A Tribute to Coco Chanel, Circa 1932
BY LAURIE BROOKINS
Diamond merchants knew precisely what they were doing in 1932 when they asked to meet (one envisions the moment to be hat-in-hand) with Coco Chanel: Three years into the Great Depression, to say the diamond business had been languishing would be a severe understatement. Faced with crisis, the gentlemen of the International Diamond Guild were looking to a woman to be the savior of fine jewelry. That Chanel had already built a business based on costume jewelry mattered little; rather, they were relying upon the dazzling reputation of one of the world’s most celebrated women, whose very touch seemed to turn everything into gold—perhaps even, as they hoped, diamonds.
“Gabrielle Chanel was very famous at the time, known for creativity and freedom and giving new blood to an industry, and they wanted that,” says Benjamin Comar, international director of Chanel Fine Jewelry. “For her, it was a creative challenge, the chance to try something new.” Fast-forward to November 6, 1932: The official opening-night party was set for the following evening, but at a preview for members of the press, stylish Parisians clamored to crash the event, eager to see what Mademoiselle Chanel had concocted for her first-ever fine-jewelry collection. There, amid her private rooms at 29 Faubourg Saint-Honoré, guests were indeed met with a visionary collection, which she had dubbed “Bijoux de Diamants.” A necklace inspired by a comet—from its five-point star to its round-cut diamonds that wrapped around the throat, finishing in a splashy tail—was roundly considered to be the highlight of the forward-thinking collection. When asked about the Comète necklace, Chanel would relate to one journalist how she glanced up at the sky one night while strolling the Champs-Élysées, contemplating how she would imbue fine jewelry with her singular aesthetic, and she found her answer among the stars: “I wanted to cover women in constellations,” she said.
As with so many of Chanel’s recollections throughout her lifetime, it’s debatable whether this moment actually occurred or perhaps was a romantic tale she conjured to enhance her mythology. But it’s undeniable that “Bijoux de Diamants” represented a significant step forward for Chanel and her house, as it combined her philosophies of craft, artistry, and modern femininity into a new medium that also happened to be the priciest of the métiers that fell under the Chanel label. And while the woman who counted Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, and Salvador Dalí among her coterie had nothing left to prove, surely she appreciated the acclaim that surrounded the debut, which praised her artistry and innovation in equal measure. Wrote one reviewer: “Nothing more harmonious, more sumptuous, or lighter could be imagined than these stars that appear to gently glide around the neck, or these little bows with their air of innocence or these fringes set on tiaras like sparkling and magical strands of hair.”
Eight decades later, Chanel’s inaugural fine-jewelry collection is being celebrated with an 80-piece, high-jewelry tribute that has been titled, simply, “1932.” The collection debuted in Beijing in March and then in Paris in early July; following a US debut in October in New York (fittingly, in a space adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art), at press time this homage of diamonds and platinum, gold and pearls, rock crystal and sapphires was headed to Tokyo. As a tribute to Chanel’s inspiration, organizers have turned the various exhibit spaces into a de facto Chanel Planetarium, a dazzling observatory in which constellations on a domed sky share equal space with the brilliance of haute-couture jewels. There, clients are afforded the opportunity to view the history and heritage inherent in Chanel’s attitude toward fine jewelry—which, unsurprisingly, walked a similar path as her approach to ready-to-wear. “Chanel translated the idea of freedom into everything she did, and that extended to the jewelry as well,” Comar says. “She freed women from very stiff, trophy-oriented jewelry, and in my opinion transformed the industry with what she created. In this tribute collection, we wanted to honor that.”
More than two years in the making, “1932” takes its cue from Chanel’s original creations: You’ll see an updated version of that iconic Comète necklace, with a five-pronged star that has been reinterpreted to showcase at its center a 15 carat diamond. “Here’s the most exciting thing about that piece,” says Barbara Cirkva, fashion division president for Chanel. “The same workshop that crafted the original Comète necklace continues to work for us, and did [the 1932 tribute] necklace as well. That is a wonderful statement not only about our history, but our commitment to continue crafting this art form within Paris.”
While respecting the past is key, the tribute collection also exhibits an undeniable versatility and look forward, an idea Chanel encouraged in her original collection and would undoubtedly appreciate. Start with the sautoir necklaces, in which sun pendants can instantly become brooches, while drippy chains that form a portion of a necklace could serve double-duty as bracelets (an homage to the notion that Chanel loved convertible jewelry). Then move on through to those 80th-anniversary pieces featuring new inspirations, most significantly a grouping of lion-inspired jewels in rutile quartz or rock crystal. These latter pieces are a sort of tribute-within-the-tribute to the designer, who was a Leo and famously loved astrology. “The lion pieces are quite special,” Comar says. “Chanel [herself] never used the lion as inspiration or jewelry, and yet it was very important to her.”
Touring the collection requires a Herculean effort in planning, but it’s unquestionably worth the effort, Cirkva says. “It’s a great opportunity to explore how the fine jewelry ties back to the history and heritage of Coco Chanel and her fascination with comets and stars,” she says. “We’ve never been able to share that on a large scale.”
Ultimately, Chanel’s mastery of craft is without question the integral component of this celebratory collection. “To show 80 pieces of high jewelry in one room, that’s almost unheard of,” Cirkva says, noting that a few pieces have been added since the tour started, jewels crafted from those same Paris workrooms that Mademoiselle Chanel ventured into long ago. Whether rooted in legend or reality, certainly Coco Chanel would appreciate her house’s reasoning behind such an idea. “High jewelry is really all about the dream and the creation of that dream,” she says. Cirkva smiles as she adds, “We had to keep a few secrets.”