Inspired by far-flung regions of the world, Parisian house Chaumet’s latest high jewellery collection blends tradition and modernity.
The motto Chaumet made was very simple, to wake up the sleeping beauty,” said Jean-Marc Mansvelt, the chief executive of the French jewellery house. “Chaumet is really Parisian in its identity and history, and we are the origin of Parisian high jewellery.”
For the jewellery house’s journeying three-part High Jewellery collection, Les Monde de Chaumet, the first chapter was unveiled in Russia in homage to its Russian clients; its Japanese-inspired collection in Japan, and its final Trésors d’Afrique collection in Paris, a range that includes a collaboration with Kenyan artist Evans Mbugua.
“This is the highlight – Chaumet’s 19th-century jewellery was very much inspired by North African jewellery and culture,” says Mansvelt. “Of course, it is a very Parisian vision in 2018, a very pure creation. Evans Mbugua has brought his very young, colourful and joyful approach – because this is really about his universal vision of Africa.”
Based in the historic Place Vendôme since 1812, Chaumet’s original site there – now the Ritz hotel – was established by Marie-Ètienne Nitot, who founded his company in 1780 and whose career was marked by commissions from Napoleon Bonaparte and his first wife Joséphine de Beauharnais, the first Empress of France. Mansvelt speaks passionately about Chaumet’s special relationship with the Empress, revealing that a pair of pearl earrings she had commissioned to Chaumet now sit in Paris’s Louvre museum.
“Joséphine was obviously a woman of love and sentiment. She was a botanist, she had two husbands, two children, many lovers – she is very modern,” says Mansvelt of one of Chaumet’s most famous patrons. With an interest in botany and gardens – particularly English ones, which were more natural rather than the manicured French style – she introduced new species into France including eucalyptus from Australia. “She was very clever, so when Napoleon’s military would go to new countries, she would give them a shopping list of what she wanted – a new grain, an animal.”
A landmark in its own right, Chaumet’s current building at number 12 was previously the home of Chopin and was once the Russian embassy. It was designed under the reign of King Louis XVI and Queen MarieAntoinette, “so it’s the pure 18th-century style”, says Mansvelt proudly. “It was an order of the minister of the navy of the King, so this is why we can find in every single detail some references to the sea, from dolphins on the door to shells and pearls.” The salon at number 12 that is hosting the collections is decorated in red and yellow. “It can evoke many things – the colours of the soil in Africa, but also the geometric motifs of some traditional fabrics, or maybe a snake.”
Recalling that Chaumet is foremost a fine jewellery house, it has also created timepiece designs that reflected the fashions of the day. The first wristwatches made by Nitot (circa 1811) were for Princess Augusta of Bavaria, the daughter-in-law of Empress Josephine, made in gold, emeralds and pearls. In 1910, during the Belle Époque era, the fashion was for women to wear long pendants during the day, so Chaumet created flat women’s watches suspended on long pendants. “Each time they were a fashion first. We create jewels that tell the time!” Mansvelt says with a laugh, as he picks up a watch from the Trésors d’Afrique collection that at first glance looks like a bracelet. “Open it, move the ruby, and read the time,” he says, pointing to the timepiece. It’s priced at 730,000 euros, sans tax, as the Chaumet team point out.
Rubies appear throughout the Trésors d’Afrique collection, as well as yellow sapphires, lacquer and diamonds. “This piece with the yellow sapphires, if you look here on the profile you will see the volume and architectural dimensions of this piece, yet it is really subtle.”
Mbugua, now based in Paris after studying in France, had designed a series of brooches with some converting into a pair of earrings – a nod to Chaumet’s convertible tiaras.
“This collection is very playful and humorous but very poetic,” says Mansvelt, pointing out an brooch of an elephant with flowers in its
“THIS COLLECTION IS VERY PLAYFUL AND HUMOROUS BUT VERY POETIC”
mouth, tourmaline. featuring “It’s a fantasy white gold, situation.” pink opal, sapphire, tanzanite and
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around different “With countries, this how year’s do high Chaumet’s jewellery customers collection differ themed from region JEAN-MARC to region?” MANSVELT: “As far as I can see, the people who select Chaumet choose Chaumet for the same reason: they don’t want to wear what everyone else is wearing, so it’s a choice of distinction. The style of Chaumet is about the piece and the beauty, the depth, relating to love, the coronation of love Napoleon shows Joséphine. In China, people know the story of Napoleon and Joséphine, and the Chinese feel like they’re buying a piece of France and the history of France. They love the statement Joséphine pieces. The jewellery market in Japan is very bridal and they prefer things more discreet. Bridal is the perfect introduction to Chaumet, because it’s very meaningful.”
EM: “What do you think defines luxury today? It’s obviously a word that has changed over time – is it the appreciation of the story, or the history of the house, or do you think that it’s just a very individual notion?”
J-MM: “I think it is individual.
Luxury is defined by how you surprise people, how you invent and re-invent yourself. For example the tiara, our oldest tiara, is beautiful – the front is as magical as the back. And this for me defines luxury. So it is not just something that is to show, but it is the authenticity, and that is something that defines luxury. In other aspects it [luxury] is changing … especially with there being more access through digital platforms. So in some respect, you may say: ‘Oh my God, it’s becoming more difficult [to create luxury]’, but it means you need to be even more authentic and true to your story.” EM: “And how are the high jewellery pieces made?”
J-MM: “Everything is developed here in Paris, in terms of creation. Our jewellers have been in Chaumet since the beginning. We have just celebrated with champagne the 28th anniversary of a master of the workshop. He is our 13th master in Chaumet – there have only been 13 in nearly 250 years. We have many people who have spent more than 40 years in Chaumet. It takes 10 to 15 years to become a jeweller. Some do one week at Chaumet and one week at school, so we are preparing the next generation. One of the key jobs of the workshop master is not only to be the master of the workshop in terms of making the pieces as a jeweller, but also organising and managing Chaumet’s style – the quality, style and everything.”
EM: “For the high jewellery collection Les Mondes de Chaumet, why did you choose to focus on Russia, Japan and Africa?”
J-MM: “Chaumet is a Parisian maison that has always been open to the world, and welcomed different influences, not to copy but to reinterpret. So we wanted to celebrate this theme. Russia has the colours, the weather, the architecture – it is an endless source of inspiration. Japan is important to us for clients, but also as aesthetic inspiration. If you really look at Chaumet, we have been drawn to nature, which is a large part of Japan’s aesthetic. We had an exhibition in Tokyo where we showed a series of drawings from Chaumet from the end of the 19th century to the early 20th. Then with Africa, the story of Chaumet is very much linked to the history of art and it was apparent to us how much Africa has influenced art over the years. It’s the first time that there is a full collection dedicated to this source of inspiration for us.”
EM: “Chaumet was one of the first luxury houses to photograph its pieces. Very few houses were doing this at the time. How did that come about?”
J- MM: “The founder of Chaumet had a vision to ensure that his mission survived not just from father to son as blood or as the next generation, but also that the maison would be in the hands of the most talented person. This explains why there have been four families in charge of Chaumet at various times. Taking this into consideration, the question becomes: ‘If it doesn’t go from the father to son, how do I guarantee that the essence of the maison will be transmitted?’ The answer is that they need to keep everything from since the very beginning. Before the existence of photography they did everything else that was possible to maintain this – keeping drawings, books and invoices. There are books of inspiration, of stories and of pearls. To give you an idea, we have 82,000 finished drawings. Last year we made the decision to start digitising everything.” EM: “That’s a big job.”
J-MM: ”It’s going to take 10 years to do it properly. We started to move the first lot of documents – weighing 40 tonnes – and that was only a small part of it! We have in this building today 350,000 photographs, and it’s super-interesting, because when you open a book of drawings you see so many more – it’s like a mood board.” EM: “I have to ask, does Chaumet sell a lot of tiaras nowadays?”
J-MM: ”A lot, yes, but compared to before, no. We have a few tiaras in production that are special orders. They are typically parents ordering a tiara for the wedding of their daughter – a coronation of love. It goes beyond tiaras just being about beauty.”
Left: Princess Yusupova, Grand Duchess Irina of Russia, wearing the Chaumet sun tiara, made in 1914. Right: a portrait of Chaumet founder Marie-Ètienne Nitot by Louis-Léopold Boilly.