LONDON - It was while he was travelling through the wilds of Mexico several years ago that Damien Hirst was first struck by the idea of using a human skull in his work.
Surveying the remains of Aztec and Mayan skeletons as he delved into the histories of the fallen civilisations, he was inspired by the idea of taking something from the past and bringing it back to life through the defiant power of art.
Yesterday the spectacular results of his musings were unveiled at the White Cube gallery in London, where 50 million pound ($133 million) cast of a human skull encrusted with more than 8,000 flawless diamonds became the world's most expensive contemporary artwork.
Its creator, better known for slicing sharks in half and pickling sheep, denied the cast, entitled 'For the Love of God' and sitting under a heavily guarded glass box in the centre of the exhibition, was an extravagant exercise in 'bling.'
Instead he said he hoped the work- the largest diamond piece commissioned since the Crown Jewels- would be recognised as a reflection on human existence that was simultaneously uplifting and thought-provoking.
"I thought: 'What's the maximum I could do as a celebration against death?,' the artist said.
"It is the ultimate victory over death. When you look at a skull, you think it represents the end, but when you see the end so beautiful, it gives you hope."
Upon his return from Mexico, Hirst, immediately set about trying to find the material for his somewhat unusual project.
Ringing round the old bone shops of London, his team eventually struck gold: a 'perfectly' shaped original skull found lurking in the weird and wonderful stores of a North London taxidermists called Get Stuffed.
Thought to be the remains of a man of about 35 years old, the skull used for the life-size cast underwent intensive radiocarbon analysis which concluded that it had probably belonged to a European, perhaps a Mediterranean, man alive at some point in the 18th or early 19th centuries.
The platinum-encased cast was then covered in 12 million pounds ($32 million) worth of ethically-sourced jewels - with a 4.2 million pounds ($11 million) pink diamond set at its forehead.
Its shimmering effect was only marred by the inclusion of the skull's original, yellowing teeth still intact, with one tooth missing.
Hirst had fallen in love with this endearing imperfection.
Initially he had been tempted to replace it with a gold one- but later changed his mind and left a gap.
"I loved that," he told The Independent. "It feels human and quirky."
But the 41 year-old artist stopped himself from delving too deeply into its provenance for fear of losing the enigma.
"I like the mystery because I didn't want it to be about one particular person. I like the fact that it could be anybody," he explained.
In spite of the deeply philosophical basis of the piece, Hirst- who is no stranger to controversy after a string of works that have at once repelled and engaged observers- said he was worried the finished item might end up looking like a "shock horror" disco glitter-ball or an 'Ali G ring".
When he first laid eyes on the completed work, however, Hirst needed no reassurance.
"When I saw it finished for the first time, I thought 'maybe there is something beyond death. Things that look like that are uplifting," he said.
"It might sound bling and a tacky idea but when you look at it, it's serene and calm." One day, he said, he hoped it would not be bought by a dilettante jewellery lover but would sit in the British Museum alongside other treasures.
For the time being, however, it will have to make do where it is: the centrepiece of a major new Hirst show, Beyond Belief.
Unveiling 12 new sculptures including seven animal parts pickled in formaldehyde- a tiger-shark divided in two as well as 'Birth Paintings'- the show also features a series of works based on snapshots of his wife giving birth to his son by Caesarean Section, which took nearly two years to complete, and which capture the "miraculous" moment his youngest son, Cyrus, was born in August 2005.
A series of large scale ' Biopsy Paintings' are based on biopsy images of 30 different forms of cancers and terminal illnesses, for which Hirst incorporated broken glass, scalpel blades and blood like pools of paint.