The many inspirations of Sophie Bille Brahe
The Danish jewellery designer namechecks ‘Mother of Modernism’ Georgia O’Keeffe as a muse
A list of some of the things Sophie Bille Brahe likes: curlicue-leafed ferns; her Border collie Snoop; and grilled lobster followed by citrus Granita served in hollowed-out lemons, both prepared by her chef brother Frederik. A list of inspirations that have influenced Bille Brahe’s jewellery designs: starry night skies; flower arrangements by Danish author and Out of Africa memoirist Karen Blixen; Italian Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli; and The Four Elements, a 1961 mobile sculpture by Alexander Calder that rises 30ft high outside the Moderna Museet, Stockholm’s museum of contemporary art.
In Bille Brahe’s hands, such esoteric inspirations are never taken literally, instead setting the scene for her creations rather than dictating them. “For me, working is my way of expressing thoughts, of organising life around me,” she explains on the phone from Copenhagen, mentioning notebooks and mementos that she has kept since childhood. “Sometimes, I think the best pieces I have done are pieces I knew I would do my whole life. Somehow, they have always been there.”
When mapping out her collection this autumn, Bille Brahe looked to Sun Water Maine, a 1922 artwork by “Mother of Modernism” Georgia O’Keeffe that captures the cyclical beauty of a morning sunrise above open waters in cloudy pastels. This led Bille Brahe to ponder ideas of rhythm, repetition and constancy. The result was her Soleil designs – earrings, a pendant necklace – which encircle a large freshwater pearl with a frame of small drop-like pearls.
Another source of inspiration came in the form of a portrait of O’Keeffe shot by the late US artist’s photographer husband, Alfred Stieglitz. Bille Brahe homed in on the inverts palms of O’Keeffe’s hands and the interlocking lines of the portrait, inspiring the jeweller’s new Georgia earrings: drops of interlocked diamond pavé-set chains, each graduating in size.
When we speak, Bille Brahe tells me that another of her favourite pieces is the Collier de Tennis, a delicate row of white diamonds, innovative for the artful matching-up of stones that decrease in size. “It’s very classic but modern,” she says. “I think that’s when my jewellery is at its best.”
Bille Brahe, who grew up in the Copenhagen suburb of Hellerup, established her namesake enterprise in 2011, after graduating from London’s Royal College of Art. Before enrolling at the revered art and design university, Bille Brahe had completed hands-on schooling as a goldsmith. “I always knew I wanted to do this. That is why I trained as a traditional goldsmith – if people didn’t like what I do, then at least I had a craft to depend on. I didn’t have confidence in my designs at the beginning.”
Bille Brahe with her Border collie Snoop
Her fears proved unfounded: Bille Brahe’s debut Croissant de Lune earring were are still are irresistible to many. Sold as a single gem, the design features eight sparkling round-cut diamonds in a curving line, its outline suggesting a crescent moon. In name and theme, the earring also nod to Bille Brahe’s family: Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe counts among her ancestors. Sketched, cast and then bezel-set to extend across the lower ear, there’s a naturality and ease of wear to the Croissant de Lune that has underscored Bille Brahe jewellery ever since. “I did the Croissant de Lune because I always have found the ear such an amazing thing, a little bit like giraffe – weird, but so beautiful,” she says. “Here, diamonds play a role in marking something that is already beautiful instead of just showing off status.”
From the outset, white diamonds have been a Bille Brahe speciality. “Diamonds were the reason I started. I have always been extremely fascinated with the sky and with stars. To me, diamonds are like this straight line, something that comes from the ground but looks like a little star.”
There is aristocratic restraint to the short list of prestige materials Bille Brahe uses to realise her designs: to date, she has worked with pearls, diamonds, yellow gold and clear Murano glass. “That’s one of the things I feel most privileged about, that I am allowed to work with these super-precious materials. I love the magic of pearls. In a way, it feels like they are alive.”
Manipulating gold also holds a special allure to Bille Brahe. “I love gold,” she enthuses. “It is so special to work with. It is such a pleasure heating up gold and soldering it together – the glow and controlling that material, for me is the best thing I know.”
In addition to releasing her Sky Above Clouds collection, this autumn sees the publication of Bille Brahe’s first zine. Entitled Weekend, the magazine stars the designer’s friends and family (Border collie included), with recipes, interviews and vignettes of days spent together. The zine’s intimate tone strikes a bitter-sweet chord in 2020.
Like most of us, Bille Brahe, whose company is based in central Copenhagen, has been spending a lot more time at home. But her creative flow continues unabated, with the designer busy formulating and polishing new concepts, far from prying eyes. “In the beginning, I am quite shy about what I [plan to] do,” she tells me. “But it’s not about having ideas, it’s about believing in your ideas.”
For Bille Brahe, that belief will undoubtedly prove justified.