'1932' Fêtes Chanel's Foray into Diamonds
BY LAURIE BROOKINS
Diamond merchants knew precisely what they were doing in 1932 when they asked to meet with Coco Chanel: Three years into the Great Depression, to say the diamond business had been languishing is a severe understatement, and faced with crisis, the gentlemen of the International Diamond Guild looked 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.
Coco Chanel was renowned on both sides of the Atlantic by 1932, known for creativity, imbuing women with a newfound sense of freedom, and giving new blood to an industry, and the diamond merchants wanted that, says Benjamin Comar, international director of Chanel Fine Jewelry. Indeed, it wasn’t the first time Chanel had been tempted to venture beyond her atelier: Just the year before, she had famously been approached by Samuel Goldwyn, who offered the then-princely sum of $1 million to come to Hollywood and design costumes for his stars. With fanfare typical of the era, the producer brought Chanel from New York to LA in a custom-designed white train coach as the press breathlessly covered each leg of her journey. The partnership initially proved fruitful—Chanel designed costumes for three films, including a variety of soignée gowns worn by Gloria Swanson in 1931’s otherwise-forgettable Tonight or Never—but the couturier ultimately decided life in the Hollywood dream factory wasn’t for her. While Chanel and Goldwyn remained friends for years afterward, the collaboration was abandoned.
Ah, but diamonds—how to imbue those with her singular aesthetic? Fast-forward to November 6, 1932: The official opening-night party is set for the following evening, but at a preview for members of the press on this day, 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 had been dubbed Bijoux de Diamants: a necklace inspired by a comet, set with round-cut diamonds from its five-pointed star to its tail, which wrapped around the throat, 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 night sky while strolling the Champs-Élysées one evening, contemplating how she would approach this new undertaking, and found her answer among the stars: “I wanted to cover women in constellations,” she said.
As with so many of Chanel’s recollections, it’s debatable whether this moment actually occurred or perhaps might have been a romantic tale she conjured to enhance her mythology. But it’s undeniable that Bijoux de Diamants represented a significant step forward for the designer, as it focused her interests in 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. “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,” wrote one reviewer.
Eight decades later, Chanel’s inaugural fine-jewelry collection is being celebrated this year with an 80-piece high-jewelry tribute that has been simply titled 1932. The collection of diamonds and platinum, gold and pearls, rock crystal and sapphires debuted in Beijing in March and then in Paris in early July; followed by a US debut in October in New York (fittingly, in a space adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art), and then 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. Clients are afforded the opportunity to view the history and heritage inherent in Chanel’s attitude toward fine jewelry—which, unsurprisingly, followed 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, the 1932 tribute collection largely takes its cue from Chanel’s original creations: An updated version of that iconic Comète necklace, with the five-pronged star, has been reinterpreted in today’s 1932 collection to showcase a 15-carat diamond at its center. “Here’s the most exciting thing about that piece,” says Barbara Cirkva, president of Chanel fashion division: “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. You see this idea 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), 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-a-tribute, a nod to the fact that the designer was enamored of her astrological sign, Leo, says Comar. “The lion pieces are quite special,” he notes. “Chanel never used the lion as inspiration or jewelry, and yet it was very important to her.”
Touring the collection required a Herculean effort in planning, but it’s unquestionably worth the effort, Cirkva says. “High jewelry is really all about the dream and the creation of that dream,” she says. “It’s a great opportunity to explore how fine jewelry ties back to the history and heritage of Coco Chanel and her fascination with comets and stars, but 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, adding 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, Coco Chanel would appreciate her house’s reasoning behind such an idea. Cirkva smiles as she adds, “We had to keep a few secrets.”
Cover shoot: September 2014 issue of Los Angeles Confidential magazine.