Jewelery & Watches

From Gabrielle Chanel to Elsa Peretti: heroines of high jewellery

For centuries, the world of jewellery was considered a purely male domain, until the beginning of the 20th century when artists such as Elsa Peretti or Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel introduced a new era of emancipated aesthetics.
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A homage to the most style-defining visionaries and their achievements, which are still of imperishable beauty today.

Gabrielle Chanel

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”The reason that initially made me to create jewellery was that, without arrogance, I wanted to create effortless pomp". This inspiration fades in a time of financial crisis, in which an instinctive desire for authenticity is reborn, bringing a fashionable piece of jewellery back to its true value", says the accompanying text to the first and only haute-jewellery collection of the probably most legendary fashion designer of all times.

In those days, diamond dealers knew how to use famous fashion designers to promote their gems and in November 1932 the whole of Paris rushed to the exhibition "Bijoux de Diamants" by Mademoiselle Chanel. Even then, the critics were full of praise for the 47 individual pieces: "Gabrielle Chanel approaches the subject of gemstones with the same stylistic confidence and lightness as she would crumple a cloth. She has created stars, sickles, knots, fringes with diamonds that stand out with a new aesthetic," the trade press said at the time.

The fashion legend understood like no other that pragmatism is the best attribute of modernity. "I chose diamonds because their density is the greatest value with the smallest volume". By looking at the precious stones from the point of view of fashion, she helped the industry to regain its old glory in times of crisis. A truly successful move for the luxury industry, which today is known in the financial world as the "safe-haven principle" — and further proof why Gabrielle Chanel is still celebrated today as a pioneer of emancipation.

Jeanne Toussaint

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Until the end of the 19th century, the jewellery trade was almost exclusively the prerogative of the male privileges and was largely dominated by guilds that strictly defended their prerogatives. The “Arts & Crafts” movement in England then allowed a few women to enter the field — just think of designers like Georgina Gaskin or Edith Dawson. However, their work, which they carried out alongside their husbands, was considered a noble pastime. The Suffragette movement, then the First World War and the lack of male workers due to mobilisation were to turn everything upside down.

This revolution also influenced Louis Cartier, who in 1933 took the radical decision to entrust the management of haute joaillerie to a a woman. That woman was Jeanne Toussaint, who Louis Cartier had known for a long time. Born in Charleroi as the daughter of lace makers (a handicraft technique, editor’s note), she had fled from home to her sister in Paris when she was still a young girl. There she met and fell in love with Cartier even before the war broke out. However, the romance did not have a very happy ending, as the family did not agree with the choice — but this did not harm a lifelong friendship and even less the professional relationship. Toussaint thus worked wonders for Cartier, introducing new colour combinations and creating jewellery that was both figurative and three-dimensional. For the new generation of independent women, this jewellery exerted an almost magnetic attraction.

It was also Cartier who gave her the charming nickname “The Real Cartier Panther”. As no other words can better express, this also describes all those character traits that make Toussaint so unique. She embodied élan and creative drive, which, like her designs, made her unforgettable. Just as Pierre Claudel, son of writer Paul Claudel, once put it: Jeanne Toussaint was “the one who brought jewellery into the modern age without ever sacrificing good taste”.

Renée Puissant

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After the First World War, a touch of pragmatism refreshed creations for women, whether in the world of couture or jewellery. At Van Cleef & Arpels, one woman understood this new equation: Renée Puissant, the daughter of the founders Alfred Van Cleef and Esther Arpels. A woman of remarkable elegance, she was also blessed with a sense for the practical. Her initial steps for the house in fact probably relate to what we would today call marketing: In 1921, for example, she introduced sales "at special prices" before the holidays and was also a master in creating the packaging for jewellery.

After the death of her husband she took over the role of artistic director of the house founded by her parents in 1926. Under her guidance, creations of particular sensuality and volume were created. The collaboration with her colleague, jewellery designer René Sim Lacaze, can also be considered particularly fruitful — as evidenced by the setting of the "Mystery Set" or the "Minaudière" model, among others. It was also Puissant who incorporated the elements of everyday life into the design of precious jewellery. One only has to think of the legendary "Zip" necklace by Elsa Schiaparelli, the production of which was only completed in the early 195os. It is probably Renée Puissant's most famous legacy and still bears witness to the immense contribution of a woman who paved the way to independence and freedom.

Victoire de Castellane

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It was the French designer who personally proposed Bernard Arnault to create a jewellery line for Dior. "I told him that I wanted to open a jewellery shop that did not yet exist in this form," Victoire de Castellane says about the foundation. A courageous step, because in 1999 the world of jewellery was still different from what we know today.

The big brands did not communicate about their creative direction and hid behind the ringing names, believing that true connoisseurs already knew who was behind the creations. By taking over the jewellery department of Dior, de Castellane did not only help herself but subsequently also her sisters to catapult themselves to the top of the creative scene. Her style, which is more of an ideology than an aesthetic, suddenly allowed her to devote herself to every conceivable subject. Pirates, carnivorous plants, vampires — these are all inspirations of the jewellery icon and the aesthetic basis for her designs.

Feminine flowers look poisonous, her favourite tones come from the chromatic spectrum and lacquer blossoms in the most unusual forms. Desire is as much in the foreground as extravagance.

Her knots, ribbons, petals and ladybirds defy a supposed sentimentality by embodying a self-irony that also encourages the wearer to take herself with humour. To celebrate her 20th anniversary at Dior, the artistic director has designed a collection called "Gem Dior", which crystallises rather than synthesises, bringing the telluric beauty of precious stones to the fore.

To escape the usual patterns once again, the creator, together with her filmmaker Loïc Prigent, has published the first of many retrospectives on Youtube that will continue to amaze and delight future generations.

Elsa Peretti

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Louis Comfort Tiffany did not wait for the revolution initiated by the suffragettes to entrust women with key positions in his company. When he took over Tiffany's artistic direction in 1902, succeeding his father, he appointed Julia Munson as head of the jewellery department. In 1914 she was replaced by another woman, Patricia Gay. Her respective creations are characterised by the vividness of her colours, which are displayed on necklaces with several gemstones in unexpected shades. Even if nowadays their names are rarely remembered, they have made a valuable contribution to the evolution of the art of jewellery and to the fame of the American jeweller.

That was the background, to which a further ringing name was added in 1974: Elsa Peretti. She was already a recognised artist when she began to create jewellery exclusively for Tiffany. Her first jewel was born in her Italian homeland in the 1960s. In Barcelona, where she later settled, she designed the "Bottle" pendant — the beginning of a long and successful series. Beyond her unique style of simple lines and organic shapes, it is in fact elements of everyday life (such as beans, hearts, apples, tears, bones and starfish) that inspired her. The reintroduction of silver designs into Tiffany's range and the minimalist use of diamonds, such as in the "Yard" collection, underline the core message of the revolutionary philanthropist who has proven herself to be a resourceful businesswoman: Luxury is everyone's cup of tea.

Illustrations: Giulia Gilebbi

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