlight Escape” collection in 2018, she envisioned four pieces in goose and pelican feathers enhanced with 24-carat gold leaves, earrings and cuffs, “which evoke a snow-covered landscape illuminated by a radiant sun, the coolness of a glacier, the softness of snow reinterpreted in geometric shapes.” In 2021, for their tropical-inspired collection “Wings of Light”, she crafted the spectacular asymmetrical necklace “Majestic Plumage” adorned with a rare 7.49-carat Paraìba tourmaline from Mozambique, from which a magnificent multicolored Ara takes flight in a whirlwind of blue sapphires and tourmalines. A mimicry with nature quite astonishing. About 620 hours of work were needed to achieve this feat.

Passing on Knowledge

Patience, dexterity, and meticulousness are at the forefront of the qualities required for this high-precision profession. These are not the only ones. However, very few training programs exist to acquire these skills which require long apprenticeship. Nelly Saunier herself, after teaching her trade for about twenty years at Octave-Feuillet high school, now passes on her passion to her collaborators in her workshop. The decline in feather trades explains the rarity of schools still teaching it. In Paris, the number of feather artists went from about 7,000 in 1890 to 425 in 1919, then 88 in 1939 and… only 5 in 1980. Traditional houses were then swept away by Asian competition. Today, the profession endures through a few rare professionals in haute couture, entertainment, or creation — in 2002, Chanel had taken over the feather art company Lemarié to preserve its know-how.

In France, the only initial diploma-granting training is offered as part of a two-year CAP (Certificate of Professional Aptitude) for feather artistry and artificial flower making at the Octave Feuillet high school. The training includes practical workshops to learn how to clean, dye, prepare, cut, glue, and curl feathers. Feather artistry techniques teach gluing, assembling, and mounting different types of feathers on various supports. Art history, drawing, and applied arts complement the technical instruction. There are also some short-term professional training courses available to try one’s hand at feather artistry, like the “Plumes” initiation at GRETA (Group of Institutions for Technical Education) of creation, design, and crafts in Paris, which provides the essential technical foundations for working with feathers in fashion, millinery, and costuming. In total, about fifty feather artists would be practicing in France, with even fewer in high jewellery.

Ethics of Feather Artistry

In the sector of finely crafted costume jewellery, a few feather artists also defend their craft. Lucia Fiore creates geometric feather mosaics that she blends with precious metals or less conventional materials like wood. “In my Strasbourg workshop, I practice a profession at the crossroads of craftsmanship and plastic arts, combining the ancient techniques of feather artistry with a desire for exploration and formal research,” she shares. “My creations take the form of small series of jewellery, paintings, and sculptures, in which the feather is not reduced to ornament, but becomes the central subject. The visual qualities of this material, the richness of its colours and reflections, are expressed through compositions inspired by nature, traditional arts, and geometric minimalism.” Lucia Fiore sources her feathers from pigeon fanciers for Modena or Cravat breed pigeons, or from specialised farms for poultry bird feathers, such as peacock or pheasant. As for parrot and parakeet feathers, they come from their natural molting, which she patiently collects from private aviaries.

For feather artistry carries a heavy burden in its heritage. It nearly led to the extinction of certain Amazonian birds. In Europe, the feather excesses of the late 19th and early 20th centuries depopulated migratory bird populations. In 1910, 1,470 kg of feathers were sold in the London market, representing the hunting of… 290,000 egrets. Since the implementation of the Washington Convention, no bird is supposed to be killed for its feathers. Feather artists thus source from farms or old stocks for exceptional pieces, provided they can ensure traceability. The future of this rare profession will be shaped by ethics and transmission.