When we think of Western fashion, France is likely one of the first countries that come to mind. The creative and romantic culture has had a vital impact on the arts and fashion design throughout history. In fact, French jewelry design has influenced the industry for centuries, starting in the Renaissance era.
Hermés Woven Gold Buckle Necklace, 1960s | Photo by Primavera Gallery
There is a reason famous jewelry houses like Cartier, Boucheron, and Hermés are still household names. French designers have always valued the highest of quality and craftsmanship. Their creations have been unique, intricate, and have gone through many evolutions. From wars to industrialization, changing times have spurred innovation and creative expression in the culture’s jewelry.
To truly appreciate the skill and meaning behind jewelry design from around the world, we are exploring the major French jewelry eras and designers that have led the industry to where it is today.
Anything you remember about the Renaissance (15th to early 17th centuries) from history class likely calls to mind the lavish and luxurious. This opulent style truly took off with Louis XIII, who loved luxury and ensured his entire court was adorned with brilliant baubles. This was the case for both men and women.
When Louis XIV came into power, he employed a personal jeweler, Gilles Légaré, making it clear that having the most extravagant custom jewels was a priority. Louis XIV was also believed to have owned the infamous blue Hope Diamond, now on display at the Smithsonian.
Then there was Louis XV, who had his own special piece in a crown that is now housed at Louvre’s Apollo Gallery.
The Hope Diamond is believed to have originated in India, where the original larger stone was purchased by a French gem merchant in 1666 named Jean-Baptiste Tavernier. Initially the Tavernier Blue, the stone was cut and yielded the French Blue.
The Hope Diamond in the National Museum of Natural History | Photo by David Bjorgen
Tavernier sold the stone to Louis XIV in 1668. It was stolen in 1791, recut, and acquired its current name when it reappeared in 1839 in a catalogue of a gem collection owned by a London banking family named Hope.
The diamond went through several private owners, the last of whom was socialite Evelyn Walsh McLean. The stone is rumored to be cursed, which is probably a result of agents trying to drum up interest. The Hope Diamond has remained on display at Washington, D.C.’s National Museum of Natural History since 1958.
The glamorous French jewelry designs continued through the 18th and 19th centuries during Napoleon’s rule. The art of jewelry was desirable, which led to workshops opening all over the country. Napoleon revived cameos and luxurious parures, or sets of jewels intended to be worn together.
"Neo-Renaissance Pendant" by Lucien Falize | Photo by Julien Vidal / Petit Palais / Roger-Viollet
The Emperor’s private jeweler, Françoise-Regnault Nitot, would also become the founder of jewelry house Chaumet. Nitot bought a townhouse in the renowned Place Vendôme where, by the end of the 19th century, other major names like Cartier and Boucheron were flourishing.
Parure by Cartier - Paris, C. 1860 | Photo from The Cartier Collection
The Place Vendôme is the square in Paris that marks the start of the rue de la Paix, which has been home to many famous fashion designers and deluxe hotels. Today, major jewelry brands continue to showcase their work, filling rows and rows of windows with sparkling displays.
Place Vendôme, Paris, France | Photo by Georgio Galeotti
The turn of the century led to a shift in perspective, which meant a major change in art and design. Many artists were inspired by and wanted to reconnect with nature, which is especially evident in the Art Nouveau movement from about 1890 to 1910.
Van Cleef & Arpels opened in Place Vendôme in 1906 and Chaumet returned to the square in 1907. The jeweled creations of this era took note from the global arts movement that was occurring and invaded every art form, including music, painting, architecture, jewelry, and literature.
French jewelry designers were inspired by nature, the female figure, and geometric shapes. Pieces featured lush, curved lines and were over-the-top, everything done with a flourish. Contrary to previous eras, materials were not as important as design. Jewelers used semi- and even non-precious materials like fragile glass and enamel. These delicate materials are the reason many pieces from the Art Nouveau years did not survive.
Art Nouveau enamel, diamond, and pearl pendant necklace by Henri Vever, c. 1905 | Photo by Christie's
Important influencers of the time included Henri Vever, Georges Fouquet, and René Lalique. They were referred to as artist jewelers because their work was truly an artform, using many creative techniques and expressing ideas that had been stifled in the past.
Art Nouveau "Hawthorne" brooch made of enamel, diamonds, and glass by Rene Lalique, c. 1899-1901 (front and back) | Photo by Christie's
Art Nouveau opal, enamel, and pearl pendant necklace by Georges Fouquet, c. 1900 | Photo by Christie's
Jewelry made during this vibrant yet brief period was not just for the average wearer, but were reserved for the educated class of intellectuals. These unique and artful designs were worn only by select women like actresses, grandes cocottes (high-end escorts), and socialites.
Known in France as La Belle Époch, or “the beautiful era”(c. 1895-1910), Edwardian jewelry overlapped with the Art Nouveau style. Accessories of this time were characterized by use of platinum, pearls, and diamonds—and we’re talking diamonds on diamonds!
The color scheme of white stones and white metal set the stage for this elegant era. Exquisite craftsmanship and light, airy, feminine designs were to be expected. Because platinum was so strong, the settings could be made smaller, making the gems at the focus of every sparkling piece.
People’s tastes changed significantly following World War I. Post-war society led to flapper fashion, modern shapes and styles, and Art Deco. Made between 1920 and 1935, Art Deco jewelry remained popular until the late 1930s.
Art Deco Style Brooch by Chaumet
Art Deco jewelry featured geometric shapes, bold lines, clean cuts, and symmetrical ornaments. Accessories also featured Calibré-cut gemstones, meaning each gem was cut specifically to fit into the jewelry to create contrast that popped.
Use of mill-grained white gold, platinum, onyx inlays, filigree, and handmade vintage patterns on the edges of metal were also popular. The filigree during this period was done exceptionally well.
Sapphire and Diamond Bracelet, Cartier, c. 1930s | Photo by Sotheby's
Other characteristics of the jewelry included European-cut diamonds combined with baguette, square, and octagon-shaped gemstones. Art Deco jewelry was usually custom-made and rarely mass-produced due to the intricacy and sophistication of the manufacturing process.
Mystery-set Ruby and Diamond Bracelet, Van Cleef & Arpels, New York, 1936 | Photo by Sotheby's
As World War II ended, fashion went retro. While the symmetrical style of Art Deco was carried over, now everything was bigger and bolder than ever.
Platinum was scarce after the war, so the use of yellow gold and rose gold increased. French fashionistas sported colorful gemstones in chunky styles and clusters (think citrines, aquamarines, topaz, tourmalines). For the first time, diamonds were out, only used sparingly as accent stones. It was as if everyone wanted to live in full color after the dark war years.
Earrings of this time were either studs or short dangles; like diamonds, the long dramatic earrings of the ‘20s were out of style. Women also donned large bracelets, dress clips, brooches, and collar necklaces. These pieces were typically all yellow gold, although sometimes women would mix yellow and rose gold—proof that mixing metals has been around for decades!
Several years post-war, French design was so popular that wealthy American women would travel to France regularly to shop for clothes and jewelry. American jewelry houses even opened offices and showrooms in Paris to keep up.
After the war, some of the styles from the 1930s came back for a little while but soon evolved as tastes changed. It was a very creative era for jewelry design, with artists like Picasso and Salvador Dalí even designing jewelry.
French jewelry of the ‘50s and ‘60s was characterized by distinct features, including:
Talented designer Pierre Sterlé was the master of utilizing round and baguette diamonds to create stunning yet simple architectural forms.
Sterlé Diamond Brooch | Photo by Primavera Gallery
Naturalism was a common theme again, but this time with realistic detail. Flowers, leaves, birds, insects, and other flora and fauna were designed with lifelike texture. These nature-inspired pieces were colorful and amusing.
Sterlé Bird Brooch | Photo by Primavera Gallery
Jewelers like Cartier were taking inspiration from India once again, which led to motifs like paisleys and animal heads among rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and diamonds.
Cartier Brooch with gold and diamonds | Photo by Primavera Gallery
Pierre Sterlé Sapphire and Gem Set Brooch, 1960s | Photo by Sotheby's
While French jewelry designers often took inspiration from Indian jewels, the opposite is also true. Indian royalty coveted French-made jewelry, as we know from rulers like the Maharaja of Indore (commissioned pieces from Chaumet) and the Maharaja of Patiala (commissioned pieces from Cartier).
Part of the reason French jewelry was so impressive and unique is that craftsman started training from the age of 14, developing exceptional skills. Today, this handmade workmanship is going away, making vintage pieces more valuable than ever.
Many major French jewelry houses remain, continuing to influence the fashion industry worldwide. The country’s designers maintain a large presence on runways, in stores, and in trusted fashion and style publications. French accessories are still of high quality and popular among many.
What is your favorite style or characteristic of French jewelry?
Stephanie Chabot, Style Editor
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