“I chose the diamond because it represents, in its density, the greatest value for the smallest size. And I used my penchant for all that shines to try and reconcile elegance and fashion in a set of jewellery.”
The house of Chanel was founded by Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel (1883-1971) in Paris in 1910 and whilst today she is most obviously associated with couture clothing, she also designed not only costume jewellery but fine jewellery as well, most significantly the 1932 Bijoux de Diamants collection to which she is referring in the above quotation.
Her childhood was famously impoverished and after the death of her mother she and her sisters were sent to an orphanage by their father where she was brought up by nuns from the age of 11 to 18. This was to have a profound and lasting impact on her life not only personally but professionally as well. The austere beauty of the imagery that surrounded her at the convent would weave its way into both her jewellery and clothing designs. From the crosses and stained glass windows through the star and petal mosaics and even the nun’s rosary beads and their black and white habits – these shapes and colours would all be referenced by Chanel in her work.
She opened her first shop in 1910 in Paris with the financial help of her then lover Etienne Balsan and initially made and sold hats. However, after fashioning herself a dress from an old jersey whilst on holiday in Deauville, she was repeatedly asked to make one for friends and so began her career in fashion. In 1921 she launched her now iconic fragrance No.5, the first perfume from a couturier and one that remains popular the world over nearly 100 years later. It wasn’t until the end of that decade that she started to think seriously about jewellery. In 1927 she employed Fulco di Verdura as a textile designer but within a couple of years they were working on jewellery designs together including her now famous Maltese cross cuff bracelets. They used a variety of materials including inexpensive brightly coloured gems and glass and assembled them in bold, multi-hued combinations. Her love of pearls to accessories an outfit is well known and she was as fond of her faux costume pearls as she was the real thing. In later years she would comment that what attracted her to costume jewellery was its provocativeness and that “..I found it devoid of arrogance…”.
However, Chanel was renowned for her love of opposites and contradictions and in November 1932 she presented an extraordinary collection of fine diamond jewellery called ‘Bijoux de Diamants’ which one article reported as having a combined value of twenty million francs. The designs were focused around motifs that were meaningful to her such as stars, ribbons and fringes and she displayed the jewels at her home on Faubourg Saint-Honoré. It had been facilitated by the London Diamond Corporation who had leant Chanel the gems in the hope that such a collaboration and exhibition would help promote diamonds and increase sales. Of the collection she said “I want the jewellery to be like a ribbon on a woman’s fingers. My ribbons are flexible and detachable. For grand evenings, you wear the full set. For smaller parties, you can remove the main part and large pieces…. jewellery is no longer an immutable object. Life transforms it and bends it to its needs.”
The arrival of World War II saw Chanel close her boutique and she didn’t return to couture until 1954 when she produced her first new collection in almost 15 years at the age of 71. She continued working and designing collections, including jewellery, for almost twenty years until her death in 1971. After this the house of Chanel carried on producing collections but seemed to lose its way until in 1983 fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld took over the creative direction and breathed new life into the ailing brand. It would be another 10 years before the company turned to fine jewellery once again and launched a new collection of which many pieces referenced the jewels created in 1932. A dedicated jewellery boutique was opened on the Place Vendome in Paris and since then jewellery has played an increasingly important role. Often the jewels take inspiration from the history of the House and motifs and symbols that were important to Gabrielle whether that be the ‘Leo’ of her star sign, the quilting of her bags, the stars of her diamond collection or the bright boldness of her costume jewellery echoed in a rainbow of cabochon gems set in yellow gold.
Almost fifty years after her death, the character and style of Gabrielle Chanel still permeates the company that carries not only her name but also her revolutionary sense of style and irreverent mixing of fine and costume jewellery.