Lydia Courteille: queen of the desert

A magnetic collection of Australian Boulder opals is at the heart of Parisian jeweller Lydia Courteille’s new Sahara collection.  

Lydia Courteille Sahara Boulder opal cocktail ring

An intrepid traveller, Lydia Courteille’s sense of adventure regularly finds its way into her designs. Last year’s Topkapi collection was inspired by her frequent trips to Turkey, a country she has long been in love with, while the idea for Lydia’s 2015 Queen of Sheba collection sprung from a journey to Ethiopia in 2010.

For her latest collection, Lydia has turned her attention to the remote city of Tassili in Algeria, an arid plateau and UNESCO world heritage site that, according to the French author and undersea explorer Philippe Diolé, is “the most beautiful desert of all”. Called Sahara, the collection captures the sun-scorched colours of the landscape, the star-filled night sky, the indigo-blue clothing of the Touareg people and the russet hues of the rock paintings that have made Tassili famous.

One-of-a-kind Sahara Boulder opal cuff
The large Boulder opal in this statement cuff from Lydia Courteille’s Sahara collection, accompanied by little-known haüynites, topazolites, hessonites and yellow sapphires, was selected by Lydia for its exceptional play of colour. 

Lydia was only reminded of her travels to Tassili n’ Ajjer when she was at the Tucson gem show and spotted a collection of enigmatic blue Boulder opals from Australia that immediately brought back memories of the intense colours of the Sahara. The same day, she came across some unusual gemstones called topazolites that mirrored the reddy-brown colours of the prehistoric paintings found in Tassili. Suddenly, the idea for a new collection began to take shape in her mind.

Sahara Boulder opal "blue crab" ring
This cute little Boulder opal crab is one of my favourite jewels in Lydia Courteille’s new Sahara collection.

Of course, this being Lydia, the collection holds plenty of surprises. Tiny blue scarab beetles scuttle across many of the jewels. A sweet little crab, one of my favourite pieces, sits, pincers raised, on the finger. A spider with a mouse for a head, complete with whiskers, drags his Boulder opal prey into his web. An industrious dung beetle rolls his precious cargo – a deep-blue ball of the copper mineral azurite with a rough, textured surface – along the surface of a ring.

Sahara azurite "dung ball" ring
An industrious dung beetle pushes a deep-blue ball of the rare copper mineral azurite in one of many highly evocative jewels in Lydia Courteille’s Sahara collection.

Unusually for a jewellery designer, Lydia prefers to use polished opals in their natural form – undulating and irregular or pebble-shaped, chosen for the spectacular play of colours that dance inside each stone. My favourite, set into an imposing cocktail ring, is one of the most interesting opals I have ever seen, the iridescent blue overlaid with rich red-brown swirls.        

Lydia is a gemstone expert and collector of unusual specimens as well as a jewellery designer, so I can imagine her delight when she heard the exotic names of the smaller melée stones she has chosen to complement the opals. Rich yellow and orange topazolites and hessonites are shaped into windswept sand dunes; azure blue haüynites transformed into beetles’ bodies.

Spider Mouse Boulder opal necklace
A spider with a mouse for a head, complete with whiskers, draws a mysterious blue Boulder opal into its web in this playful jewel from Lydia Courteille's Sahara collection.

“The topazolites are a natural foil of gold to the blue stones, reminiscent of the golden sands of the Sahara, an untouched landscape sculpted only by the wind,” explains Lydia. “You could walk for hours without meeting a soul only to come across a few tracks left behind by the blue scarabs. This collection is an invitation to travel in time and space to the mysteries of the Sahara, inspired by my travels to Tassili.” 

Sahara Boulder opal snake necklace
Two horned vipers with electric-blue opal heads coil round the neck, their heads resting seductively low on the décolletage, in this one-of-a-kind necklace from Lydia Courteille’s Sahara collection. 

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