Chaumet's Promenade Bucolique Exhibition

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Chaumet's Josephine Tiara

Chaumet's Josephine Tiara

Around 1811, Marie-Étienne Nitot, the founder of what is today Maison Chaumet, created a sumptuous tiara for Empress Marie-Louise, Napoleon’s young bride, decorated with nine gently curved ears of wheat.

The Neoclassical asymmetric design with 60-caratsworth of diamonds mounted on silver and gold, mirrored the winds of modernity and change that were blowing through the French Empire, and was part of a commission of 150 ears of wheat to adorn her gown and hair, and which would become part of the French Crown Jewels.

A symbol of fertility, wheat was one of the emblems Empress Josephine, Napoleon’s first wife, had embraced, using the motif on her court dresses and in her jewelry items, and it has been revisited regularly by the jeweler, also appearing in tiaras during the Belle Époque and on brooches after the second world war.

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“From the start, nature has always been present in the creations of the maison and very early on you can find designs of hawthorn motifs, wheat sheaves, grass stalks, acanthus leaves; a reflection of the naturalist spirit that had been embraced by the decorative arts in the 18th century, which is considered the apex of Le goût français (the French taste),” explains Beatrice de Plinval, curator of the Chaumet museum and archives.

“The artists at Chaumet have always preferred to look at nature as it is, preferring wild flowers you can find in a field or in a forest, rather than cultivated plants,” de Plinval points out, while adding that the choice of flowers always has an important cultural significance.

For example, the use of the ivy motif – characteristic of Romantic jewelry – symbolizes fidelity and attachment, while the pansy represents a heavy heart and a happy recovery from love’s woes so it would usually be reserved for smaller, more personal pieces of jewelry. Such naturalism, which emerged in opposition to the Rococo style, aimed to portray a more objective and realistic representation of the world, and it is this theme, an important one in its storied history, that Chaumet has chosen for the first exhibition in its new pop-up museum on Place Vendôme, Paris.

While the French jeweler already had a small museum in the historical salons of its Place Vendôme mansion, which it has occupied since the end of the 18th century, the elegant historic space was rarely opened to the public. However, the pop-up museum will be located on the ground floor in one of the two boutique spaces enabling more visitors to see the exhibits.

“The idea with this new museum is to lift the curtain a bit on our patrimony and our history, which is not always as well-known as it should be,” explains Jean-Marc Mansvelt, who took over as CEO of Chaumet in January. His mandate, he said, is to awaken a ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ positioning it at the apex of haute joaillerie.

For the first exhibition, titled Promenade Bucolique (or Bucolic Stroll), de Plinval has selected around 15 historic pieces that will be presented with original drawings, vintage black-and-white photographs, original mockups, and a few contemporary jewels created especially for the occasion.

This glimpse through Chaumet’s evolution of style over the centuries will hopefully be a “playful and pedagogical” experience, she says.

“Some of the drawings are extremely realistic and poetic, executed with the precision of a botanic study. We also have extremely rich photographic archives dating back to the 1880s, and they include photos of naturalistic jewels, which we will be able to present. These archives document the evolution of the naturalism theme through the ages and show how Chaumet adapted to the tastes of each period,” she explains.

Linking the past to the present, Chaumet is also releasing one-of-a-kind and limited edition pieces reprising the naturalism theme, which de Plinval admits has not really been revisited since the 1970s.

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“Sometimes, you have to wait over 40 years for something to come back into fashion,” she muses. In a dialogue with the historic pieces, the new limited-edition ears of wheat ring and brooch pay tribute to the 1811 tiara, and the spirit of the yellow gold jewelry of the 1980s. Glittering grains of wheat in diamonds coil around the finger on the ring, while the stalks of wheat on the brooch stretch up towards the sun. In the hyper-naturalist tradition of the maison, burnished, polished gold is contrasted with brushed gold to create a natural effect.

The bee — another symbol of the French Empire that Chaumet has long embraced – also appears in the new collection along with a sparkling palette of mandarin and hessonite garnets, opal, tourmalines, peridots, topazes, yellow sapphires, green beryls, diamonds, and golden pearls. Special attention has been given to the bees’ open-worked wings in white gold dusted with diamond, which seem to flutter as light as lace.

“We see this pop-up museum as a beautiful window onto our story,” says Mansvelt, adding, “longer term, we do plan for a larger exhibition in the future, borrowing from other museums, as we have pieces in Le Louvre, at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and in Chateau de Fontainebleau, as well as various royal families particularly in Northern Europe.”

De Plinval, who first joined Chaumet in its creative studio in 1968, has been working on developing its heritage collection since the 1980s, buying back selective historic pieces over the years.

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Mansvelt says the brand has been closely following the secondary market as it continues to add pieces that will complement its 300-piece collection. “We buy from time to time. Last year, we bought back an exceptional piece that could be in le Louvre. But we’re only really looking for these exceptional pieces and they are not coming to the market very often,” he explains.

Olivier Wagner, specialist in Sotheby’s Geneva jewelry department, confirms that though sought-after, pieces by Chaumet don’t appear very often at auction, “in particular, it’s rare to see vintage pieces: pre-war jewels don’t come to the market very frequently. This is especially true when it comes to the wonderful Belle Époque pieces they produced,” he says.

“Dating back to the time of Nitot, Chaumet were exceptionally good at interpreting the current tastes and style of their very exclusive clientele — always ensuring the finest quality workmanship and careful selection of gemstones,” explains Wagner, “From the early 19th century to the 1940s, the style changed according to the fashions of the time: they were able to evolve from opulent naturalistic parures of the 1880s and 1890s into the delicate frothy lace-like creations of the garland style. They then adapted their designs to the geometrical shapes and bold color contrasts of the 1920s.”

He adds, “Chaumet was a court jeweler supplying the aristocratic and royal houses of Europe, the grand dukes of Russia, and even later the Maharajahs of India, and the jewels produced during the earlier periods were works of art, rather than being characterizable as a brand: we’re talking more about a style, a signature.”

But throughout its evolution a tryst with nature has always been at the heart of the maison.

As first published in Blouin Lifestyle Magazine