It is hard to believe that nearly a century has passed since Coco Chanel opened her couture house in Paris. Her fashion innovations were so far reaching that most modern women take them for granted. She liberated them from their corsets, made short hair and suntans fashionable, put them into trousers, created the little black dress. She was her own person and a shrewd businesswoman, raising herself from convent poverty to a life of great comfort.
By designing and creating beautiful pieces of fine and high jewellery, Chanel in its present form is only carrying on a vein which Coco herself started in around 1924. With the start of Paris Couture Week and the Chanel Centenary just round the corner it is only fitting that we look at this fashion icon’s contribution to jewellery.
With her use of tweeds and jerseys inspired by English life, she created a comfortable, elegant, quietly sumptuous look that her rival Paul Poiret was to call ‘Pauvre Luxe’, which literally means Luxury Poor. This was her initial approach to jewellery design. She was already the owner of wonderful pieces, many of them gifted to her by her lover the Duke of Westminster. Initially, she had no desire to replicate precious jewels as her main desire was to accessorise, not flaunt wealth. Taking a cue from Paul Poiret, she designed costume pieces which were an instant hit for their daring use of colour which worked beautifully against the dark minimalism of her clothes. She liked to reference big, bold sources, such as Byzantium and military tassels and decorations, which resulted in jewelled bracelets, large coloured brooches and her signature long gold chains strung with coloured beads. Defying convention (as usual), Chanel enjoyed mixing fake pieces with real ones and in what was to become her signature look she draped herself in oversized paste pearls, which she wore with the magnificent ones the Duke of Westminster had given her.
Her use of costume jewellery made it fashionable, acceptable and affordable and as the craze took off she met Fulco di Verdura. He was an impoverished Italian duke with a gift for design. Chanel originally hired him as a textile designer and recognising his talent, she asked him to create bespoke jewels for her using stones from jewellery given to her by previous lovers. Impressed with the results, it was the start of a successful partnership. They pioneered the use of baked enamel jewellery creating maltese crosses and huge, studded cuffs that were (and continue to be) copied the world over. From this date Chanel was often photographed wearing the two cuffs Verdura designed for her to wear. Incidentally, these pieces are incredibly valuable: Chanel’s own Verdura paste cuff recently sold at Christie’s for $100,000.
This jewellery creativity climaxed in 1932 when she produced her one and only high jewellery collection. Again she defied convention by creating jewellery at a time when couture houses viewed this practice by one of their own in trepidation. This time she abandoned Byzantium and the military for a galaxy of stars- Chanel wanted to ‘cover women in constellations’. It was made purely in diamonds, and stars were a favourite of hers; she used the motif extensively and her bed in her South of France villa was wrought out of stars and crescents. It was exhibited at the Grand Palais to great acclaim and stars have continued to be honoured in jewellery creations subsequent to Chanel’s death in 1971. A fitting metaphor for one of fashion’s greatest figures.