Jewellers mine archives for inspiration and objects of desire
Leading French houses' latest collections highlight their heritage and celebrated clients
It is alarming to think of it now, but in the 1970s a few of the leading jewellery maisons had a big clear-out of their archives. The history behind the beautiful gouaches (designs) and the order books - a veritable Who's Who of the rich, the famous and the royal - went unappreciated during that period.
But a few smart individuals recognised their importance, and have rescued the rubbish bags for posterity. A jewellery maison's history is a vital part of its present currency. Designers use these archives as a source of inspiration to create new collections and to communicate brand's heritage to clients, be it Chaumet's links with Empress Josephine or Cartier's close relationship with royal families, Hollywood, and the maharajahs.
If the archives had been lost, would we have known that Frederic Boucheron was using rock crystal (which we think of as a "modern" stone) in high jewellery in the 1880s? That's long before Claire Choisne set crystal in her Hôtel de la Lumière and Lumière d'Eau collections for the maison.
They are even of interest to the public; museum exhibitions of jewellery houses' archives have drawn huge crowds. Curiosity is not only aroused by the precious gems and the lavish designs, but by the people who wore them, too.
Bulgari and Cartier's connections with iconic movie stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly create an aura of magic around a jewellery brand.
The riches of the past were highlighted in the new high jewellery collections at the Paris Biennale des Antiquaires in September by Chanel, Christian Dior and Piaget.
Christian Dior's Archi Dior collection reveals Victoire de Castellane's research into the house's fashion archive of exquisite silhouettes that Christian Dior created with his 1947 New Look. Her collection of precious jewels capture the famous Bar ensemble with Corolle skirt in a frilled cuff of tsavorites, purple sapphires and orangy-pink spinels cinched by a diamond band.
A pleated tiered evening gown from the same collection has been reincarnated in diamond and ruby earrings and ring, using baguette cuts to imitate the pleats.
"I wanted to create each piece just like the dresses Christian Dior designed with an architect's eye, as if the jewels were sculpted, flounced, pleated belted or draped fabrics," says de Castellane.
With the exception of Mademoiselle Chanel's 1932 collection, Chanel's history in high jewellery is brief. Previous collections have made much of the comet, camellia and art deco motifs that appeared in that original collection.
This year Chanel has taken a different route and used aspects of Coco Chanel's personal life and her position in high society and artistic circles in the 1920s and '30s to inspire the Café Society collection.
The collection reflects the jazzy mood of the age, especially the vivacious art deco (champagne) Bubbles and Charleston sets, and there is a similarly graphic use of diamonds and black onyx in the Tuxedo set.
Rings recreate the outline of the Place Vendôme which Chanel viewed from her suite at The Ritz every morning, while cascades of aquamarine beads on tasseled jewels capture the azure hues of her summer cruises on the yacht of her lover, the Duke of Westminster.
"Mademoiselle Chanel was a very modern woman. She was not only a sponsor of the arts, but also a creator of this new way of seeing life," says Benjamin Comar, Chanel's international fine jewellery director.
Piaget's Extremely Piaget collection celebrates the 1970s, regarded as the 140-year-old Swiss watchmaker's finest era for jewellery. That decade was the start of a trend for more casual jewellery, as evoked in the playful new turquoise and diamond chain lariat, which can be worn casually poolside, and the bold turquoise-and-gold cuff of this new collection.
The new designs bring together the blue and turquoise palette of the 1970s, and connect with the hard stone-cut dials of Piaget's watches from that period, which used lapis lazuli, jade and malachite. They have been reimagined in blue opal and diamonds.
Cartier celebrated the centenary of its dazzling La Panthère design in its fine jewellery collection. It was originally introduced as a black onyx and diamond motif on a watch in 1914, but from 1925 went on to adorn hands, wrists and necklines.
The panther motif owes some of its longevity to Jeanne Toussaint, aka La Panthère, Cartier's long-time artistic director and muse of Louis Cartier. The latest collection features 50 pieces, which is the biggest in the house's history.
The Cartier high jewellery Royal collection, however, features one-of-a-kind pieces that focus on the exceptional stones which are an integral part of the maison's history.
A magnificent 15.29-carat ruby is set in a spectacular necklace reminiscent of the famous necklace created in 1928 for the Maharajah of Patiala.
And an astonishing 26.60-carat Colombian emerald is combined with emerald beads and diamonds in an art deco design, one of the house's signature pieces.
Louis Vuitton is a fairly recent arrival on the high jewellery scene, and it is still establishing its identity through the familiar codes and monograms that feature on its luxury leather goods. In its fifth high jewellery collection, Acte V, the designers focus on the Roman numeral V for inspiration. The V also represents the signature of Gaston-Louis Vuitton during the art deco period, when he was a major player in creative circles.
The V proves a fitting linear form for jewellery, and is used to outline emerald and onyx rings in a dazzling diamond, onyx and tsavorite art deco-style cuff. It is also used to create pagoda-like pendant earrings.
"Acte V is about expressing the codes of the art deco movement with a contemporary edge, sharply-coloured stones and graphical shapes," says Hamdi Chatti, the vice-president of Louis Vuitton's watches and fine jewellery.
"It is echoing the passion of Gaston-Louis Vuitton who was at the vanguard of his time."
The monogram connects Louis Vuitton's heritage to what it symbolises today.
Jewellery maisons like to gently remind us of these codes and historical references. "You are showing your customers the story of the house," says Chanel's Benjamin Comar. "When you are buying jewellery it has no function; it is not a handbag, or a watch, so you have to create an emotion that connects with them."
The houses are doing this by crafting beautiful, desirable jewellery that has a story to tell.