Jean Eugene Gilbert Despres was born in Avallon, France in 1889. The following year his parents opened a small shop selling jewellery and gifts, a decision that would influence their son’s future career and would ultimately give the Art Deco period one of its boldest creatives. Whilst still a teenager, Despres moved to Paris to take up an apprenticeship with a silversmith friend of his father’s who had a workshop in the Marais area. After work he would attend drawing classes where he honed his skills as a draughtsman and his nights were spent in the artistic quarters of Montmartre. Here he mixed with an eclectic group of avant-garde and bohemian designers and artists, most significantly Georges Braque with whom he became great friends. Along with Picasso, Braque was the founder of Cubism and the influence of this style is clear in Despres’ early works with its fondness for geometric shapes and overlapping planes and angles.
During the war, Despres was employed by the French Air Force drawing and making aircraft parts and this too would have a profound impact on his own work. After the death of his sister he returned home to Avallon in 1919 to care for his mother and set up his own workshop at the back of the house. Here he began to design and make pieces in silver, embracing both its affordability and increasing popularity. His jewellery was bold and uncompromising, he liked contrasting textures and finishes and favoured enamel and hardstones such as lapis and malachite alongside orange corals for bright splashes of colour. Gold was used much less extensively and typically to provide contrast or to highlight a juxtaposition of elements. Conscious of the need to raise awareness of his work in Paris if he was to attain widespread success, he exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in 1925. Whilst very well received by some, his work was simply too modern for others and the Salon d’Automne refused to show his pieces despite exhibiting works by artists such as Modigliani and Braque.
In 1929 Despres met the artist Etienne Cournault and they went on to collaborate together on a series of jewels called ‘Bijoux Glaces’. These featured miniature works of art in the Cubist style which Cournault reverse painted onto glass and Despres then set into jewellery using specific shapes and enamels to compliment the images. Another collection, called ‘Bijoux Moteurs’ was inspired by machine parts and was heavily influenced by Despres’ time in the Air Force with its focus on motifs which resembled wheels, cogs, ball-bearings and other obviously industrial shapes. These pieces were much admired and in 1936 Despres organised his own exhibition ‘La Femme et l’Art Moderne’, an acknowledgement of the increasing boldness and independence exhibited by modern women, epitomised by the likes of Josephine Baker, who were unafraid to experiment with their jewellery and favoured his original style.
He met and fell in love with the artist Simone Delattre and they married in 1937. Around this time he launched a collection of jewellery incorporating little neo-classical style ceramic medallions made by Jean Mayodon, these were known as his ‘Bijoux Ceramique’. A couple of years later his talent was formally recognised and he was awarded the prestigious ‘Legion d’Honneur’. As war broke out across Europe, Despres’ increased popularity and success ensured that, unlike many other jewellers, he was able to keep working during this difficult time. By 1943 his success was such that the Salon d’Automne who had previously shunned his work, now showcased a range of his silverware alongside that of Raymond Templier. Alongside his jewellery, Despres also made a wide range of silver tableware such as tea sets, vases, flatware, condiment sets and candelabra. Favouring a hammered finish and often embellished with a heavy ‘gormette’ chain around the base of the piece, they were regarded as sleek, chic and highly desirable. In 1958 he won a gold medal at the Brussels World Fair and in 1962 was invited to exhibit work at both the ‘International Exhibition of Modern Jewellery 1890-1961’ at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London as well as ‘Dix siècle de Joaillerie Française’ at the Louvre in Paris.
Despres carried on working throughout the late 1960’s and early 70’s producing pieces that were simpler in style but no less interesting, only retiring in 1977 at the age of 88 when he closed his workshop. He died in 1980 in Avallon, having donated many pieces of work to galleries and museums in France as a record of his style and success. He is remembered as one of a group of daring, forward thinking artists and designers of the Art Moderne who broke stereotypes and boundaries with abandon and captured the defining aesthetic of the period in pieces of great style.