THE FRENCH CROWN JEWELS: PART 1: THE ANCIEN REGIME

The Crown of Louis XV at the Louvre.  It is decorated with paste replicas of the important stones that once adorned it, including some of the famous Mazarin diamonds and the Sancy diamond on top.

The Crown of Louis XV at the Louvre.  It is decorated with paste replicas of the important stones that once adorned it, including some of the famous Mazarin diamonds and the Sancy diamond on top.

The assembly of the greatest collection of jewels the world has ever seen began roughly with the accession of Pepin the Short in 752.  It is the first recorded legitimization of a French monarch under a Christian ceremony called the sacre, a ceremony which was to be performed on every French monarch in a more or less uninterrupted line until the French Revolution.

Louis XIV in robes of State.  Note his use of some of the medieval regalia: his Crown, the Sceptre, the Hand of Justice and the Sword.

During medieval times, the French Crown jewels could only really be thought to consist of regalia which was thought to enhance the Divine Right of Kings.  These tended to be items such as sceptres, gold spurs, sceptres, golden Hands of Justice and orbs.  These are familiar to us from paintings and sculpture of the time and were in fact in frequent use.  Medieval kings of all countries wore these items during most high days and holidays: feast days, saints’ days, name days- in short, any occasion that demanded a show of power vested in a single person by the state.  A king normally had a new crown made for his sacre as it was traditional for the monarch to bequeath the item to the Abbey of St. Denis, in whose basilica French Monarchs were crowned.  The important stones, however, would be removed and reused by each successive king.  This collection of medieval ornaments, added to and enhanced by each successive monarch, came to be known as the Regalia (much like the British Crown Jewels).  This grew to include Church ceremonial plate and vestments and represented the apogee of medieval goldsmithing.

The concept of the French Crown Jewels as unalienable was instituted by Francis I in 1530.  By this time, the use of the medieval regalia outside the sacre had become an anachronism, but the King still needed to use the powerful imagery of splendid jewels to enhance his image of power.  At this time, there were 8 notable stones, the most important of which was the ‘Côte-de-Bretagne’ red spinel, a 105 carat stone originally thought to be a ruby.  Despite a partial dispersal of the jewels in 1590 due to disturbances caused by the Catholic League, the jewels were reconstituted by Henri IV. 

The Cross of the Order of the Saint Esprit rendered in diamonds.  Note how the dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit has been picked out in gems, the beak with a single ruby.

A replica of Louis XV's Order of the Golden Fleece, set with replicas of the Cote de Bretagne spinel and the French Blue diamond, which was to pass into history as the infamous Hope diamond.

It is only fitting that the jewels should have started accelerating towards their glittering crescendo under the watch of Louis XIV, the Sun King.  The centre of his own universe, he needed to shine accordingly.  His first addition was the Mazarin diamonds, a collection of 18 near perfect stones gifted to him personally in 1661 by his minister, Cardinal Mazarin.  The most important of these stones was the Sancy diamond, a stone which originated in the 16th century in Turkey.  It had become part of the Crown Jewels under Henri III, stolen under Henri IV and bought back by Cardinal Mazarin. 

The collection continued to grow: when Louis XIV married Maria Theresa of Spain in 1660 she brought with her the famous pearl ‘La Pelegrina’, which was incorporated into the Crown Jewels.  Another stone of huge importance was the Tavernier Blue, acquired by the explorer Tavernier in India in 1666 and sold to the King a couple of years later. It was recut and christened the French Blue and it would pass down through history to become the Hope diamond.  Louis XIV clearly had a penchant for blue, as in 1691 he acquired an incredible sapphire known as the Ruspoli sapphire, a huge, flawless crystal weighing 135 carats cut with only 6 facets.

Louis XV's most important contribution to the Crown Jewels: the 20 plus carat Hortense Pink.

Inheriting this healthy collection from his great-grandfather, Louis XV continued adding to the Crown Jewels.  He wore them himself with panache, mounting the ‘Côte-de-Bretagne’ spinel with the French Blue into an Order of the Golden Fleece insignia.  Louis XV’s crown still survives in the Louvre, decorated with copies of some of these famous stones studded into it, giving a very accurate idea of what a priceless jewel this must have once been.  Louis XV’s most important addition was a pink diamond of over 20 carats which was to become known as the Hortense diamond.  To find such a stone today would be almost unthinkable

Under Louis XVI, the financial strains under which the nation was suffering were beginning to show and there were no major additions to the Crown Jewels- not that it was really necessary, as by this stage the Crown Treasury numbered tens of thousands of precious stones and pearls.  Marie Antoinette, however, was given some magnificent gifts by her grandfather-in-law, Louis XV, and Louis XVI her husband.  It is well recorded she was fond of diamonds and certainly enjoyed wearing them more than her reluctant husband.  Sadly this fondness was blown out of all proportion when she was caught up in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, falsely accused of buying a necklace worth 2 million livres behind her husband’s back while the people starved.  The Crown Jewels as they were known under the Ancien Regime were last seen on Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at the State Opening of the States Generale in 1789.  Neither the jewels or the owners were to survive the cataclysm that was to come soon after.

A State portrait of Marie Antoinette.  she is thought to be wearing the Hope diamond at there breast.

ATTENTION TO DETAIL: WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A QUALITY JEWEL

Elephant ring by Boucheron.  Although the body is cast, all pieces are meticulously hand finished.

There are jewels and then there are jewels: pieces that stand out not just because of outstanding design, but because they are heavy, solid and feel right.  They feel comfortable and substantial in your hand.  A well made jewel should not just see you through your lifetime: if properly looked after it should last many generations.  What separates the wheat from the chaff, the great from the banal is finish: how much care and attention has been lavished on a piece to make the stones pop, the clasps ingenious and secure and the surfaces smooth.

The reverse of an Art Deco brooch.  Note how the openings for the stones on the reverse have been carefully filed into a neat honeycomb pattern.

Detail showing the clasp section of Cartier's Himalaia bracelet.  The clasp has been ingeniously hidden.

Attention to detail in a good jewel has nothing to do with the price of the piece or the cost of the materials used.  With the decline of traditional jewellery training in the United Kingdom there are fewer craftsmen practicing now who really know how a job ought to be finished.  Because so much jewellery is now mass produced abroad there is a lot that gets sold which on the surface looks good but does not pass muster on closer inspection.  There is nothing inherently wrong with mass produced jewellery; it is after all the bread and butter of the entire industry, from the great French jewellery houses to the smallest independent retailer.

The easiest way to discern a piece of quality is to look at the back.  If the piece is gem set, there should be an opening behind every stone to allow the light to pass.  If the piece is well made, these holes will have been neatly filed into even squares or hexagons, which means more manual labour has been involved.  If it is just holes drilled through the piece will more likely than not have been machine set- there are a number of London retailers guilty of this, even though they are often charging 5 figure sums for their jewels; and when paying this sort of price pieces ought to be hand finished.  A fine example of finish is Boucheron’s current jewelled menagerie of rings.  These will have been cast from a mould, but they have been meticulously finished by hand.

Pave set flower ring by JAR.  To test the smoothness of the pave setting he runs a silk scarf over the surface to make sure it doesn't snag.

With simpler jewellery there is no excuse for error.  Note the smooth lines of this gold brooch by Tiffany and Co.

Another curse of mass production is the mass produced setting, especially when it comes to rings.  If you are going to spend a reasonable amount of money on an engagement ring, say (which a lot of people do at some point in their lives), you want the centre stone to be shown off to its best advantage.  Most stones necessarily have some depth to them.  The last thing you want is for the stone to stand too proud off the finger for it to snag your tights or gather too much dirt underneath.  The bottom of the stone, known as the culet, should basically be touching the finger.  If the stone is too high off the finger it means the setting has been mass made: galling if you’re spending a month’s salary or so on the most significant piece of your life.  High end jewellers are guilty of this too: I went recently with a friend to a well known shop in Bond Street who wanted my opinion on an engagement ring he was thinking of buying and I was horrified when I saw the setting had been mass produced.  The price of the ring in question was just over £50,000.

While we’re on stones, if the piece has been set with multiple gems en pave, or in rows, run your finger over the surface.  The stones should feel even to the touch.  There is a practical reason for this: again, if there is a stone set slightly higher than the others there is the inconvenience that it will catch on your clothes.  The ultimate test by JAR on his jewels is that he runs a silk scarf over them to see if it snags. 

An engagement ring with a properly set centre stone.  Note how the culet of the stone is near the finger.

If your taste is for plain jewellery with little or no setting, there is even less excuse for shoddy finish, as there is less chance of overlooking a mistake.  The edges of the metal should be well polished, with no little bumps or crevaces- again, running your fingers over the edge to see if it is smooth.  All student and apprentice jewellers in the UK are taught that because of modern photographic techniques, well made jewellery should withstand scrutiny at x10 magnification, so if you buy something that has a wonky line or stone the maker has just cut corners: don’t be taken in by the ‘it’s been hand made’ scenario.

Lastly, jump rings and clasps.  Whether or not you lose your jewellery while you’re wearing it depends on this.  They go largely unseen, and therefore often overlooked.  It used to be impossible to solder the rings holding together a piece because jewellery, out of necessity, is often assembled after it has been set.  Once set, it cannot be heated up to be soldered as you might damage the stones.  Nowadays, however, laser soldering is available which localises the heat on the point to solder, so there is no reason why little rings shouldn’t be soldered closed.  This is easy to check with a magnifying glass.  A piece with multiple joins should be able to move freely and fluidly.  Many manufacturers prefer mass produced clasps; again, there is nothing inherently wrong with this, but you know that due care and attention has gone in if the maker has made an ingenious, hidden, unobtrusive clasp.  Inevitably, these also tend to be safer.

Articulated jewellery, such as this Bvlgari necklace, should have properly soldered jump rings and move fluidly.

Articulated jewellery, such as this Bvlgari necklace, should have properly soldered jump rings and move fluidly.

CARTIER'S WILD SIDE: JEANNE TOUSSAINT AND PANTHERS

The highly articulated panther bracelet made by Cartier for the Duchess of Windsor.

When we think of firmly established luxury houses and their signature pieces (Hermes and the Kelly bag, Saint Laurent and Le Smoking, Louis Vuitton and luggage), they have become so ubiquitous that we tend to forget how revolutionary they were in their own right in their day.

Cartier had become the ‘jeweller of kings’ thanks to its innovative approach in creating super light, bright settings in platinum for the flood of newly mined diamonds emerging from South Africa.  But the firm may not have had the impetus to remain at the forefront of revolutionary jewellery design had it not been for the fiery Jeanne Toussaint, their directrice of fine jewellery from 1933 until her retirement in 1970.  She was fiercely stylish, full of life, colour and imagination and was responsible for making the jewelled panther motif synonymous with the Cartier firm.

The colourful Hindu Necklace made by Cartier for Daisy Fellowes marked the apogee of the Tutti Frutti style.

Jeanne was great friends with Coco Chanel and the two of them shared similarities.  She was born in 1887 in Charleroi- not much is known about her early life other than it was difficult, like Chanel’s. Like Chanel, she ran off to Paris where she had a series of rich, influential lovers.  The taste of both women was exotic and they both revelled in the new found freedom of women of the 1920s.  Jeanne was fascinated by animals, in particular the panther- she was one of the first women in Paris to wear a full length panther coat and her apartment was known to be strewn with panther skins, paintings and prints.

Sometime towards the end of the First World War Jeanne met and began a long, passionate affair with Louis Cartier, one of the golden trinity of siblings who had helped shape the firm.  Fascinated by her taste and joie de vivre, he immediately hired to oversee the company’s accessories despite her inability to draw.  But she had vision and Louis educated her, teaching her about precious stones and the importance of settings.  The panther began to make appearances in Cartier’s designs, first in the Panther wristwatch (the wristwatch was Louis’ invention), then in jewelled compacts and cigarette cases.  Louis was already overseeing Cartier’s transition from the Garland style into Art Deco and probably relied heavily on Jeanne’s taste.  She accompanied him to India, which he had been visiting since the 1910s, cultivating his relationships with the rich Maharajas.  Inspired by the colour of the gems and the gold, she urged the designers at the firm to return to yellow gold after a predominance of platinum settings which had lasted over 30 years. 

The Duchess of Windsor and the coloured flamingo brooch made for her in 1940.

In 1933 Jeanne was appointed head of fine jewellery, overseeing every aspect of jewellery design.  She was a critical and exacting taskmaster; technical problems were of no concern to her and she got the results she wanted.  The firm’s most exciting pieces and commissions of the 1930s were produced under her direction.  The jewels now known as Tutti Frutti, inspired by India and colour, heralded a new language for Cartier.  The epitome of this style was the fantastic sapphire, emerald and ruby necklace created for Daisy Fellowes, who was frequently mentioned in the best dressed lists. 

Jeanne’s very free spirit got her into severe trouble during the Second World War.  When the Germans occupied Paris, she designed a small jewelled bird in a cage, representing the French nation.  She created an elaborate display in the Cartier window in Paris around this theme and was imprisoned by the Nazis for her efforts.  She was only released due to the influence of Coco Chanel.

Barbara Hutton and the yellow diamond panther clips made for her by Cartier.

Jeanne Toussaint photographed by Cecil Beaton in 1962

It was only after the war that her jewelled menagerie was set loose on Cartier.  She was always sending designers and artists off to the zoo to sketch birds and cats for inspiration.  In 1948 she created the first Panther jewel proper, a brooch for the Duchess of Windsor consisting of a gold and enamel panther reclining on a large cabochon emerald (She had already been the vision for the famous flamingo brooch commissioned by the Windsors in 1940).  The piece was a success and they went on to order some of the most important panther jewellery ever made by Cartier. The great exotic cat jewels now materialised in enamels, sapphires, emeralds and white and yellow diamonds.  They were acquired by some of the great collectors of the day, including the already mentioned Daisy Fellowes, the Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton and Princess Nina Aga Khan.  As the panther became synonymous with Cartier, it made its appearance on everything from handbag clasps to scent bottles.

Louis Cartier died in 1942, having remained close to Jean until his death.  She was to remain at the firm for another 28 years until her retirement in 1970.  It is a testament to her creativity that she remained at Cartier even after the company had passed from the hands of the family in the 1960s, and her influence on the Cartier legacy is still very much in play today.

A contemporary panther bracelet by Cartier. Jeanne Toussaint's legacy lives on.

MASTERPIECE 2017: MY TOP 5 JEWELS

Masterpiece London has become one of the ‘Must Attend’ events of the Summer calendar in London and it opened its doors last night for the preview in the grounds of the Royal Hospital for its 8th edition.  It was gloriously attended and before the 9 o’clock closing bell sounded there were a satisfactory number of red stickers alongside the goods of dealers across the board.

 

The jewellery was as bling and extravagant as one has come to expect at this event.  The main trend this season seems to have been a move towards the more substantial, gold pieces of the 1960s and 70s- pieces from that period are becoming increasingly sought after and therefore more collectable. Prices for these are still relatively reasonable and should prove to be a good investment in the years to come.

 

My top 5 jewels, however, are more theatrical in style and in my view reflect a perfect combination of craftsmanship and materials.  They are:

 

1.   For Legendary Status: JAR Necklace exhibited by Symbolic and Chase

A stunning necklace by JAR featuring the largest certified old-cut cushion cut fancy vivid yellow diamond in the world.  It weighs 114.65 carats.

A stunning necklace by JAR featuring the largest certified old-cut cushion cut fancy vivid yellow diamond in the world.  It weighs 114.65 carats.

Symbolic and Chase have been winning the Masterpiece jewellery prize for some years now and 2017 is no exception.  They have carried off the prize yet again with this legendary necklace created as a bespoke piece by JAR.  It features a 114.65 diamond, the largest certified fancy vivid yellow old-cut cushion shaped diamond in the world.  Photographs do not do this piece justice; the third strand of pearls and diamond and emerald beads reaches below the knees.

 

2.   For Sheer Bling: Ruby and Diamond Cuff by Chatila

A magnificent ruby and diamond cuff by Chatila, featuring a Burmese ruby of over 65 carats.

A magnificent ruby and diamond cuff by Chatila, featuring a Burmese ruby of over 65 carats.