Busts of scholarly-looking gentlemen watch over the jewels, which seem to pulsate with an almost primordial power. Oversized gold cuffs speak of ancient civilisations; beautifully backlit diamonds glow iridescently; and topaz stones withhold secrets in their cloudy depths.
We are in the heart of Paris, in the storied halls of the city’s historic Ecole de Médecine, to witness the unveiling of Chanel’s latest high-jewellery collection, Les Talismans de Chanel. The collection, which will be making an appearance in the brand’s Dubai Mall boutique in February, before travelling on to Qatar, consists of 11 sets made up of 50 pieces.
There are none of the standard Chanel “codes” – lions, camellias and the suchlike. Instead, the collection aims to capture the inexplicable power of lucky charms, amulets and talismans, which exude a “strange alchemy”. Many of the designs are centred around bold central motifs – in the case of the Fascinante necklace, a two-carat pear-cut diamond set against a deep blue enamel background or, in the case of the Hypnotique necklace, a 10.5-carat brilliant-cut blue violet tanzanite, surrounded by brilliant-cut diamonds and a multicoloured lacquer trim.
There are visible Renaissance and Byzantine influences, which is entirely in keeping with Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s own aesthetic. But the collection is actually defined by its complete creative freedom, Benjamin Comar, Chanel’s international high-jewellery director, tells me – although this does present its own set of challenges, he admits.
“It’s like a writer who sits down to start a novel – the anxiety of the white page – but it will always be better than a book written under constraints. With jewellery, I always prefer for the constraint to be on the manufacturer or the stone sourced, rather than on the creator.
“There are two types of collections,” he continues. “There are those that are based on one aesthetic, the more figurative collections, with the lions, for example, or the feather. Here, it is more spirit-orientated, inspired by Gabrielle Chanel and all the objects she had that protected her and gave her the strength to manage this company and be a strong woman in the 1920s. She was very superstitious, and this is a collection about that. It’s not a direct link, but about things that give you the power, strength and energy to move on in today’s world.”
Gabrielle's story is one shrouded in mystery, myth and misinterpretation, much of which was woven by the woman herself. As Isabelle Fiemeyer explains in her book, Intimate Chanel, which is widely regarded as the go-to biography of the famed fashion icon, Gabrielle was in perfect control of her own image, inventing a self-crafted doppelgänger for public view.
But there is one part of the myth that is irrefutable: Gabrielle's preoccupation with symbols, signs and talismans. So central was this to her psyche that an entire chapter in Intimate Chanel, entitled Invisible Realities, is dedicated to the subject. "These symbols never let her down, never abandoned her; they were her constant companions through life," Fiemeyer notes.
As a child – traumatised by the death of her mother and abandoned by her father, who deposited her and her sisters at an orphanage, and was never seen again – Gabrielle took refuge in an “imaginary world of ghosts, signs and symbols”. And as an adult, Chanel was deeply influenced by the love of her life, Arthur Capel (known simply as “Boy”), who had a keen interest in spirituality, esotericism and symbolism.
There were the lions' heads, which have become such an enduring symbol for the House of Chanel; the sheaves of wheat that reminded her of her father; and the number five, which was Gabrielle's lucky number from childhood, when she would scratch the digit in the ground with a twig. There were the mirrors and crystals that she surrounded herself with throughout her life, and the Egyptian medallion gifted to her by her friend Maguy van Zuylen, which was engraved with the Throne Verse in Arabic script. She wore this almost constantly on a long chain, slipping it inside one of her pockets. There was also the yellow citrine ring that she always wore on her left hand, and an icon gifted to her by the composer Igor Stravinsky, which she kept by her bedside for the rest of her life.
“Without symbols there was nothing. As a child she must have needed something to cling on to. She constructed her own myth out of mysteries, signs and symbols; she lived it and was imbued with it. Symbols were everywhere, in her beliefs, her apartment, her jewelry and her lucky charms, her style,” Gabrielle Palasse-Labrunie says in the book. The daughter of the designer’s nephew, Andre Palasse, whom she brought up as her own son, Palasse-Labrunie is Gabrielle’s sole direct descendant, her goddaughter and, as she points out in the book’s foreword, the only living person to have been close to Gabrielle for more than 40 years.
“At the end, I made sure she was buried with the two items that were always with her, Stravinsky’s icon and a little yellow ring that I always saw her wearing on the little finger of her left hand, and which at the end of her life hung from a chain beneath her blouse,” Palasse-Labrunie recalls.
“It was a little girl’s ring of no value, and no one really knew where it came from; it was probably very old … a ring from her childhood. She sometimes used to say that a gypsy had given it to her, but I never asked her about it, as I knew how much these little mysteries meant to her.”
This yellow ring is beautifully referenced in the new collection, in the form of Les Talismans de Mademoiselle ring, which sees a 21.1-carat cabochon-cut yellow topaz and 89 brilliant-cut diamonds set on 18-carat white and yellow gold.
When asked to sum up the collection in one word, Comar opts for “strength” – and, certainly, the pieces resonate with a certain primal power, the same mysterious force that a Hand of Fatima, Ancient Egyptian scarab or Aztec amulet might emit. “The design is very strong, with big medallions and big rings,” says Comar. “I think they are really quite unique. Then you have the techniques, with the enamels in blue and red, the hammered gold, or the very light Envoûtante necklace, which only weighs 80 grams.”
This necklace, which despite its lightness is the most expensive piece in the collection, consists of an eight-carat briolette-cut diamond, a three-carat oval-cut diamond, 203 fancy-cut diamonds (at a total weight of 59.8 carats) and 426 brilliant-cut diamonds (at a total weight of 9.7 carats), all set in 18K white gold. Its lightness stems from a process known as “fils couteaux”, which involves setting the stones on an extremely thin track, creating the impression that there is nothing holding them in place. The entire piece, which is hand-soldered, took around 800 man-hours to put together.
“Techniques have not evolved that much,” says Comar. “And that’s what I like about jewellery; we are still using very traditional techniques. Computers can help to create more refined products and maybe a better finish, but everything is still done by hand, by people that sometimes have 50 years experience in this kind of work. I don’t think anything will replace that.”
Gabrielle’s own experimentation with fine jewellery actually only consisted of a single collection, Bijoux de Diamants, which she presented in November 1932 at her town house at 29 Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris. At the time, her efforts were scoffed at by the city’s more traditional jewellery houses, who wrote her off as a dressmaker and costume-jewellery designer who had no business muscling in on their turf. “They were really annoyed, and they denounced the pieces that she created in the 1930s,” Comar confirms.
It was not until 1993 that the house made its next foray into fine jewellery, opening a dedicated boutique in the historic heartland of Paris’s jewellery industry, Place Vendôme. To mark the occasion, it issued re-editions of Gabrielle’s Bijoux de Diamants collection, alongside brand new creations. The brand went on to acquire 18 Place Vendôme in 1997, to house its watches and fine-jewellery boutique and head office, and in 2012 installed a 2,153-square-foot fine-jewellery workshop above the boutique.
The jewellery industry has changed significantly in the interim. “There is more and more freedom when it comes to wearing fine jewellery,” Comar notes. “I think fine jewellery used to be for special occasions, or a trophy, but I think we are seeing more self-purchases by women, and they are stacking pieces, wearing multi-rings and so on. The attitude towards jewellery has changed. It is more relaxed.
“I think, to be honest, that’s what Chanel offered in the first place, when it came back to fine jewellery in 1993; these big rings, for example, that were very different to what was on offer on the market. We have always had this attitude that probably traditional jewellers didn’t have. We believe in the freedom of wearing, in fluidity and in comfort. That’s our culture.
“Jewellery sits on the skin; that’s very important. It has no function. It’s not a bag, it’s not a watch, it’s not a coat. So you put a lot of your mind into jewellery. And I think that’s great. I like jewellery because it is a material from the earth that you transform into a fascinating product. I like that there is no function, that people are free to put whatever they want into it. This instinctual need to adorn oneself – it’s what makes us different from animals. It’s why we have a soul, I guess.”