In 1932 Coco Chanel walked into a Parisian jewelry workshop and demanded the impossible. As the pièce de résistance of her first fine-jewelry collection, the ever-progressive Mademoiselle had dreamt up a 600-plus diamond necklace that featured an irregularly shaped star and draped around the neck like a light French foulard. "I can only imagine the astounded faces in the workshop when she proposed this," says Marc Auclert, director of Chanel Fine Jewelry.
Nevertheless, Paris' so-called "golden hands" set to work, crafting the Collier Comète in nine months and inventing such modern techniques as a sophisticated spring system for an arched setting. Seventy years later this necklace remains a signature piece of Chanel Fine Jewelry, which opened its first boutique in Place Vendôme in 1993. Adhering to the standards of its visionary founder, Chanel creates pieces that combine contemporary design and technical genius with skilled old-world craftsmanship, each collection a reminder of Coco's own timeless elegance.
"The woman with the most sense in Europe," as Picasso dubbed her, created only one fine-jewelry collection but was celebrated—then as now—for her sense of real style. Rejecting the long gowns and elaborate hairstyles of her youth (opting instead for sporty jerseys, little black dresses, and a bobbed coif), Chanel wore jewelry in an utterly new way, mixing precious gems with costume pieces and slinging cascades of imitation pearls over her tweed suits. She best described her daring approach to life as well as fashion: "How many cares one loses when one decides not to be something, but to be someone." This individualism so impressed the International Guild of Diamond Merchants—who during the Depression were searching for a designer to help the luxury industry out of its economic crisis—that they gave fashion's French diva carte blanche to create an unprecedented collection of diamonds set in platinum. In November 1932 that collection was exhibited in Chanel's "private rooms" at 29 Rue du Faubourg-St.-Honoré.
"When we launched Chanel Fine Jewelry sixty years later," says Auclert, "it was natural to reissue the original collection." But with most of the renderings lost, the pieces had to be based mainly on photographs taken by Robert Bresson and André Kertész for the fashion press. "Re-creating the collection gave us a new appreciation of how revolutionary Chanel's designs were, and still are," says Auclert.
The reissued items include the Bracelet Franges, a slender cuff comprising separate pieces that move like the fringe on a flapper dress; the Bague Comète, a star-motif ring that twists around the finger twice and culminates in a one-karat diamond; and the Collier Fontaine, a 405-diamond necklace with two pendants, one of which can be converted to a brooch.
"Coco always designed with a sense of freedom," says Auclert. "Our new pieces are fashioned in that spirit."
Chanel creates two fine-jewelry collections annually: one less formal, with easy-to-wear pieces for spring-summer; the other more dramatic (and costly) for the winter holiday season. There's also an artistic collection that travels worldwide and is exhibited at high-end boutiques. Last year's 70th-anniversary showcase, Rêves de Diamants, introduced the magnificent 3,590-diamond Collier Comète 2002 with interchangeable moon, sun, and star pendants (plus an impressive price tag of $1.1 million).
Perhaps hoping to perpetuate the esprit of an ever-present Coco, the company remains tight-lipped about the designer spearheading its creations, revealing only that he is "totally Chanel." And though the new designs are undeniably contemporary, they meticulously follow Coco Chanel's style.
The two-faced Galet Poli (Polished Pebble) ring, displaying either diamonds or emeralds (wearer's choice), echoes the sophisticated wit of Chanel's original collection; the Camellia cacholong ring (a classic worn by modern beauties like Gwyneth Paltrow and Reese Witherspoon), reflects her fondness for the scentless flower; the ruby and diamond L'air necklace, with its orbital motif, seems to symbolize her regard for things celestial. "I wanted to cover women with constellations," Chanel once said.
After a new design has been approved, the blueprints are sent to one of several Parisian workshops, chosen for its specialty (such as setting colored stones or producing the finest emerald-cut diamonds). A select group of master goldsmiths may be consulted about a design demanding a particularly advanced technique, like the company's 1997 Venetian necklace, whose gemstones seem to be floating on an impossibly thin 18-karat gold ribbon).
From initial sketch to silk-glove polish, the jewelry passes through expert hands in a choreographed routine of patient precision and tireless attention to detail. "It takes at least eight years for a bench jeweler to be considered trained," says Auclert. "These jobs rely not only on the artisans' skill but also on their teamwork."
Craftsmen polishing the gold mounting have to be careful not to dent the malleable material, for even the slightest slip of their emery-grain strings (used to refine the inside of each perforation) affects the stone setters' delicate job. Immobilizing the gold in hard beeswax, these craftsmen fit the gemstones using an assortment of chasing hammers, point drills, and slender needle files. With pieces like the Comète 2002 necklace, featuring two stars studded with more than 1,000 diamonds as well as minuscule diamond patterns on the reverse side of the pendants, this is an exceedingly time-consuming process.
Once set, the loose pieces are painstakingly assembled, and there's a final inspection for retention of stones, quality of polish, and blemishes. Most pieces take four to five months to produce; complex designs require more than a year.
"One must understand that fine jewelry isn't fashion," says Auclert. "Historically and culturally speaking, it is a decorative art."
It is also a growing business: Soon after Chanel launched its fine-jewelry line, the luxury-goods conglomerates followed suit: In 1999 Bernard Arnault's LVMH acquired Chaumet and Richemont took over Van Cleef & Arpels; the following year Gucci acquired Boucheron. "The market used to be quieter," says Auclert, who facetiously calls the industry "the new El Dorado."
But Chanel has no intention of letting its fine-jewelry branch expand too quickly. With just 30 jewelry boutiques worldwide, it remains dedicated to its founder's persona, sculpting collections that are whimsical yet elegant, original yet timeless.
"I want to be part of what is going to happen," Coco Chanel declared in the 1930s. She still is.
BORN AGAIN When Chanel Fine Jewelry was launched in 1993, a number of Mademoiselle's 1932 designs were reissued. Herewith, the most notable.
COLLIER COMETE The diamond Comet Necklace was the centerpiece of Coco's 1932 fine-jewelry exhibition.
BRACELET FRANGES The Fringe Bracelet was likewise inspired by the heavens—in this case the sun's rays.
COLLIER FONTAINE The Fountain Neckace was worn by Kristin Scott Thomas' character Lady Sylvia McCordle in the film Gosford Park.
Chanel Fine Jewelry, 18 Place Vendôme, Paris, 33-1-55-35-50-05; 733 Madison Avenue, New York, 212-535-5828; www.chanel.com.