Innovate, bold, original, avant-garde – all these words and many others have been used to describe the work of Suzanne Belperron, the French jewellery designer whose pieces have become so highly sought after in recent years.
Born Madeleine Suzanne Marie Claire Vuillerme in 1900 in the eastern French region of Jura, she was educated at the Municipal School of Music & Fine Arts in Besançon. Encouraged by her mother who recognised her talent from an early age she excelled, winning first prize for her design of a pendant-watch in the Decorative Arts competition in her final year. After graduating she moved to Paris, no doubt drawn to the City of Lights for its reputation as the epicentre of European jewellery design and craftsmanship as well as for the cultural and artistic social scene that it offered. She found employment at the Maison René Boivin, which by this point was being run by the founder’s widow, Jeanne Boivin, and in 1924 she married Jean Belperron subsequently moving to an apartment in Montmartre, a Bohemian area of Paris that drew a wide range of artistic and creative souls.
In the aftermath of WWI, 1920’s Paris was enjoying a period of exuberance and witnessed an exploration of creativity and aesthetics across all art forms, from fashion and music to dance and literature. It was within this atmosphere of the ‘Golden Twenties’ that Belperron developed her distinctive style and in doing so perfectly encapsulated the zeitgeist of the era and demonstrated an understanding of the type of jewellery that ‘modern’ women wanted to wear. However, whilst Madame Boivin would privately acknowledge that Belperron’s “creative energy is indispensable to us, and she plays a major role in the artistic life of the Maison” publicly she would not allow her to put her name to her designs or receive credit for them. Whilst this was not at all unusual for a designer working for a Maison, it was obviously a point of frustration and disappointment for Belperron who left the company in early 1932 to pursue an opportunity presented to her by the gemstone and pearl dealer, Bernard Herz.
Belperron was now the artistic and technical director of the Maison Bernard Herz, setting up a private salon at 59, rue de Châteaudun where she designed jewellery for an ever increasing circle of clients including some of the most influential and stylish women of the time. She used a wide variety of gemstones often in highly original combinations and employed specialist craftsmen such as the lapidary Adrien Louart to help realise her ideas whilst also retaining the workshop Groëné et Darde to create the pieces, a process she meticulously supervised. Inspired by a wide range of influences from the shapes and forms of Mother Nature such as flowers, shells, leaves and grapes through to the colours and motifs of Egypt, Africa and the Far East, Belperron’s wide ranging interest and curiosity in the world around her was reflected in her designs. Almost immediately her jewels began appearing in the top fashion magazines and before long they were being featured regularly in French, British and American Vogue as well as Harpers Bazaar. Adverts showcasing her designs were featured alongside those of the high jewellery houses such as Cartier, Mauboussin and Van Cleef & Arpels whilst models dressed in the latest Chanel and Schiaparelli fashions were accessorised with Belperron cuffs, clips, necklaces and rings. Diana Vreeland, the Duchess of Windsor and Elsa Schiaparelli were just a few of her loyal clients, frequently photographed wearing their Belperron jewellery which more often than not had been designed especially for them.
The onset of the Second World War changed everything for the Maison Bernard Herz and after months of harassment Belperron was arrested in her office by the Gestapo on November 2nd 1942 whilst Herz was simultaneously being arrested at his home. Belperron was released after questioning, however Herz, who was of Jewish origin, was detained in Drancy for almost a year before finally being deported to Germany; he never returned. The company was confiscated and liquidated so Belperron registered it under her own name and so it remained until the return to Paris in late 1946 of Herz’s son, Jean, whereupon they formed a new company together, Jean Herz-Suzanne Belperron.
During the war, Belperron had remained as active as possible in spite of the difficulties in obtaining both precious metal and gems but once peace was restored she returned to business as usual. In 1963 she was awarded the Légion d’honneur and it was not until 1975, after more than five decades dedicated to her love of jewellery and design, that the company was dissolved and Belperron, who was by now a widow, retired. She passed away in 1983 leaving behind her an exceptionally detailed archive which, whilst not discovered for many years, is now used to authenticate the jewellery of this most innovative of 20th Century designers who so famously left her work unsigned, believing instead that “my style is my signature.”