If you ever heard your grandmother use the term "paste jewelry," as I did, you probably didn't really understood what it meant, but you knew from her disdainful tone that it was derogatory, something not as good as the real thing. Until a few days ago, I never realized that the term comes from the French "pate de verre" which means glass paste, and has nothing to do with fake gems being pasted to metal, which is what I'd always assumed!
I was enlightened in more ways than one by a fascinating lecture hosted by the American Society of Jewelry Historians on March 27. The lovely Deanna Farneti Cera was our guide to a very specific period of history, 1930-1950 in Paris, when 2 formidable doyennes of fashion enjoyed a fierce rivalry. Back then, couture simply meant "made to measure" and fashion shows were merely défilés of ten or so girls parading around an atelier for a select group of well-to-do clients. The bijoux de couture that adorned the models was created by highly skilled artisans in very limited quantity (3 pieces per style!) and available for order along with the suits and dresses. In fact, there were never more than 10 pieces produced of a particular style, to avoid upsetting the ladies of high society who ordered them (I guess some things never change, as this concept has evolved to a complex system of favors among red carpet stylists to this day.)
The artisan maisons who fabricated the bijoux de couture were few and incredibly talented. The most famous were Gripoix, who excelled in the pate de verre emaillé technique (glass paste melted onto metal forms in sheets, then melted again for shape) and Goossens, whose aesthetic tended toward barbaric, chunky metal with deep set stones. Both Chanel and Schiaparelli courted Fulco di Verdura and Coppola e Toppa to design select items for their collections as well. When you look at the slides of these pieces, and certainly when they are viewed close up, it's immediately evident that this jewelry, though not made of precious materials, is far from what we think of as 'costume.' The attention to detail is extraordinary, and the materials are lustrous and luxurious, designed to catch the light and attention from every direction.
Not all of the couturiers produced jewelry, but Mlle Chanel believed that a dress was not complete without at least a necklace. She loved to layer, and at minimum would wear 2 necklaces, a brooch and a pair of earrings as part of an ensemble. And as she presented herself as the embodiment of Chanel the brand, she expected her clients to buy in to the same concept. While her clothing was all about comfort and understatement, the perfect black dress in jersey - her jewelry was all about overstatement - and the 2 came together for the Chanel 'look.' The aesthetic was derived from history and tradition, the kind of jewelry you would see in a museum exhibit. And the 'jewels' only in colors that replicated their precious counterparts - rubies, sapphires, diamonds, emeralds, turquoise and of course, pearls - using historic patterns and motifs like the Maltese cross, and occasionally flowers like gardenias and roses, her favorites.
Deanna posits that Chanel was influenced by her Catholic orphanage upbringing as far as the cross motif, and that her burning desire to overcome her pauper past and join the ranks of the social elite was a huge reason for why her designs were rooted in tradition and history. This makes sense when you think about how historically, only the very rich could afford any sort of jewelry, and by emulating the designs commissioned for kings and queens, Chanel was positioning herself at the pinnacle of society.
Today, when we think about Chanel anything, it's hard to imagine it without the signature logo being prominently featured as part of the design. My favorite Chanel costume jewelry (until I saw some of the archives!) has always been the ropes of pearls interspersed with beads and fabric and lots of interlocked c's - so very chic! However, during this era, these pieces were rarely signed, which makes Deanna's work all the more remarkable. Chanel doesn't have archives; she laboriously identifies each piece she comes across based on her knowledge of the signature styles and materials of the period.
Elsa Schiaparelli is probably best known for her collaborations with artists like Salvador Dali; her designs were usually conceptual, inspired by the Surrealists she surrounded herself with. Growing up as the daughter of the Pope's doctor, she was immersed in the very most elite of circles, with the Sistine Chapel for a playground. She therefore had the luxury of rejecting or reinventing tradition. Unlike Chanel, who focused on achievement, Schiaparelli was comfortable in her skin and simply wanted to create avant garde objets that made a statement. Her color palette revolved around her celebrated Shocking Pink, and she didn't hesitate to create pieces that were exaggerated, unnatural/artificial. That's not to say that she wasn't inspired by the past, and often used Victorian motifs like currents and ivy. Her favorite animal was the ladybug, and she also featured insects, horses and other fauna in her work. One of her most famous pieces was executed by Jean Schlumberger, and featured a circus.
Schiaparelli's work was nothing if not eclectic, which makes it even more difficult to identify by historians. She collaborated with her artisans, and let them run with their own ideas, so different from Chanel's micromanagement. But a common thread throughout her bijoux de couture would be the spirit of avant garde, of pushing boundaries as a contemporary artist, and the result is a body of work that is innovative, fascinating, but not always beautiful or easy to wear.
I didn't know about the rivalry between these two titans of chic, and it kind of makes me sad. Chanel in particular detested Schiaparelli, even once apparently pushing her into a fireplace when the latter was wearing a flammable dress! But each spied on the other, and constantly poached each other's talent and resources. It seems a shame that in an era when strong, independent, creative women were few and far between, they couldn't just get along like their modern equivalents, Anna Wintour and Lady Gaga. Ok neither of them are designers, but they each have their own unique ethos and way of commanding attention and fame!
In any event, I learned how much I don't know about bijoux de couture, but I'm hooked. Off to troll ebay and re-examine my neighbor's estate hoard that she recently entrusted me to resell.
For more information about Deanna Farneti Cera and her wealth of knowledge, check out her website for very cool retro images of 20th century celebrities wearing amazing costume jewelry - she also has select pieces from her collection for sale.
And if you're at all interested in the academic side of jewelry, look into an ASJH membership - the events are really high caliber and worthwhile!