Claire Choisne thought nothing could possibly go wrong when creating a cape with woven gold. However, the director of creations at French high jeweller Boucheron was taken on an emotional roller-coaster alongside the maison’s artisans as they worked on the Cape de Lumière, which was unveiled in Place Vendôme, Paris during Haute Couture Week.
“It broke my heart seeing an artisan cry over the piece because it was so challenging to calibrate the gold cape,” Choisne recalls. “The next day, however, I saw her lighten up with joy as she found the perfect balance.”
The result was a masterpiece crafted with refined, twisted gold chains to resemble Boucheron’s iconic peacock feather motif, which costs HK$5.53 million.
The intricate relationship between artisans and designers is reminiscent of the chicken-and-egg paradox, especially at luxury heritage maisons. Artisans bring to life designers’ creative visions with techniques that inspire innovations and spark ideas.
“Our designers have to master the knowledge of what is possible to do for the artisans,” says Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s director of image, style and heritage. “The artisans have to understand what the designer wants, but also how much freedom they get to enjoy through the interpretation.”
The synergy between artisans and designers is evident in other fashion and luxury brands - heritage maisons especially.
“Inspiration goes both ways,” says Pierre-Alexis Dumas, artistic director of Hermès. “People think that beautiful dresses come only from the designer’s input. The truth is there’s a whole team behind that person.”
Burberry’s CEO and chief creative officer Christopher Bailey says he’s constantly inspired by craftsmen.
“My father is a carpenter, so I’ve always loved and admired people who can do things with their hands,” Bailey says. “I’m inspired by artisans in so many ways. They are all in the collections – the weaving, dying, printing and embroidery.”
For many of the heritage maisons that celebrate craftsmanship, artisans have been in the origins of the brand as early as the visionary founders. Some of the founders started out as artisans. Thierry Hermès used to be a saddler apprentice and Louis Cartier a watchmaker when he founded Cartier.
“When I look for inspiration from Boucheron’s archive, I don’t only look at themes and motifs but also techniques - how things were done in the old ways,” Choisne says.
For Boucheron’s latest high jewellery collection, 26 Vendôme, the designer took inspiration from archive pieces for which the material rock crystal was used – a bold move to incorporate semi-precious materials into high jewellery.
The Hotel Particulier necklace carved rock crystal into a polygon shape to resemble the art-deco-esque French windows of the establishment and then created miniature sculptures underneath the crystal, embellished with sapphires and diamonds.
“Boucheron was one of the first jewellers to use rock crystal in high jewellery, but I was inspired to take it further,” Choisne says. “This time, we engraved under the stone to create a three-dimensional look. I want to mix this technique with modern skills for a more contemporary look.” Artisans continue the luxury brands’ legacy through skills honed over decades.
“Our style is like a living language,” Rainero says. “You have traditional words – words that are rooted in our history for centuries and new words to expand the vocabulary. Finding the perfect balance is an endless discussion between the designers and the jewellers.”
The house’s iconic Panthère de Cartier ring, which features a skeletonised panther motif, is the result of a designer’s vision. The special technique that’s developed for the piece is now being applied to other new creations.
“Although the original idea came from the designers, their relationship with the artisans is intricately connected,” Rainero says.
In Cartier’s high jewellery atelier in Paris, artisans and designers work under the same roof and are in constant communication over new creations. The integration has improved efficiency and articulation.
It’s a similar situation at Hermès’ leather design studio. Craftsmen in charge of rendering or prototypes are in the same building as designers.
“It’s key that the designers and craftsmen talk,” Dumas says. “There are times when the craftsman will bring it back to the designer and say that a design isn’t possible, and propose a solution. The designer will then learn something about the craft in return. It will stimulate his imagination and he’ll come away with another solution.”
The product, Dumas adds, is born out of “necessity, the constraints of the craft, the materials and the drawing”.
Artisans are also the source of inspiration for designers.
Luxury shoemaker George Cleverley and French leather goods maker Moynat are among the few maisons that are incorporating Russian leather into their offerings. The precious leather requires a special tanning process using birch oil. The tanning process alone can take artisans three to five years to complete.
“It’s very labour-intensive,” says George Glasgow Jnr, George Cleverley’s CEO. “The leather is incredible, not because it just looks beautiful and smells good, but is also strong and durable. Some of the clients would order it and treat it like a museum piece.” Customers treasure creations that celebrate craftsmanship – the first pair of George Cleverly shoes using the special hide was made for the Prince of Wales.
“The artisan who takes your measurements for the shoes is the same one who will be building the last and creating the shoes,” says Glasgow. “The artisan is making the shoes for you in a way that you have explained to him, instead of reading from a footnote in the order note.”
Luxury maisons have highlighted their craftsmen involved in various campaigns. Chanel’s annual Métiers d’Art show celebrates the many artisanal ateliers it owns, from the lace maker Maison Lesage; pleat maker Lognon; button maker Maison Desrues; and even better-known ateliers Maison Michel and Causse, which produce Chanel’s hats and gloves.
Hermès commissioned a documentary in 2011 titled Hearts and Crafts, directed by Frederic Laffont and Isabelle Dupuy-Chavanat.
The film celebrated the maison’s many skills by following leather makers, saddlers, crystal and glassmakers as well as silk screeners as they worked on Hermès products.
Burberry highlighted its unsung heroes in its September collection in London. Working in collaboration with The New Craftsmen, the show promoted artisans who create tassels and embroideries in a post-show exhibition.
“Every single thing has human hands [involved] in it,” Bailey says. “The celebration of human hands is really important as we merge the instant, fast world and it’s really important to talk about the slow world as well. They need to co-exist.”
As much as artisans inspire designers, designers’ visions push the boundaries of artisans’ skills.
“The high-jewellery necklace takes more than 1,000 hours to complete. It wasn’t easy but our craftsmen loved it,” Choisne says. “It’s a learning curve for our craftsmen. Now I know that I can continue to push the limit of their technical capacity.”
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