Fashion

From Gabrielle Chanel to Elsa Peretti, Meet the Women Who Changed the Jewelry World

The world of jewelry was, for a long time, the domain of men. But throughout the twentieth century, exceptional women have taken control and revolutionized the codes of the most prestigious houses. Meet the women who changed it all. 
Reading time 14 minutes

The usually peaceful Place Vendôme was shaken to its pristine core. The famous fashion houses were in an uproar, determined to put an end to it all. Gabrielle Chanel had just presented a flamboyant collection of jewels studded with diamonds as part of an exhibition for the benefit of charities, chaired by the Princess of Poix. The jewels, which the designer Paul Uribe and the jewelry maker Lemeunier had lent a helping hand to create, were of superb craftsmanship.

An exhibition in London was to follow, sponsored by the Marquise de Londonderry, and another was planned in Rome under the patronage of Princess Colonna. So why was the normally peaceful Place Vendôme so upset? They were distraught over the praiseworthy tone of the critics, especially from the newspaper L’Intransigeant. The Guardians of the Temple could not accept this dithyramb. Welcome to “The Chanel Affair” of November 1932.

Despite the drama, Chanel asserted that she had no intention of competing with the jewelers. Chanel was simply following a request from the De Beers group to create a craze around diamonds, whose brilliance and sales had been damaged by the economic crisis. Several renowned jewelers urgently meet at the Chambre Syndicale. They demand that the jewelry be dismantled immediately. Chanel stands up for herself. Thankfully, some jewelry has survived. Far from being anecdotal, “The Chanel Affair” sheds light on the habits and customs of a profession, which has its roots in an immemorial past. Unlike fashion, jewelry making had for centuries been governed by guilds, brotherhoods and corporations all of which strictly supervised access to the various trades of the profession. These venerable corporations (the corporation of goldsmiths was founded in France under Saint Louis) were firmly closed to women. Women could become four-season merchants, seamstresses, drapers, haberdasheries and washerwomen, but they could not become jewelers. Apprentices, journeymen and masters are only considered male. In a few years, this all would disappear, thanks to the creative genius of women of these legendary women.

Gabrielle Coco Chanel, Under a Lucky Star

“The reason which had led me, first, to imagine fake jewels, is that I found them devoid of arrogance in an easy period of pomp. This consideration is erased in a period of financial crisis where, for all things, an instinctive desire for authenticity is reborn, which brings back to its fair value an amusing junk,” declared Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel.

The London diamond dealers had a flair for asking a fashion maker to promote their precious stones. In November 1932, all of Paris rushes to Mademoiselle Chanel at 29 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré to discover its exhibition “Diamond jewelry” of 47 unique pieces. L’Officiel is full of praise: “Miss Chanel handles precious stones with the same taste, the same ease that she crumples a fabric - she has formed stars, crescents, knots, fringes in brilliant, of very different invoice from that of the time when this kind of jewel was in fashion.” The magazine enthusiastically rolls off the long list of personalities present: Princess Aspasia of Greece, Prince and Princess Jean-Louis of Faucigny-Lucinge, Princess Edmond de Polignac, Princess Colonna, Count and Countess Gabriel de La Rochefoucauld, Maria, Duchesse de Gramont, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Mrs. Cole Porter and Condé Nast, to name a few. Chanel brings a formidable, practical sense to the art of presentation. A young Robert Bresson takes the photographs in the catalog and the adornments are placed on ultra-realistic wax mannequins.

The designer understood that pragmatism was the best attribute of modernity: everything is transformable. “If I chose the diamond, it is because it represents with its density, the greatest value under the smallest volume,” she explains. The mission is successful for the diamond dealers. By placing diamonds under the wings of fashion, they had revived the radiance tarnished by the economic crisis. Mission accomplished for Chanel as well, who had invented safe haven marketing. And mission accomplished for fine jewelry whose posterity will retain that it was, in the end and despite resistance, the marvelous accomplishment of female emancipation.

Jeanne Toussaint, the True Panther of Cartier

Largely dominated by centuries old corporations who fiercely watched over the prerogatives of its members, jewelry, both in the field of design and manufacturing, was almost exclusively the domain of men until the end of the 19th century. The Arts & Crafts movement in England did allow some women to express themselves. Think of Georgina Gaskin or Edith Dawson. However, their work, exercised alongside their husbands, was considered only a distinguished pastime. The Suffrage Movement, then the First World War and its shortage of male labor linked to the mobilization, would turn everything upside down. This revolution probably influenced Louis Cartier who made a radical decision in 1933: to entrust the direction of high jewelry for the house founded by his grandfather in 1847, to a woman.

This woman was Jeanne Toussaint whom Louis Cartier had known for a long time. Born in Charleroi to parents who made lace, she fled home at a very young age to join her sister in Paris. Her charm, which she exercised with talent, enabled her to seduce the aristocracy of the time and ultimately meet Louis Cartier at Maxim’s before the war broke out. A marriage was mentioned. The “family council” countered the idea and they remained great friends until Cartier’s death in New York in 1942. At Cartier, Toussaint worked wonders. Her sense of proportion, color, design and volume flourished in creations that attracted strong, independent women. She made the diamonds flexible, fluid, imagined new chromatic combinations and designed jewelry that was both figurative and three-dimensional. Cartier had given her a tender yet teasing nickname: “The Panther.” And he was spot on. Jeanne Toussaint was the true Panther of Cartier. She embodied panache and a creative impulse that roared forcefully for several decades. Hence the question, posed in a lyrical tone by Princess Bibesco: “Who are you, who perfumes diamonds and who makes poetic richness?” Pierre Claudel, son of Paul Claudel, had this response, saying Toussaint is “the one who will have guided jewelry towards modernity without ever sacrificing good taste.”

Elsa Peretti, The Beauty of the Gesture

Louis Comfort Tiffany did not wait for the suffragette revolution to give women key positions. When he took over as artistic director of Tiffany & Co. in 1902, succeeding his father, he appointed Julia Munson to head the jewelry department. Another woman, Patricia Gay, replaced Munson in 1914. Their respective creations revealed a remarkable use of the filigree and champlevé enamel and are characterized by the vividness of their colors displayed on multi-gem necklaces with unexpectedly fresh hues. Even if posterity did not retain their names, they contributed greatly to the fame of the American jeweler. Nothing to do, however, with the decisive impact that Elsa Peretti had in the world of contemporary design. She was already a recognized artist when she began to create exclusively for Tiffany & Co. in 1974.

Her first jewel was born in her native Italy in the 1960s. In Barcelona, where she had settled, she imagined her first vase pendant, a debut in a series whose success has never wavered. Beyond her unique style, made of simple, sculptural lines, organic curves forged in gold and silver and everyday elements beans, hearts, apples, tears, pumpkins, pliers of crustaceans, bones, starfish the essence of sensuality. And the deep respect. Peretti shows for the cultures from which she is inspired. Her lacquer bracelets require 77 steps to comply with the ancestral technique of Japanese Urushi.

Through her signature, easily recognizable designs, Peretti has strengthened what we would today call the brand image. By reintroducing silver coins into the Tiffany’s jewelry line, by imagining the customizable Diamonds by the Yard line (diamonds with round and oval contours simply attached to a gold chain adjustable in yards) the designer, philanthropist, revolutionary and savvy businesswoman, proclaimed that luxury was everyone’s business.

Suzanne Belperron's Signature Style

In New York, the merchant Lee Seigelson transformed the gallery, founded by his grandfather, into a temple of vintage jewelry. One name electrifies its mission: Suzanne Belperron. “The craze is such that we only present certain pieces to our private customers.” The jewelry imagined by Belperron for half a century from the 1920s, confirms to each new generation of buyers the superiority of their signature, which systematically defies all trends. Since the 1960s, Karl Lagerfeld swore by this jewelry designer to the point of choosing one of her chalcedony jewels for the 2012 spring-summer collection from the house of Chanel.

The talent of Belperron, born in the heart of the Jura in 1900, was revealed early: her first creations, which rejected the architectural geometry of Art Deco, showed a de sire to depart from the dictates and fashions of the moment. Jeanne Boivin, who herself followed only her instincts, welcomed her into the house founded by her husband René. She did more than welcome her; she encouraged her young 19-year-old recruit to freely celebrate her vision and style. Cabochons and precious stones flourished on bracelets that combine curve and purity in an impressive variety of bold materials: rock crystal, wood, platinum and even steel. At Bernard Herz, the trader of pearls and precious stones, she acquired international fame by multiplying the technical and stylistic feats of force, using lacquer in a unique, bold way and exploiting 22-carat gold for its heat by hammering it according to African techniques.

Paul Flato, the creator jewelry for stars of Hollywood, made her an attractive proposition that she declined, determined to preserve the independence she enjoyed in Paris. Popular during her lifetime, Belperron quickly became a myth after her death in 1983. To the point that New Yorker Nico Landrigan, son of Ward Landrigan, the former director of the jewelry department at Sotheby’s and current owner of Verdura, decided in 2004 to give new life to her creations while across the Atlantic, the jewelry expert Olivier Baroin decided to “perpetuate the future of the expertise of any work” produced by the artist. There is a global excitement for Belperron’s creations with no need to label her name, with the argument that style was her signature.

Victoire De Castellan, The Awesome Impertinence

Contrary to what one might imagine, it was Victoire de Castellane who proposed to Bernard Arnault to create Dior jewelry and not vice versa. “I told Mr. Arnault that I wanted to create jewelry that did not exist,” she said. In 1999, the world of jewelry was very different from what it is today. The houses hid behind the magic of their name. You had to be very much an insider to even know the name of the person who designed the collections.

By vigorously taking the lead in the jewelry and haute joaillerie department of the fashion house on Avenue Montaigne, de Castellane did more than rid the creation of her bourgeois stigmata, she paved the way for her sisters who, since then, have rightfully grabbed the foreground of the creative scene. Her style, which is more an ideology than an aesthetic, allows all themes - pirates, carnivorous plants, vampires – to flourish, refusing only the tyranny of good taste.

The knots, the ribbons, the petals, the ladybugs, all defy blandness by superimposing, in their remarkably executed lines, a kind of mischievous smile that tells us not to take ourselves too seriously. To celebrate 20 years at Dior, de Castellane imagined a collection of anthology called Gem Dior, which crystallizes more than it synthesizes the intrinsic beauty, fundamentally telluric, of precious stones. These are tangled like pieces of sugary candy. To once again escape the beaten track, de Castellane appears on YouTube with her accomplice Loïc Prigent, in the first of the many retrospectives that history will not fail to devote to her.

Renee Puissant, Heritage Creation

After the First World War, a breath of pragmatism refreshed the creations intended for women, in both the world of couture and jewelry. This pragmatism is for the most part exalted above all by creators who understood that their fellow citizens, after having proven their valor by taking up jobs left vacant by the men who left for the frontlines, were determined to pave their way on the road to independence.

At Van Cleef & Arpels, a woman who understood this new equation was Renée Puissant. She knew the house better than anyone as it was born from the love story woven between her father, Alfred Van Cleef and her mother Esther Arpels. A woman of remarkable elegance (the portraits published by L’Officiel at that time prove this), the daughter of this founding couple is also a personality endowed with a great practical sense. Her first initiatives were what we would today call marketing, a word that probably did not exist at the time. In 1921, for end-of-year celebrations, she thought of selling jewelry “at special prices,” therefore less expensive than those from the usual collections. Did she just invent ready-to-wear jewelry? Her flair is also exerted in her creations.

In 1926, after the death of her husband, she took on the role of artistic director of the house. It is under her direction that the creations are enveloped in a particular sensuality, endowed with triumphant volumes. She becomes a team with the designer René Sim Lacaze. It was under this mandate that the famously mysterious setting or the minaudière was born, which instantly demodulated the evening bag by combining elegance and practicality. She also introduced, with a taste for contradiction dear to the true Parisian, elements of everyday life in the design of precious objects. Think of the Zip necklace, which embodies with panache the art of transformation at Van Cleef & Arpels, and whose idea was transmitted to the artistic director by the Duchess of Windsor around 1938. She also drew her inspiration from the dresses of Elsa Schiaparelli who had transformed the zippers on aviator jackets into toiletries. The design of this necklace was long and fraught with challenges. It was not until the early 1950s that the first Zip necklace came out of the workshop. Puissant had meanwhile been swept away by the darkness of war in 1942. The dazzling posterity of the Zip necklace, which, in many ways, dominates the fine jewelry of the last century, still attests today the immense contribution of a woman who chose the path of independence and freedom right up to the end.

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