It might seem like an unlikely leaning for a grand dame of fashion, but wheat, in all its forms, was a major source of comfort and inspiration for the inimitable Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel.
Her connection with this enduring symbol of regeneration, abundance and prosperity was multifaceted. For a start, her birthday, August 19, fell during the harvest festival. She also placed great stock in signs, symbols and talismans. But her particular fondness for wheat was inherited from her father, the man who would abandon her and her sisters at an orphanage when she was just 12 years old. Gabrielle clung to her few happy childhood memories – walking the fields around her home in south-west France as her father spoke of “the good wheat”, in his eyes, a mark of all that was wholesome. The phrase would resonate with Gabrielle for years to come.
"She needed to idealise her father, or else he would have been the death of her," says Gabrielle Palasse-Labrunie, Gabrielle's sole living descendant, in the book Intimate Chanel. "She forced herself to remember the happy times.
“Many years later, when her friend [Salvador] Dalí, a frequent visitor at La Pausa, said he would do a painting for her, she said: ‘Paint me some ears of wheat.’ She hung the canvas at rue Cambon: a picture of a wheat ear against a black background. As well as carved wheat sheaves, I’ve always seen wheat in her house: a sheaf in a vase, which represented the good wheat of her father, the annual harvest, and was a symbol of plenty and success.”
And now, for the first time, the house of Chanel has decided to incorporate this symbol into its high-jewellery pieces. For Les Blés de Chanel, the brand's latest high-jewellery collection, the team created 62 pieces that depict the life cycle of wheat. It is a stunning selection of necklaces, rings, bracelets, earrings, watches and even a standing clock, featuring diamonds, peridots, crystalline, aquamarines and yellow sapphires. The collection charts the evolution of wheat – from pieces like Premiers Brins, Brins de Printemps and Brins de Diamants, which pay homage to the tender wheat shoots of early spring; to the diamonds, yellow sapphires and pearls of pieces such as Moisson Ensoleillée, Bouquet de Moisson and Moisson de Perles, which capture the golden hues of mature wheat fields as they are readied for harvest.
Marquise-cut diamonds capture the shape and feel of grains of wheat; soft, sweeping lines grant the collection an organic, natural feel; and stunning yellow diamonds, emeralds and sapphires chart the way wheat changes in colour as it moves through its life cycle.
“Wheat was very important in Gabrielle Chanel’s life. She was from the countryside and she surrounded herself with wheat because she believed it would bring her good fortune,” says Benjamin Comar, Chanel’s international high-jewellery director. “I like the idea of having a mono-theme. We don’t do it every year, but I think it’s important that we believe in what we do and offer the most spectacular things to our customers, and things that are for every taste.”
The irrefutable star of the collection is the Fête des Moissons necklace. A 25-carat, yellow rectangular diamond with cut corners acts as the anchor for the piece, which is shaped like a crown of braided wheat. Also featured are 121 multicoloured diamonds weighing 46.7 carats, 932 yellow diamonds weighing 40.4 carats and 165 white diamonds. The piece is complemented by a ring, bracelet and earrings.
“It’s a very important necklace, with this magical stone at its centre. But it’s very open, very supple,” says Comar of the piece, which took 1,500 hours to create.
Read this and more stories in Luxury magazine, out with The National on Thursday, December 8.