Illusions of grandeur
The effervescent Victoire de Castellane is every bit the glamorous eccentric you'd expect from the woman behind Dior's fine jewellery designs. Long, straight chestnut hair cut with a blunt fringe, chic blouse, flared black knee-length skirt, wearing giant strings of pearls around her neck and colourful oversized rings (some of her own most recognisable creations), the Paris-based de Castellane is a vision.
It has been six or seven years since Christian Dior's star jewellery designer last visited Hong Kong.
'I would love to come back more because I love this city. I discovered China this time, too. Beijing was very interesting,' she says in a lilting French accent.
Her visit marks the launch of her latest collection of rings, cuffs and bracelets: 'My Dior' - based on a golden mesh-like pattern. The pieces are inspired by the creative director's childhood memories of visiting the Dior boutique with her mother in 1970s Paris.
'We are using cannage this time that actually comes from a chair from Napoleon III,' she says. 'This is a very strong element of Dior's identity. With each collection I try to interpret a different theme in the history of the house.'
The aristocratic de Castellane family goes back to the 9th century, she says, and has influenced French arts and culture for centuries. Before joining Dior, de Castellane spent 12 years carving out a name for herself designing Chanel's costume jewellery under Karl Lagerfeld.
She quickly became known in the industry as something of a radical. With her unconventional outlook, she treated semi-precious stones such as tourmaline and opal with as much adventurous reverence as traditional precious gems such as diamonds and rubies.
As the first and only creative director of Dior Haute Joallerie, which was launched by the French house in 1998, de Castellane's bold, radical approach shook up many of the conservatives of the fine jewellery world, but also revived modern women's interests.
'I don't want to be bored when designing,' says de Castellane. 'And I don't aim to purposefully provoke through my designs, but just to express myself.'
The enormous amethysts and aquamarines that de Castellane has sought out are no doubt dramatic. Was the designer wary of moving away from such established classicism with her whimsical designs? 'Never,' she says, firmly. 'Never be afraid. I just want to pursue what I want to creatively. I want to offer something of quality but different from what has been available in the market.'
All Dior jewellery is handmade in Paris. Some collections take up to two years of technical preparation. She says that her only design rule is to mix quality and creativity.
It was de Castellane's grandmother, Sylvia Hennessy - who she declares a Hollywood heroine - who first sparked her interest in jewellery as a child. Hennessy was friends with the likes of American socialite and millionairess - and former Mrs Cary Grant - Barbara Hutton.
'Some of my first childhood memories of jewellery was the jangling of charms on bracelets. My grandmother - and a lot of women at that time - wore a lot of heavy jewellery.'
Through these influences, de Castellane believes that her career path was her destiny, and she was clearly possessed by a love for her craft. She describes jewellery as both 'a friend to women' and 'a protector'.
Her collections for Dior range from the oversized hero pieces such as the Oiseau ring in 18-carat yellow gold, diamonds, cultured pearls, aquamarine, pink and yellow sapphires and amethysts to the dainty girlish Precieuse Rose collection, based on Christian Dior's favourite flower.
And then there is the punk-inspired Roi d'Opalie pendant made from a pink opal skull, platinum, white gold, cultured pearls and diamonds. Her Coffret de Victoire collection is more eccentric and bold, a line in which imagination has run wild. Her own personal favourite pieces are the kind of rings that she is wearing today. 'I love big, big rings, with oversized stones.' Her favourite stone is the 'remarkable, magical opal' that reveals different colours under different lights. 'It's like a genie; there are things hidden in that stone.
'Beauty to me is something that you don't expect, that will surprise you. Something that has harmony,' she says. 'I like designing with a fantasy in mind, something that has never happened before.'
How a woman relates to the jewellery is also important to de Castellane. And freedom is crucial; there should be no rules.
Some of her designs have been exhibited as works of art in galleries, such as the Gagosian in Paris. These personal pieces seem to reflect the designer's sense of detail and unconventional side.
Despite the hefty price tag attached to the pieces, her jewellery is not meant to be worn as a status symbol. Nor is it simply decorative. Rather, de Castellane aims to address our fantasies and help us escape the mundane.
'We live in a world where we don't feel much poetry any more. It is not very romantic,' she says. 'I want to make something that touches people spontaneously ... and makes them feel something.'