The famous Place Vendôme in Paris’ First arrondissement ranks amongst France’s most beautiful squares. Located to the north of the Tuileries Garden, it is a magnificent example of neoclassical architecture in France, similar to the squares of Place de la Concorde (Paris), Place de la Bourse (Bordeaux) and Place Stanislas (Nancy).
Considered by the French as the world center of jewelry, Place Vendôme hosts some of the most celebrated names: Boucheron, Chaumet, Mauboussin, Cartier, Van Cleef and Arpels, Dior Joaillerie, JAR... The area around the square (rue de la Paix, rue Saint Honoré and rue de Castiglione) abounds in perfumeries, goldsmiths, crystals stores, banks, fashion houses, not to forget the mythic Ritz, one of the first Parisian palaces noted for having been visited by Proust and Lady Diana.
The Place Vendome became an essential part in the Life of the new growing aristocracy thanks to Jewelry. Without jewelry, it was not possible for important people in the society to be seen in public. Jewelry marked not only the status of the wearer, but it also held a political symbol and it was a statement of taste. The Place Vendome grew in that era as an unavoidable destination for the rich and powerful to establish their position in the society through the acquisition of jewelry. This was mainly thanks to Napoleon the 1st.
Napoleon 1st created titles of nobility to institute a stable elite in the First French Empire, after the instability resulting from the French Revolution. Like many others, both before and since, Napoleon found that the ability to confer titles was also a useful tool of patronage which cost the state little treasure. In all, about 2,200 titles were created by Napoleon. Napoleon also established a new knightly order in 1802, the Légion d'honneur, which is still in existence today. The Grand Dignitaries of the Empire ranked, regardless of noble title, immediately behind the Princes of France.
One of the fine examples of how jewelry became key to power was during Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor of the French which took place on Sunday December 2, 1804 at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It marked the instantiation of modern empire and was a transparently masterminded piece of modern propaganda. Napoleon wanted to establish legitimacy of his Imperial reign, with its new royal family and new nobility. Therefore, he designed a new coronation ceremony that was unlike the ceremony used for the kings of France. In the traditional coronation, kings underwent a ceremony of consecration (sacre) rather than a coronation; in consecration, anointment was conferred by the archbishop of Reims in Notre-Dame de Reims.
Napoleon's was a sacred ceremony held in the great cathedral in the presence of the Pope Pius VII. Napoleon brought together an assortment of different rites and customs, incorporating aspects of Carolingian tradition, the “ancien régime” (old era) and the French Revolution, all presented in sumptuous luxury.
As Napoleon grew more powerful, fashion and jewelry slowly became regained favor. Napoleon’s patronage of the arts was a result both of personal taste and political stratagem encouraging a thriving market for luxury objects which, in the case of goldsmith’s work, was met by hundreds of craftsmen. This in itself was a significant change from the past. Until the Revolution of 1789 the total number of goldsmiths permitted by guild regulations to practice in Paris was fixed at three hundred, not counting exceptions made for those granted court favor. With the final abolition of the Goldsmith’s guild in 1979 this restriction was eliminated, and by 1806 there were 948 goldsmith active in Paris, an indication of a substantial demand for their work.
Heavily influenced by neoclassical motifs, jewelry became flashier and more ornate. Interestingly, Jewelry designs incorporated a lot of color gemstones. The purpose of high jewelry was to show wealth, and color gemstones offered the opportunity to create dramatic jewels at a more affordable cost than the traditional precious stones (diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds). A historical anecdote tales the story of a soldier awarded with a title by Napoleon, and who could not afford a jewelry parure for his wife. Napoleon had an amethyst set delivered to him. It was the duty of an aristocrat to wear jewelry, it was a necessity for the new order of Napoleon’s reign.
Empress Josephine had the crown jewels reset in stylized diadems and parures. She greatly influenced the jewelry fashion of that era. Influenced by Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign, symbols such as sphinxes, pyramids and papyrus leaves joined laurels, acanthus leaves and sunbursts in the fashions of the day. Cameos and intaglios, previously used mainly in sentimental jewelry, became wildly popular. Original Roman and Greek specimens were set in tiaras, and Italian reproductions formed brooches and whole suites of jewelry.
In a way, this new generation of aristocrats were the equivalent of today’s “new money”. They were new to the world of high jewelry. They had not inherited wealth nor collections of estate jewelry. They were starting fresh, with vigor and ambition, conquering their world with pride and celebrating it with jewelry. Their contribution to the jewelry industry helped shape a new glorious era when Paris attracted the best craftsmen, the best designers, and the best sales people in all of Europe. Paris still shines today as the historical nest of high jewelry worldwide, and the Place Vendome still holds its position as the most prestigious address for any jeweler in the world.
I am sure that at that time, the older generation of aristocrats who had survived the guillotine raised their eyebrows in disgust as they saw the new generation replace them, introducing new ways of living and new fashions. But it is important to welcome any enthusiastic new comer in the world of high jewelry, because new generations of clients introduce new tastes, new needs related to their self-created lifestyles. They naturally challenge what is established because they were not part of it, and in this sense they contribute to stimulating the hearts and minds of all the actors of our industry. Like the new aristocracy in France under Napoleon 1st, the new fortunes need high jewelry to establish status and celebrate success. After the Russians who were kings in any boutique of the Place Vendome in the past 30 years, today, mainland Chinese have become one of the prime client targets. The Mainland Chinese were never considered 10 years ago. This generation of buyers has built its wealth on speculation. They spent the last 30 or 40 years scheming their way up, with opportunism and hard work. And like any other human, once their finally have achieved to build a powerful financial foundation in their lives, they start appreciating the finer things the world has to offer. Today, a high jewelry house must adapt to China in order to survive. This has tremendous consequences on the entire industry, and not just in terms of commercial direction. This market reality raises the question of authenticity in design (especially for historical houses) and the overall future of the high jewelry industry.
Do not raise your eyebrows when you see a new high jewelry client asking for something unusual. Who are we to judge them? Thank them in your hearts for contributing to making the jewelers think in new ways of creating and selling what they have most precious to offer: the celebration of life through an ancestral passion for jewels.