For more than a century the famed jewellery workshops at Place Vendome in Paris have been producing elaborate, one-of-a-kind jewels for the rich and famous. These haute joaillerie creations are to jewellery making what couture is to fashion, and can often be compared to works of art. While they celebrate the craftsmanship and technique of skilled artisans, they are also testament to the unbridled imagination of a small group of designers.
Cartier's Paris workshop features several design studios including one specialising in fine jewellery and unique pieces. Here, six designers work under the guidance of Pierre Rainero, Cartier International's image, style and heritage director.
'Each collection is not borne out of one idea - it is an ongoing process or what I call a permanent discussion. At the same time we are always analysing what we do and try to take lessons from what we have done,' he says.
At Van Cleef & Arpels' workshop, there are 10 designers who work on fine jewellery collections. While the house's past work is an important part of the design process, the literary and creative worlds also provide inspiration.
'Our creative universe combines clearly identified elements such as nature, fairies and couture. These elements are put into perspective with other sources of inspiration outside the realm of jewellery. Our inspiration lies in books which look into universal themes. For example, we establish a dialogue between fairies and Shakespeare, butterflies and [Russian novelist Vladimir] Nabokov, and now with our latest collection, journeys and great storyteller Jules Verne. They do not have imposed aesthetics attached to them, so they allow us to engage into different paths with total freedom,' says Nicolas Bos, international creative director, Van Cleef & Arpels.
Unlike ready-to-wear pieces, fine jewellery creations are often designed around a specific stone. Most of these are unique or have what Rainero calls 'personality'. For example, Cartier's most recent high jewellery collection features a mint green emerald ring and diamond whose colour he describes as 'between pink and tobacco'.
'Everything starts from the stones - we meet with the stone buyers who present what is available. We organise them by category and colour and try to figure out what stones are missing, or if we need complimentary stones. We give ourselves two months to complete the stone collections before we can even begin the drawings,' Rainero says.
In Van Cleef's latest collection, Les Voyages Extraordinaires, there are several designs in which the stone is of primary focus, including the Maximus Clip which features a 48.13kt topaz and the Zanzibar necklace with a stunning opal weighing 55.18kt.
The shape, colour and size of the stone also indicate what type of piece will be created - a larger stone can work with a necklace or ring, while smaller stones may be more suited to a bracelet.
And, while enhancing beauty of the stone is crucial, so is incorporating the maison's style into the design, such as signature techniques and settings.
'All our designers are familiar with what I call the Cartier style. This is something you learn or become familiar with through the knowledge of a previous piece.
'For new designers, they learn this from the archives. I compare the notion of style to language -it has a vocabulary. You don't need to go back to the dictionary to learn how to speak,' Rainero says.
Once the stones and designers are chosen, the drawings start. The final selection process can vary -at Van Cleef some collections take between 18 months to three years to complete. Bos says: 'The creative studio works on designs until we are all satisfied with them.' At Cartier, the final drawings are chosen by Rainero together with a committee, which includes the house's president, the workshop head and a representative from the sales department.
Creating an aesthetically beautiful piece is probably the easiest task because the beauty of a stone is obvious.
Designers also need to focus on how the pieces will be worn and their functionality.
'The technical challenge is that we want to make sure that the project is actually feasible. Sometimes we do not have the necessary technique to craft a piece based on that design,' Bos says.
Rainero adds: 'Ergonomics of the piece is also a factor -how it fits the body, how light it will be and how it will disappear into the metal.'
Perhaps the most vital element is the person behind each design.
'Each artisan brings his or her own personal contribution to the piece. Designs are a subtle and unique combination of individual references, teamwork, collective imaginary and the maison's identity,' Bos says.