Frédéric Boucheron supplied jewels to some of the 19th century’s most famous and infamous women, from Royalty to Queens of the Night, they were all entranced by the spectacular pieces he created.
Frédéric Boucheron was born in 1830 and at the tender age of fourteen was apprenticed to a friend of his fathers, the highly regarded Parisian jeweller Jules Chaise. From there he went on to work as a salesman for the fashionable jewellers Tixier-Deschamps. When Monsieur Deschamps retired and closed his shop, Boucheron decided the time was right to set up on his own, despite Deschamps declaring him “not cut out to be the proprietor of a business”. With his former employer’s pessimistic words ringing in his ears, Boucheron founded his eponymous business in the Galerie de Valois in the Palais Royal in 1858 and set about proving him wrong. Having learnt about the importance of quality gemstones and craftsmanship during his apprenticeship, Boucheron wanted to focus on these attributes in his own jewellery. In a bid to distinguish himself he also chose to deviate from the typical styles of the period and create imaginative and artistic pieces which appealed to those fashionable women who were always on the look out for something new and original. His reputation grew steadily and he became known as an expert in precious stones, a master technician and a creator of beautiful jewellery. He set up his own workshop in 1866 and the following year exhibited at the Paris Exposition Universelle where he won his first gold medal for the innovative spirit of his jewels. Amongst the pieces on display were a large diamond rivière, a beautiful row of pink coral and various bracelets, brooches and chatelaines with pierced Florentine style decoration.
Participating in the 1876 Centennial Fair in Philadelphia exposed Boucheron to a whole new client base and as a result he began to find favour with American high society, many of whom were flush with newfound wealth and more than happy to spend it on fabulous French jewellery. One of his most extravagant clients was the wealthy American Marie-Louise Mackay, wife of John Mackay (who had become one of the richest men in the world thanks to silver mining) who spent vast sums building a truly impressive jewellery collection, much of which came from Boucheron. In 1878 she acquired, amongst other items, a stunning sapphire and diamond parure which was set with an extraordinary 159 carat oval Kashmir sapphire, said to be the most beautiful in the world. Designed by Jules Debut, who Boucheron referred to as “my right hand man in all the creations of the firm”, it was valued at over 700,000 francs.
The sale of the French Crown Jewels in 1887 saw Frédéric Boucheron facing stiff competition in the bidding for his desired lots. The only successful French buyer at the auction, he succeeded in purchasing 31 loose diamonds including a beautiful 6.28ct oval that he would keep and set into a ring for his beloved wife Gabrielle. But it was another gift to Gabrielle a year later that would become an enduring design inspiration for the firm and be revisited numerous times over the following decades. On the eve of one of his foreign trips Frédéric gave his wife a snake necklace, trusting that this ancient symbol of love and protection would watch over her in his absence and keep her safe. Since then it has been used both literally and figuratively in Boucheron jewellery designs and is regarded as the talisman of the Maison.
In 1893, having finally outgrown the Palais Royal premises, Boucheron moved into a beautiful new atelier on the Place Vendôme. He chose number 26, on the corner with the rue de la Paix, which he felt would get the most amount of sunshine thereby giving his diamonds the best opportunity to sparkle seductively from the windows. The only drawback was having to share the building with the shadowy figure of Virginia the Countess of Castiglione, ex-mistress of Napoleon III (amongst many others) and once considered the most beautiful woman of the century, who simply refused to leave her rooms when Boucheron moved in. She finally vacated her apartment the following year, much to the relief of all concerned, although two portraits of her still hang in what is now the library so in some regards, she never really left. She was just one of a group of women of the demi-monde who found themselves on the receiving end of gifts of Boucheron jewellery, the original and artistic designs finding favour with ladies for whom society and ‘fitting in’ were not a priority. Between them, Le Belle Otero, La Païva, and Liane de Pougy paid no small part in ensuring Boucheron’s success during the second half of the 19th Century.
In 1900 Boucheron was awarded the Légion d’Honneur for his beautiful jewellery displays at the Paris Exposition Universelle, establishing the Maison as one of the forerunners of the Art Nouveau style. It was a fitting finale for a great jeweller and widely respected expert and business man. In 1902, Frédéric Boucheron died leaving the Maison in the hands of his son Louis who lost no time in broadening the reach of Boucheron by opening a boutique in London. One had opened in Moscow in 1898 which would later re-locate to St Petersburg in 1911.
The early 20th Century saw commissions from European royalty and aristocracy including the future Lady Harcourt, for whom Boucheron created a spectacular collection of wedding jewels, and Lady Greville who ordered numerous pieces from the Maison including a stunning tiara which is now in the collection of Queen Elizabeth II having been bequeathed to her mother in Lady Greville’s will. However the most extraordinary commission ever received by the Maison came in 1928 when the Maharaja of Patiala arrived in the Place Vendôme accompanied by servants bearing six large boxes full of gemstones. These were delivered to Boucheron with the instruction to create 149 pieces of jewellery to be set with the thousands of rubies, diamonds and emeralds found within. Two years later Louis Boucheron was commissioned by the Shah of Iran to appraise the Imperial Treasure, a task that took him many months to complete but which exposed him to some of the most incredible jewels and gemstones he had ever seen.
In 1936 Louis’s two sons Fred and Gerard joined their father in the family business and in 1939 were instrumental in the firm’s participation in the New York World Fair. They took over fully when Louis died in 1959 and ensured the Maison maintained its reputation for quality and innovative design, as well as continuing expansion with a new store opening in Japan in 1973. Gerard’s son Alain came into the business and worked with clients such as Princess Grace of Monaco before taking the reigns himself in 1980 after the retirement of both his uncle (in 1962) and his father. He remained at the head of the Maison Boucheron until 2000 when the company was sold to the Gucci Group thereby ending 142 years and four generations of Boucheron family leadership.