Women's Jewellery

Fashion rocks

The high-fashion world is getting serious about fine jewellery, producing tomorrow’s heirlooms that are utterly in tune with today’s lifestyles. Vivienne Becker reports.

November 24 2011
Vivienne Becker

It may seem obvious today, but the coming together of fashion with fine jewellery is a relatively recent phenomenon, unfolding over the past decade and throwing a spark of dynamism and marketing might into the midst of the traditional and tightly knit precious jewellery industry. Certainly, the infiltration of the giant fashion brands and luxury conglomerates – Chanel, Christian Dior, Gucci and Louis Vuitton among them – has ignited the jewellery world, adding a new dimension, a relevance to contemporary lifestyles that was, it has to be said, largely missing before. Having more or less grown up in the familial jewellery world, I too felt slightly proprietorial and protective as, one by one, fashion brands joined the fray. Yet it was clear that fine jewellery needed a jolt: jewellery in the 1980s and 1990s wasn’t “about” anything, except perhaps its own ivory tower of craft-based conventions.

Now, with this year’s momentous €3.7bn acquisition by LVMH of Bulgari – the famously dynastic, Italian master jeweller and the third biggest jewellery brand in the world – fashion is clearly getting serious with jewellery. This acquisition, the biggest by LVMH in more than a decade, doubled the size of its watches and jewellery business, which includes De Beers Diamond Jewellers, Chaumet and Fred. Francesco Trapani, a Bulgari nephew, now head of LVMH watch and jewellery division, says: “Jewellery is the most prestigious luxury sector, and fashion entering the global jewellery market has attracted more attention to the segment, while the concept of branded jewellery has accelerated rapidly in the past 10 years.” Bulgari, he says, will now be able to expand, to project its image – bold and elegant with a bit of spice – with even more conviction. But is there a real synergy, or is it a question of business-savvy fashion brands seizing upon the underexploited opportunity represented by one of the fastest-growing categories in the luxury world?

There is certainly something of the attraction of opposites: fashion is fleeting and exists to change, while jewels are inherently timeless, with the heirloom factor built, via everlasting materials, into their DNA. Jewellery is bound by conventions; fashion loves to break rules. Yet they do have to live side by side, in a woman’s wardrobe and on her body. For Pierre Hardy, shoe designer and creative director of jewellery at Hermès, jewellery is a question of learning to live with a “foreign body”. He believes jewellery is a part of fashion and, with no jewellery training, he pushes limits because he’s not aware of them. Searching for a new way of translating Hermès’ masculine, sporty iconography and craft expertise into jewelled preciousness, he has come up with the Haute Bijouterie collection (from £17,670). This consists of equestrian motifs including hooves (ring, £17,670, and necklace, £82,000). Most distinctive is a whip necklace (£592,100), a mix of brown diamonds on pink gold, the colour of leather, the colour of skin – discreet, subtle, softening the Hermès hard-edged hardware. Hardy’s way is clearly working: Hermès’ jewellery sales were up by 30 per cent in the first half of this year.

On a similar mission, Thomas Maier, the creative director of Bottega Veneta, has developed the Italian luxury-goods house’s identity by seeking out goldsmiths who could translate its iconic woven-leather work into gold. He found a workshop in Pforzheim, Germany, to create strong, yet intricate, chains (from £9,540) and pavé-set “sfera”, or globes (collection from £4,275), inspired by ancient Venetian protective amulets.

Likewise, at Gucci, whose high jewellery collections (from about €10,000) revolve around the horsebit motif and the Diamanté Canvas, a signature pattern from the 1930s revived by its creative director, Frida Giannini. The ranges include the Bamboo Silver Collection (necklace, £1,880, and bracelet, £1,220) and the Horsebit collection (necklace, £7,150).

Chanel was the first fashion house to throw its hat into the sacred circle of jewels in 1993, an audacious move then, says Benjamin Comar, its head of fine jewellery: “Traditional jewellers, such as Boucheron and Chaumet, were still independent, without huge financial resources, and there was little true creativity. For Chanel, jewellery was more about luxury than fashion, but fashion brought dynamism, creativity and visibility to the jewellery business.” There was legitimacy to the new venture: Chanel’s famous one-off 1932 diamond collection, with its stars and comets, equally revolutionary in post-Depression Paris, and Mademoiselle’s own passion for rich Byzantine gems and gold that contrasted with the simplicity of her clothes. Cleverly, Chanel Fine Jewellery was created in the finest traditional ateliers and kept separate from fashion, with its own boutiques. Designs, however, drew innovatively both on the codes of the house and on Mademoiselle’s personal obsessions – the cosmos, the camellia, pearls, Venice. “As we stay within the Chanel style,” continues Comar, “we have succeeded in seducing the fashion client.”

Contrastes is Chanel’s newest jewellery collection (from €39,340). Modernist, yet fluid and sensual, it references Mademoiselle’s beloved absolutes of black and white, power and purity, while introducing contrasts of shape, form and movement, with a touch of winter-garden colour. The Etoile du Nord brooch (£350,000), is a luminously icy composition of diamonds, briolette-cut moonstones, with rays of mother-of-pearl and white opal. Pluie de Cristal (£677,975) features nuggets of rock crystal, under which dainty flowers trail, dripping streams of diamonds, while the Perle de Rosée crescent-shaped collar (£491,525; Perle de Rosée bracelet, £266,950) glimmers with diamonds, black and grey spinels, moonstone beads and pearls. Pearls, ever-present at Chanel, cascade against black diamonds, onyx or black lacquer, or take on the warmth of engraved yellow gold and yellow diamonds, contrasting with white gold and white diamonds, in the rich Soleil d’Automne designs (from £253,645). And the much-loved camellia is revisited in the Camélia Brodé Christmas collection (from £3,105), with fine traceries of diamonds contemporised into light, layered sautoirs, necklets, bangles and drop earrings.

At Christian Dior, since 1998, Victoire de Castellane’s very personal, playful vision, distilled into oversized, exuberantly coloured, delectably sensual jewels, has broken just about every rule in the book. Drawing on her own experience, and on Dior’s history of creating avant-garde costume jewellery from the 1950s, de Castellane has created fantasy jewels in precious materials. Sidney Toledano, CEO of Christian Dior, sees fine jewellery as an essential part of the house’s story, consistent with haute couture, with the same attributes of savoir-faire, quality, creativity and spirit. “It is part of a 360-degree approach. In the 1990s, fine jewellery was largely in the hands of classical jewellers, Harry Winston or Cartier, but the market was evolving, and we wanted to develop a fine-jewellery strategy. Victoire is so Parisienne, so 18th century, she shared Monsieur Dior’s vision.” He feels that the key to the fashion-jewellery connection lies in the fact that women have become the decision-makers in the jewellery purchase, exerting a powerful, adventurous influence on jewellery.

From the start, de Castellane took risks. “Fine jewellery was like a sleeping world,” she says, into which she was determined to bring a child’s dreams, “shining beautiful colours and treasures”. She loathes trends, she says, but uses fashion “to give life to jewellery, just as fashion gives life to clothes”. She, too, draws on the codes of the house, on M Dior’s love of flowers, for example, to build the complex fairy-tale stories in which she lovingly envelops her jewels.

The latest Dior High Jewellery Collection of 12 one-of-a-kind jewels, Le Bal des Roses (from £105,000; earrings, £105,000; necklace, £185,000), she calls “the ultimate encounter between haute couture and haute joaillerie”. Each piece depicts the rose, Christian Dior’s favourite flower, as if it were one of Dior’s first clients, dressed in finery to go to one of the amazing balls of the 1950s. These “femmes-fleur” have centres of important diamonds, in unusual cuts and colours – white, brown, pink, yellow, purple, orange – and dancing petals carved from gems such as lavender chalcedony, pink and fire opals, rubellite, “embroidered” gem-on-gem, scattered with stones such as Paraiba tourmalines, demantoid garnets or pink spinels, and lined with gemstones, like a couture-made doublure, that sits silky and secretive against the skin. As always with de Castellane creations, there is a passionate, seductive quality to the work, and a near-edible element to the succulent gemstones “as if the stones had taste”.

Since Louis Vuitton dipped its toe, or wrist, into the sparkling water 10 years ago, when Marc Jacobs wanted to make charms, the brand has stepped up a gear or several, taking on Parisian designer-jeweller Lorenz Bäumer as creative director of high jewellery and launching its first high jewellery collection, L’Ame du Voyage, in 2009. Hamdi Chatti, Louis Vuitton’s director of jewellery and watches, says the move into serious jewellery is about “new emotions with high values and a new way of dramatising jewellery with new creativity”. He believes fashion houses bring a new dynamic, and that, as happened with watches, this is shaking traditional brands and boosting the whole industry. Louis Vuitton certainly means business: a new boutique on a prime corner of Paris’s Place Vendôme, due to open early next year, is its first free-standing jewellery and watch boutique, which it hopes will make it a major global jewellery force.

Bäumer, who created the first Chanel collections in the 1980s and remembers well the doubters of the time, feels the moment is right, as the image of fashion and jewellery has changed drastically over the past two decades. “Jewellery is between timelessness and creativity; it is a question of balancing the two. I look at fashion, I take elements from the runway, but that is not my priority; it is about linking to the core values of Louis Vuitton. I find it refreshing and incredibly challenging.”

As fashion is also relatively recent at Louis Vuitton, the connection, Bäumer feels, is more with the quality and long-lasting craftsmanship of its leather goods. His L’Ame du Voyage (all prices on application) taps into the romantic travel aspect of Vuitton, with whirlwinds of sun- and sea-coloured stones and white and pink sapphires, incorporating the LV diamond cut into the shape of the familiar flower logo. Meanwhile, La Malle aux Trésors collection (prices on application) comprises 13 one-off jewels, each incorporating an important gem, designed as a skyline, cloud, sailboat, hot-air balloon and presented in a custom-made miniature trunk.

Chatti agrees the time is right for Louis Vuitton to take precious jewellery to the next level. “The brand philosophy is to surprise; to take risks and push barriers is part of our duty. This is a turning point, fine jewellery is a new universe, but it’s just the start.”