French High-Jewelry Houses Offer Digital and Real-World Shine

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PARIS — The historic jewelry houses of Place Vendôme are famous for weathering crises over the decades, and they weren’t about to allow the coronavirus pandemic to keep them from introducing fresh, high-end finery to the world during the traditional July presentations in Paris. 

Emerging from a lockdown slumber, the Place Vendôme drew editors back to the gilded salons of Chaumet and Boucheron, while Cartier went virtual, hosting Zoom calls and a video from the Grand Palais.

The trio of French luxury houses had distinct propositions as they sought to push the realm of high jewelry into fresh directions as the industry grapples with steep declines in business and a cloudy outlook. Bain has projected a 25 to 30 percent decline in the global personal luxury goods industry this year. Cartier-owner Compagnie Financière Richemont reported this week that sales nearly halved in the first three months of the year, despite double-digit growth in China.

Chaumet drew on architectural design while Boucheron sought to capture the lightness of air and Cartier borrowed from patterns in the natural world for its stylized collection.

Other labels were also active, including Messika, Qeelin and Dinh Van, showing new collections in-person or through Zoom. 

A number of high jewelers opted out of the July presentations, which normally coincide with the haute couture fashion calendar, including Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Dior and Gucci.

Boucheron invited a small group of journalists to an upper-floor salon of its Place Vendôme boutique, seating them on a sprawling sofa to view a meditative film — featuring clouds, stunning natural reflections, water droplets, birds in flight — before seating participants around a table to view the pieces of its new collection, titled “Contemplation.” While the house’s creative director Claire Choisne thought up the theme a few years ago, it carried particular resonance in these times. Choisne was on hand to introduce the jewelry, accompanied by chief executive officer Hélène Poulit-Duquesne. Refreshments were offered and trays of white, sugared macarons decorated the table, along with vases holding bouquets of raw cotton tufts.

The pair kicked off the presentation with the Goutte de Ciel necklace, passing it around on a tray before putting it on a model to show it worn — the first of a stream of a diverse and varied collection, which counted 67 pieces.

“The idea was to capture a piece of the sky to be able to offer it to the woman wearing the necklace,” said Choisne.

“We did a lot of research,” she noted, before they found the suitable material: aerogel. The ultralight silicon matter, mostly air and silica, is used by NASA to capture star dust in outer space. Bite-sized chunks were passed around for handling, to feel the weightlessness of the futuristic, pale, milky blue substance. For the necklace, it was encapsulated in a drop shaped case of rock crystal, the size of a hand. Adding volume and texture to the piece, and in contrast with the large, smooth droplet, the rest of the necklace was made of stacked discs, pavéd in diamonds or made of rock crystal, of varying sizes. 

The pair recalled an important piece for the collection had languished in the mail during the lockdown period, adding drama during a tumultuous time.

“In a pile of packages at the Roissy airport!” laughed Poulit-Duquesne.

Seeking to capture lightness through another method, the house’s Nuage en Apesanteur necklace was designed with the help of algorithms, which mapped out clusters of droplets — made by hand — to resemble the shape of a cloud. The necklace sits around the neck like a nest of titanium threads, with thousands of diamonds and glass beads attached to the ends.

The Fenetre sur Ciel necklace took an altogether different approach to replicating the sky. The fabric-like mesh, worn like a flat scarf, was made of small hexagons in mother-of-pearl and blue lacquer, and punctuated with a hearty, 35-carat cabochon tanzanite. An homage to James Turrell’s “Open Sky” artwork on Naoshima Island in Japan, the set is completed with a prominent ring with an 8.52 carat emerald-cut tanzanite.

Keeping with the light and airy theme, the house showed feathered pieces carved out of mother-of-pearl, brooches and necklaces of swallows in flight, diamond-pavéd wing earrings and a delicate trembler dandelion necklace.

Across the Place Vendôme, Chaumet invited editors to view jewelry in an upper salon of its refurbished mansion that sits on the square. As was the case for most houses, more pieces are in the works — high-jewelry workshops were shut across France during the lockdown period — and Chaumet expects to have additional jewelry to show at the end of August.

But the jewelry pieces on display resolutely held their own, offering a broad range that started with lightweight pieces made from ultrathin titanium — a tiara, necklace and voluminous bracelet — resembling lattice work, and, in stark contrast, more assertive pieces with fuller volumes that paid homage to architectural design.

“We knew we would be reopening the Hôtel Particulier, which is a work of architecture situated on a place of architecture,” said Chaumet ceo Jean-Marc Mansvelt, referring to the refurbished store on the Place Vendôme. 

“It’s a theme, like all high-jewelry themes for us, that allows us to revisit the history of the house, that we have reworked through time,” he continued.

“It shows that a construction of a jewel is similar to constructing a building — there are many points in common,” he said. 

“You start with a drawing, you then go to 3-D, when you talk about architecture, as with jewelry, you talk about volume, balance, managing empty or filled spaces, light, movement,” he said, evoking the CCTV Tower by Rem Koolhaas in Beijing.

“You wonder, ‘how is it held up?’” he said, noting that this was the effect the house was after. 

Organized by chapters, the jewelry revisited past and more contemporary architecture. The Skyline sets drew inspiration from Chaumet pieces harking back to the Seventies, and involved reworking yellow gold in myriad ways, contrasting hammered with polished surfaces, recalling works by Pierre Sterlé. The Skyline ring featured a ray-like construction around a flawless, 7.34-carat diamond, while the necklace had a 16.06-carat pear-shaped emerald and rows of baguette-cut diamonds and emeralds.

The Labyrinthe pieces played on empty and filled spaces, using onyx as a filler, and included a necklace featuring a 19.36-carat pear-shaped rubellite, jade and baguette-cut diamonds.

Cartier invited editors to view its colorful, new high-jewelry sets through Zoom, showing the “Sur-Naturel” collection with models on hand to display the pieces in movement. The Gharial necklace mixes octagonal-shaped emeralds with diamonds in a unique pattern that resembles the skin of a crocodile. A client had famously visited a Cartier store with a pet alligator, the story went.

The Sinopé necklace re-created the movement of water, with 39.22 carats of sapphires from Madagascar. The Panthère Tropicale watch was one of the bolder pieces, with a coral-lined bracelet and large octagonal-shaped aquamarines and tourmalines that contrasted with diamond pavéd panels. The Tillandsia necklace offered a blast of color, and was built around two oval-shaped green beryls totaling 163.97 carats, surrounded by brown, yellow and orange diamonds. 

The recent lockdown period drove home the importance of digital means, and Cartier moved quickly to set up a studio in Paris to show high jewelry through other means than in person. 

The studio was built by a transversal team of people from the label’s events teams and high-jewelry manufacturing staff, with the help of external agencies, explained Arnaud Carrez, marketing and communications director of Cartier International.

“A lot of stakeholders were involved in the development of this studio and a lot of briefing — a lot of preparation with the sales staff,” he explained. 

“It was a challenging exercise,” he continued, noting that they sought to ensure that the digital version would carry the same level of experience as a physical event.

“Everything has to be done with excellence, the environment, the setting, the display of the pieces, the fact that you can have technical experts giving some explanation of these pieces, everything has been built for VIP clients to feel as though it was a physical experience,” he added.

“Everything is live, so there’s a lot of technology involved,“ he said, noting that confidentiality was also key, when it comes to VIP clients especially. 

Valerie Messika took to Zoom to show her Voltige collection that was put together in a very short time frame — plans to show a more spectacular range of pieces had been postponed due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Focusing on the essentials — diamonds — she started with the stones, calling on her father, a well-known stone dealer, for supplies.

Alongside Messika, French journalist Peggy Frey took part in the video presentation, and remarked that the designer seemed to have a playful approach to her designs.

“I played with diamonds when I was a kid,” said Messika, prompting Frey to note that, for her, it was Lego.

The journalist modeled double rings and diamond ear clips, lifting the hooped earrings to the camera, while the two continued lighthearted conversation, making for a lively presentation. Seeking to free the stones, Messika suspended diamonds above their settings, or gave them movement, with large, pavéd hoops carrying a heart-shaped diamond and a 3.07-carat heart-shaped diamond solitaire ring.

Qeelin, which also belongs to Kering, presented its new Wulu rings, offering the signature house form in a variety of precious materials and colors, with red agate, jade and mother-of-pearl set with pavéd diamonds and rose gold, or, strikingly, in white gold and onyx, also pavéd with diamonds.


Dinh Van presented new jewelry in Paris, gathering the press for lunch in an airy restaurant to show a collection that had been scheduled for release in April. The house stopped all advertising activity during the recent lockdown period in France, but plans to kick off the fall with traditional advertising, with a television spot in France as well as posters. New pieces included a Menottes necklace in a fat serpent chain and large creole hoops.

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