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Pierre Sterlé was still a young boy when fate dealt him the hand that would set him on the path to becoming one of the most exciting jewellers of the mid 20th Century.
Born in 1905 into a family of high ranking financiers, he was barely 10 years old when his father was reported missing, presumed killed, in the First World War. This great personal tragedy resulted in him being placed into the care of an uncle, Maynier-Pincon, who was a jeweller on the rue de Castiglione in Paris. In time he would become Sterlé’s tutor and mentor, training him in all aspects of the jewellery trade. At 29 Sterlé opened his own workshop on rue Sainte Anne and for the next five years he created jewellery for some of the most prominent Parisian houses such as Boucheron, Chaumet and Ostertag whilst simultaneously developing his own style. As his reputation grew he began to accept more individual commissions and by 1939 he was producing jewels exclusively for private clients.
As both his business and clientele grew, he took the decision to move to a more welcoming and luxurious premises, opening an atelier on the third floor of 43, Avenue de l’Opera in 1945. Sterlé felt this was close enough to the Place Vendôme to be convenient for his increasingly wealthy and fashionable clients but still far enough away for him to be able to maintain his sense of elitism. He had no interest in running a ground floor boutique which was open to the public and with windows in which to display his jewels to anyone who happened to be walking past. A man of great personal charm and élan he saw himself as distinct from the large jewellery brands and sought to create an air of exclusivity and prestige for his work.
Whilst he never actually put pen to paper himself, Sterlé employed highly talented draughtsmen to translate his creative imaginings into technical designs for the craftsmen to follow. He was inspired by nature and the shapes and forms found therein but refused to be constrained by the formal rigidity of metal and gemstones which he sought to manipulate and infuse with movement and life. He created innovative jewels using the rich tones of yellow gold paired with gemstones which he valued for their colour and artistic effect, painting his pieces with the vibrant tones of coral, lapis, turquoise, sapphire and peridot amongst others. However he also favoured the purity of white metal and diamonds, often contrasting the lively sparkle of brilliant cut diamonds with the clean geometry of baguette cuts in the same piece. Characterised by graceful elegance and fluidity of design, even in pieces with no physical movement, his diamond jewels won him the prestigious DeBeers Diamond Award not once but three times in consecutive years from 1953.
He was renowned amongst his peers for his technical expertise, often treating gold as if it were fabric, twisting, knotting and plaiting it to create texture and movement in his jewellery. In 1957 he invented a new way of working with gold called ‘fil d’ange’ or ‘angel wire’ knitting it into fine ropes which he used to create fringes. These became a distinctive element of his jewels, in particular the bird brooches, imbuing them with life and vitality. His friend and client the French author Colette references both Sterlé and his jewellery in her work. She describes how he would turn her room into an Aladdin’s cave when he brought his latest creations to show her and she particularly admired his new technique saying… “Chain-knit, fine, reticulated – each link enlivened with diamond dust, yes I love chain knit gold.”
Sterlé achieved great success both at home and abroad during the 1940’s and 50’s with clients including some of the most significant jewellery collectors of the period such as King Farouk of Egypt, the Maharani of Baroda and the Begum Aga Khan. Despite this however, a series of professional and personal misfortunes including a failed attempt to diversify into perfume saw Sterlé’s fortunes fall dramatically and in 1961 he had to sell many of his designs to Chaumet as well as some to New York jeweller Montreaux. He recovered and staged a very successful display at the 1966 Paris Biennale, the first modern jeweller to be invited to do so. This contributed directly to a decision, against all his previous reasoning, to open up a shop front in 1969 on the rue Saint-Honoré. Unfortunately his earlier misgivings were proved right and the shop was ultimately unsuccessful, forcing him to declare bankruptcy and liquidate his stock in 1976. Most of it was bought by Chaumet whom Sterlé then joined as a technical consultant, remaining with them until his death in 1978.