At the heart of the jewellery industry there has always been two people in love. Just as romance is the perfume of this love, it is also intrinsically linked to the significance of wearable art, which has been highly valued by every civilisation since the dawn of human society. One such example of why jewellery survives is provided by none other than Mademoiselle Gabrielle Chanel. This infamous designer exhibited her refined collections of high jewellery from her own home, using wax manikins instead of plush display cases. Every piece evidenced her grounded philosophy that beauty is an egalitarian value made to circulate. It was also apparent that she favoured lightness over exaggeration, using trailing fringes and ribbons, whilst paying homage to the free allure of the independent woman. Let’s not forget that his was the same woman who threw a huge emerald from her disloyal boyfriend, the Duke of Westminster, into the Riviera.
Years later Chanel swept through the fashion world like a swirling hurricane. She found inspiration in everything from architecture to the constellations. When she started out her tastes were eclectic and she collected pearls of the orient and superlative diamonds, which she described as having the most value in the smallest density. But as she began to evolve as a designer Chanel experimented with freely mounted settings, creating ornaments of matchless fluidity and always conforming to the overriding standard of elegance.
‘I want jewels that slip through the fingers of women like a ribbon,’ said Chanel, describing the style that would come to define her eponymous brand.
Another interesting aspect of the Chanel story takes us back to our first point. We’re talking about the constellation pieces that Chanel began to create. On the surface it seemed as though she was simply replicating the luminaries, using stars and crescent moon symbols, inspired by the distant stars in the Parisian night. In actual fact, though, Chanel was telling a story in diamond. Supposedly the diamond star and Maltese cross motifs are identical to those that were laid out in the paving stones of the abbey where Chanel, as an orphan child, attended mass decades earlier. The genius designer was channelling a bittersweet nostalgia that took her back to her formative years. Her jewellery had developed to a point where she was able to divulge intimate experiences using subtle aesthetic twists. Interestingly this also applied to a gilded lion that appeared in a number of Chanel’s designs. This was more than a symbol of strength. The lion was also reminiscent of the lions of Venice, but, more than that, it reminded Chanel of her great lover and muse, Boy Capel.
Chanel had struggled for a long time with the cruel immediacy of Capel’s death. During this period of mourning she’d found herself in Venice, visiting friends Misia and Jose Maria Sert, where she discovered the winged lion in Saint Mark’s Square. Looking up at the statue perched high in the night, framed by the stars, Chanel uttered her hushed goodbyes to her old friend and lover. Captivated, she described how she then watched the stars dim with the pale dawn light and waited until the backdrop of stars were covered by the azure. This experience evoked a deep affection in Chanel and led her to adopt the lion for her own designs. Thereafter she ventured to Venice again and again and sketched the preliminary art for her ‘Constellation du Lion’, an 18ct white gold, rock crystal and diamond bracelet, characterised by the sculpted lion’s unusual outstretched paw, reaching for a star. When Chanel referred to this piece she often recounted her first sighting of the Saint Mark’s lion, smoothed by the starry Venetian night. It became her way of preserving the romance of her youth, its perfect form infused with her love for Boy Capel.