The atmosphere was as sparkling as the diamonds that guests were there to see. On November 1st, 1932, the most famous faces of the time gathered at 29 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré for the one and only Coco Chanel. Notable names like Pablo Picasso, poet and playwright Jean Cocteau, American actress Gloria Swanson and Eileen, Duchess of Sutherland, Mistress of the Robes to Queen Mary, all gathered at Gabrielle Chanel’s Parisian mansion.
For this was the opening night of the exhibition of her first (and only) diamond jewelry collection – literally entitled “Bijoux des Diamants”.
Over the next 12 days, some 30,000 visitors would wander through the large oak doors, having each paid 20 francs (which went to both the Société de la Charité Maternelle de Paris and the Assistance Privée à la Classe Moyenne) to see Chanel’s first ever high jewelry collection. All of which was set solely with white and yellow diamonds, in platinum and yellow gold.
Cocooned within the gold-painted wood panelling and under the high sculpted ceilings of the first floor in her hotel particulier, 55 diamonds pieces, worth F93 million at the time, were presented upon life-like wax models: faces perfectly made-up and hair as glossy as any of the guests.
Few would remember that just a handful of years earlier, their créatrice had so often derided diamonds by saying her costume jewels were ‘devoid of arrogance in an era of overly easy luxury’.
What was Mademoiselle’s change of stance, that now caused her to make the comment? Well, according to her biographer Justine Picardie, Mademoiselle explained this reversal of opinion with “In an economic era of such uncertainty, you want to have certainty. The one thing that gives you certainty are diamonds that you can slip into your pocket.”
Well, the answer lies in the devastation of the Wall Street Crash, little more than three years earlier and an economic downturn that caused even the most successful designer in the world to flip from faux jewelry to giving a huge fillip to natural diamonds; even if only once.
So how did it all come about? The British Diamond Corporation, a De Beers company, commissioned Chanel to create a collection set with their own loaned diamonds, to help boost international diamond sales, and with her latest lover Paul Iribe, an artist known for his jewelry designs, they exceeded expectations in more ways than one. The price of De Beers‘s shares soared on the stock exchange – and the jewels were a resounding success.
The pieces were innovative in their lightness and unencumbered by heavy clasps and catches – but also in the wearability for both day and night: a brooch was not only a brooch – but a hair ornament; a necklace could be a belt, or even a bracelet.
I wanted to cover women with constellations. Stars! Stars of all sizes to sparkle in the hair, fringes, crescent moons.
Chanel’s childhood and current life inspired the exceptional jewelry designs: lookalike ribbons set with pavé diamonds circled wrists; fringes as seen on fashionable flapper dresses were recreated in the form of an exceptional headpiece – so different from the tiaras of the day. There were feathers, as light and delicate as their real-life equivalents, designed as brooches. From her childhood in the Aubazine orphanage, she recreated the constellations that she had gazed at in the many mosaics, murals or stained glass windows of the convent – into more sparkling brooches, bracelets, rings and necklaces. Explaining the galaxy of stars that she created in diamonds, Gabrielle told the French newspaper, L’Intransigeant in 1932, “I wanted to cover women with constellations. Stars! Stars of all sizes to sparkle in the hair, fringes, crescent moons.”
One of only two surviving pieces from the exhibit can now be found in the recently opened exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. In a room filled with lace and sequinned couture gowns, is the COMETE brooch. It sits resplendently in a cabinet in its own special booth, its old cut diamonds sparkling against the sepia-colored videos, showing visitors from all those years ago in Paris, which flicker on the walls behind. In the center of the irregularly shaped five-inch star, and proudly raised on five claws, sits a 1.5 carat diamond surrounded by 19 bezel-set diamonds, at the tip of each of the five points – are two diamonds.
It is without doubt one of the highlights of this most historic of shows.
Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto opened at the Victoria & Albert Museum on Saturday September 16, 2023 and runs through to February 25, 2024. Tickets start from £24 and members go free. vam.ac.uk