Game changer: Coco Chanel’s 1932 collection saved an ailing diamond industry during the Great Depression
Chanel was key to liberating women, who looked at the Bijoux de Diamants exhibition with a view to purchasing the precious stones for themselves
The big year for diamonds was 1932. The great Coco Chanel, whose first love was costume jewellery, turned her formidable design gifts to diamonds.
Chanel said: “In my profession, any means is legitimate, provided it is only used in the true spirit of fashion. I started creating costume jewellery because I felt it was refreshingly free of arrogance, during a period that tended towards ostentatious displays of luxury.”
So what changed? The Great Depression, that’s what. Chanel lent her support to the diamond companies that were struggling in the depression, which had set in by 1929 and lasted until the late 1930s. Her reasoning was that “during the economic recession … there emerged an instinctive desire for authenticity”.
So in 1932, Chanel created a high-jewellery collection of 35 pieces featuring authentic diamonds. With the first use of precious stones in her designs, Chanel created a sensation in the fashion world. She could have used coloured stones but chose not to. “If I have chosen diamonds, it is because they represent the greatest value in the smallest volume.”
The motivation behind the invitation to produce a diamond collection was simply to revitalise the market. It is an indication of Chanel’s influence on fashion and society that this was considered a powerful strategy – one woman to save an industry dominated by men.
Chanel was key to liberating women by introducing them to more relaxed, comfortable clothes. She had a personal following among women. Women looked at the 1932 diamond collection with a view to purchasing for themselves, rather than waiting to receive.
What they saw, when viewing the jewellery at her rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré salon, in November 1932, was typical Chanel. She called the collection simply Bijoux de Diamants.
The motifs that defined her view of the world were all there. As a believer in the inexplicable, Chanel chose the star, or comet, and the sun, for an astrological reference. Other devices interpreted in diamonds recur throughout her work, such as fringes, ribbons/bows and feathers. Here, for the first time, was the magnificent comet necklace and the headband with a glittering fringe of diamonds.
They can be seen in archived footage by Pathé, showing a feather diamond tiara, comet brooch and ribbon necklaces placed on wax mannequins. The house of Chanel has released a video mixing animation and old photographs . The collection was so definitive it gave rise to the 1932 jewellery line, some of which can be seen in the 2016 Woody Allen movie, Café Society, which is set in the 1930s.
Chanel never did another collection. But the house is now one of the world’s high jewellers. Each succeeding collection of jewellery gains plaudits while the 1932 Collection is still drawing its inspiration from Bijoux de Diamants.
The latest high-jewellery offering is Les Blés – wheat. Just as equestrian devices, comets and camellias all speak to us of Chanel, so wheat spoke to Chanel. She considered it a lucky charm and had wheat in various art forms in her home. So Les Blés de Chanel comprises 62 pieces which “in all their softness appear like a wheat field moving in the breeze”.