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Chanel Jewelry: Through the Decades, For All Time
for "Focus on Design" - The Jewelry Ring
By Cheri Van Hoover


Costume jewelry is not made to give women an aura of wealth,
but to make them beautiful.
Coco Chanel (Cera, pg. 178)


Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel (better known as Coco Chanel) was born out of wedlock in France in 1883. Her childhood was one of deprivation and early loss, followed by education in a convent orphanage (2, 3). Through her enormous talent and drive for both personal and financial independence, Chanel created a fashion empire which encompassed clothing, jewelry, and perfume. Although her business was supported in its early days by the financial backing of a wealthy lover, Chanel created a fashion legacy that was freeing and empowering not only for herself, but for women throughout the world. This overview of the evolution of Chanel style and design, with an emphasis on jewelry, is meant to provide the reader with a better understanding of her place in history.

Chanel in the late 1930s.  From <q>Jewelry by Chanel</q> by Mauries

Figure 1 - Chanel in the late 1930s. From Jewelry by Chanel by Mauries.

Luxury is not the opposite of poverty,
it is the opposite of vulgarity.
Coco Chanel (Mauries, pg. 48)

The hallmarks of Chanel design exhibit a paradox described by writer Aldous Huxley as a rich and sumptuous simplicity (5, pg. 90). The clothing is simple and understated, even severe in its cut and the fabrics used, but heavily accessorized with masses of fine and faux jewelry mixed together as a counterpoint. Offering freedom and flexibility, her apparel follows the lines of the body, constructed so it will fall back into place naturally whenever the wearer is at rest (4, 3). The sense of proportion is fundamental to all good design, and Chanel's fashions embodies this principle above all else. Chanel believed in authenticity (4). She wanted women to be able to express themselves physically while wearing her clothing and to be fearless in their self-adornment.

Figure 2 - Late 1950s Chanel Bracelet.  From <q>Amazing Gems</q> by Cera.

Figure 2 - Late 1950s Chanel Bracelet. From Amazing Gems by Cera.

In contrast to the simplicity of the clothing, Chanel's jewelry is bold and theatrical. She embraced the primitive and barbaric in her accessories, which elevated her trim, tidy clothing, creating a look so womanly and sophisticated that it has never gone out of fashion since she first imagined it more than 90 years ago. Chanel draped herself and her models in ropes of faux pearls and goldtone chains. She commissioned masterpieces of poured glass from Maison Gripoix. Adopting red and green as her signature color combination, she drew inspiration from numerous sources: The Treasury of St. Mark's in Venice with its Byzantine treasures, the Moghuls of India, Persia, Egypt, Renaissance pearl chains with delicately wrought metal, Baroque era pendant pearls, African carvings, the Etruscans and Visigoths and Celts (3, 4). There was no limit to her historical interest or her ability to transform the riches of the past into contemporary treasure.

Figure 3 - Bracelet by Robert Goossens for Chanel designed after 3rd century A.D.  Syrian bracelet on view at the Louvre.  From <q>Jewelry by Chanel</q> by Mauries.

Figure 3 - Bracelet by Robert Goossens for Chanel designed after 3rd century A.D. Syrian bracelet on view at the Louvre. From Jewelry by Chanel by Mauries.

Chanel was a visual and tactile artist. She could not draw or sketch, but she knew immediately what was right or wrong when a woman tried on one of her fashions. She designed directly onto the models' bodies, draping, pinning, and cutting the fabric to get exactly the look and fit she was after. Her approach to jewelry design was very similar. In her studio she kept pieces of flexible modeling plastic which she shaped into jewelry, embedding real and fake gemstones into the plastic as she worked, moving them around to get exactly the color combinations and balance she desired. Chanel's talent was in her hands and her eyes (2, 4).

Figure 4 - Chanel's Hands, circa 1938.  From <q>Jewelry by Chanel</q> by Mauries.

Figure 4 - Chanel's Hands, circa 1938. From Jewelry by Chanel by Mauries.

With the financial backing of her English lover, Arthur Boy Capel, Chanel began designing and selling hats at her own small boutique in Paris in 1909. This was the height of the Edwardian era, when hats were huge and heavily ornamented. Even from the beginning, Coco's hats challenged the norm. She bought simple, flat-topped straw hats and boaters, which she trimmed herself. Considered nervy and slightly eccentric, these designs sold like hot cakes to well-to-do young fashion mavens (2).

As Chanel's business acumen grew, she branched out into other arenas. In 1913, again with the help of Boy Capel, she opened a boutique in the resort town of Deauville, on the English Channel. Brilliantly situated between the legendary Normandy Hotel, the casino, and the beach, Chanel's new venture launched an entirely new innovation in women's clothing design, for that is the summer when she invented sports clothes, i.e. casual summer clothing made of nontraditional fabrics such as jersey. In 1915, she opened her first house of couture in Biarritz, where she sold chemise dresses made of jersey or cotton. She eliminated the fitted waist, creating straight dresses that tied over the hips. World War I was in progress, and her designs were perfect for wartime. They were simple and functional, taking advantage of remnant fabrics and random opportunities. Chanel's early experiences of poverty had made her an expert at making do and using odds and ends creatively. Her Paris operation expanded into a house of couture, as well (2).

By 1916 Chanel's businesses were thriving and she was no longer dependent on Boy Capel's generosity. At her three locations (Paris, Deauville, and Biarritz) she employed a total of 300 employees. Sadly, three years later, she lost the great love of her life when Boy Capel was killed in a fiery car crash. His last gift to her was a bequest of 40,000 pounds, which Madsen reports would translate into $1.2 million in 1990 dollars (2). Chanel was now an independently wealthy woman with well established businesses and a growing fashion reputation.

The 1920's roared in Europe, just as they did in America and Asia. Prosperity was the norm, and new social mores burst onto the scene. Chanel was central to the ethos of the era, inventing what was known internationally as the flapper style. Her short dresses featured straight lines. They were short-sleeved or even sleeveless. Bone simple, uncluttered, and casual, these were clothes that a modern woman could wear as she pursued an active, athletic lifestyle. Chanel's clothes were practical for travel, as well, with coats featuring large pockets and foldable hats suitable for packing in suitcases. When Chanel put buttons on a garment, they were fasteners, not purely ornament. One of her most enduring innovations, originating during the 1920's, was the little black dress, which has become an essential part of every woman's wardrobe (2). In 1921 Chanel introduced a line of accessories in the boutique associated with her Paris house of couture. These accessories included jewelry which was specially designed to complement her fashions (6).

Figure 5 - 1920s Chanel Poured Glass Heart Brooch & Earrings.  From <q>Costume Jewelry</q> by J. Miller.

Figure 5 - 1920s Chanel Poured Glass Heart Brooch & Earrings. From Costume Jewelry by J. Miller.

Chanel was the first to use costume jewelry to create the finishing touch to her overall look (3). As always, her approach was innovative and unique. Most of the costume jewelry of the 1920's adhered to the Art Deco aesthetic and attempted to follow the trends initiated by Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels. Brightly colored fruit salad glass stones meant to imitate the carved precious and semi-precious gemstones used by the fine jewelers were mixed with brilliant white rhinestones in strongly geometric patterns (5). Chanel, however, developed her own style. In 1924 she established a relationship with Maison Gripoix, masters of fine glass jewelry (4). The 1923 introduction of her trademark perfume, Chanel No. 5, cemented her fortune and her supremacy in the field of fashion (2, 3) .

Figure 6 - Faux Baroque Pearl, Rhinestone, and Poured Glass Necklace.  Attributed to Gripoix for Chanel, 1920s.  From <q>Costume Jewelry</q> by Tolkien and Wilkinson.

Figure 6 - Faux Baroque Pearl, Rhinestone, and Poured Glass Necklace. Attributed to Gripoix for Chanel, 1920s. From Costume Jewelry by Tolkien and Wilkinson.

Another significant change in Chanel's life occurred in December of 1923. She met and fell in love with the Duke of Westminster, one of the wealthiest men in England (2). This 10 year relationship brought her into constant public scrutiny and further encouraged her adoption of obviously faux costume jewelry.

Figure 7 - 1928 Chanel Brooch, reissued in 1935.  From <q>Jewelry by Chanel</q> by Mauries.

Figure 7 - 1928 Chanel Brooch, reissued in 1935. From Jewelry by Chanel by Mauries.

I couldn't wear my own pearls without being stopped on the street,
so I started the vogue of wearing false ones.

Coco Chanel (Madsen, pg. 153)


Figure 8 - Chanel (on left) with Lady Abdy in 1929.  From <q>Chanel: A Woman of Her Own</q> by Madsen.

Figure 8 - Chanel (on left) with Lady Abdy in 1929. From Chanel: A Woman of Her Own by Madsen.

A new Chanel boutique was opened in London's tony Mayfair district in 1927. It was greeted with acclaim by the British fashion press, including this glowing review by British Vogue, Looks designed for sports graduate to country day-dressing and then arrive in town, and Chanel's country tweeds have just completed the course. She pins a white pique gardenia to the neck. Her 'lingerie touches' are copied everywhere - piping, bands of contrasts, ruffles and jabots. She initiates fake jewelry, to be worn everywhere, even on the beach (2, pg. 106).

Figure 9 - 1920s Faux Pearl Maltese Cross Brooch.  From <q>Jewelry by Chanel</q> by Mauries.

Figure 9 - 1920s Faux Pearl Maltese Cross Brooch. From Jewelry by Chanel by Mauries.

In 1929 Coco put a large brooch on the trademark beret she was seldom seen without, and launched a new trend (6).

If you want to start a collection, start with a brooch
because you will find most use for it.
It can be pinned on a suit lapel, collar or pocket,
on a hat, belt, or evening gown.

Coco Chanel (Miller, J., pg. 57)


Figure 10 - 1925 Brooch by Fulco di Verdura for Chanel.  From <q>Jewelry by Chanel</q> by Mauries.

Figure 10 - 1925 Brooch by Fulco di Verdura for Chanel. From Jewelry by Chanel by Mauries.

In 1931, Samuel Goldwyn made Chanel an offer she felt she couldn't refuse. If she would come to Hollywood twice a year to design for the actresses he had on contract with his studio, he would pay her one million dollars per year. These actresses included Ina Claire, Gloria Swanson, Norma Talmadge, and Lily Damita. She created the costumes for a forgettable Jean Harlow film called Palmy Days and for a Gloria Swanson box office disaster called Tonight or Never. The third film which featured her costumes was called The Greeks Had a Word for It, was a huge success starring Ina Claire, Joan Blondell, and Madge Evans. While these last two films were still in post-production Chanel became disillusioned with the Hollywood scene and returned home. The Depression was causing other houses of couture to close their doors, and she felt she had to be in Paris to keep her business alive. Also, she was offered the opportunity to design costumes for Jean Cocteau's play Les Chevaliers de la Table Ronde. Her brief time in California added to her prestige in France, however, and Vogue announced that Chanel had revolutionized Hollywood by dressing Ina Claire in the simplest of white satin pajamas. (2)

In 1932 Chanel was approached by DeBeers, the diamond industry giants. The diamond business was suffering because of the worldwide economic depression which began in 1929 and because of the enormous success of costume jewelry, as popularized by Chanel. They asked her to develop and show a collection of diamond jewelry (7). Chanel enlisted the aid of Paul Iribe, already well known for his diverse talents in graphic, textile, jewelry, stage, and advertising design (4). Working together, they created a stunning collection which was shown for two weeks during November of 1932 in private rooms at Chanel's home at 29 Rue du Fauborg-Saint Honore. This amazing collection was responsible for De Beers stock rising 20 points on the London stock exchange 2 days after the opening of the exhibit (4, 7).

Figure 11 - 1932 Chanel Diamond Brooches and Diadem Shown on Wax Model.  From <q>Jewelry by Chanel</q> by Mauries.

Figure 11 - 1932 Chanel Diamond Brooches and Diadem Shown on Wax Model. From Jewelry by Chanel by Mauries.

The diamond jewelry collection featured variations on three themes: bows, stars, and feathers. The pieces were constructed with minimized, even invisible, settings, so the stones stood alone, seemingly connected by gossamer or cobwebs. The diamonds were cut in unusual shapes such as triangles, hexagons, and trapezoids. They varied in size from very large to very small. The jewelry was transformative, as well, with clever connections which allowed a necklace to become a brooch, or a diadem to disassemble to become a bracelet and pendant (4).

Figure 12 - 1932 Diamond Necklace by Chanel.   From <q>Jewelry by Chanel</q> by Mauries.

Figure 12 - 1932 Diamond Necklace by Chanel. From Jewelry by Chanel by Mauries.

Chanel explained her interest in fine jewelry with yet another paradox. She said that she had made obviously fake glass jewelry during the boom times of the 1920s because they were devoid of arrogance in an epoch of too easy luxe. She went on to state that she was now promoting precious gems because they had the greatest value in the smallest volume and answered a hunger for authenticity and real value in a world where times were hard (2, pg. 196).

Figure 13 - 1932 Diamond Comet Necklace.  From <q>Jewelry by Chanel</q> by Mauries.

Figure 13 - 1932 Diamond Comet Necklace. From Jewelry by Chanel by Mauries.

The relationship with Paul Iribe was both personal and professional. Their love affair influenced Chanel's jewelry design in significant ways. According to Patrick Mauries, many of the qualities which became cornerstones of Chanel's jewelry design were established by Iribe as early as 1910. These qualities include the use of large stones, a highly decorative approach featuring both novelty and variety, and an emphasis on proportion. Iribe had a taste for unrestrained splendor in jewelry, juxtaposing stones and textures. He created new definitions for settings, ranging from the minimalist settings seen in the diamond collection of 1932 to the massive, barbaric settings so commonly seen in Chanel's jewelry (4). Their relationship, though intense and productive, was short-lived. In 1935, Paul died of a heart attack at age 52 while playing tennis with Coco at one of her homes (2).

Figure 14 - 1960 Chanel Brooch.   From <q>Jewelry by Chanel</q> by Mauries.

Figure 14 - 1960 Chanel Brooch. From Jewelry by Chanel by Mauries.

A woman should mix fake and real.
To ask a woman to wear real jewelry only
is like asking her to cover herself with real
flowers instead of flowery silk prints.
She'd look faded in a few hours.
I love fakes because I find such jewelry provocative,
and I find it disgraceful to walk around with millions
around your neck just because you're rich.
The point of jewelry isn't to make a woman look rich
but to adorn her; not the same thing.

Coco Chanel (Madsen, pg. 197)


Figure 15 - 1930s Faux Pearl and Poured Glass Sautoir by Gripoix for Chanel.  Courtesy of Milky Way Jewels.

Figure 15 - 1930s Faux Pearl and Poured Glass Sautoir by Gripoix for Chanel. Courtesy of Milky Way Jewels.

Another important design partner during the early 1930s was Fulco di Verdura. This impoverished Sicilian duke went to work for Chanel sometime during the 1920s, although the exact date varies from one source to another. His enduring contributions to her signature style were the inclusion of Maltese cross motifs and the use of massive stones in thickly enameled pieces, especially bracelets. In 1934 he went to Los Angeles to join a friend's jewelry business, and then moved on to New York in 1937 to open his own firm (4).

Figure 16 - Chanel with Fulco di Verdura in 1937.  Note the bracelet she is holding.  From <q>Jewelry by Chanel</q> by Mauries.

Figure 16 - Chanel with Fulco di Verdura in 1937. Note the bracelet she is holding. From Jewelry by Chanel by Mauries.

My jewelry never stands in isolation from the idea of women
and their dress. And because dresses change,
so does my jewelry.

Coco Chanel, 1932 (Mauries, pg. 24)


Figure 17 - Enameled Maltese Cross Bracelets by Fulco di Verdura for Chanel.  From <q>Jewelry by Chanel</q> by Mauries.

Figure 17 - Enameled Maltese Cross Bracelets by Fulco di Verdura for Chanel. From Jewelry by Chanel by Mauries.

A final fashion contribution by Chanel before the onset of World War II was the shoulder strap purse in 1939. She introduced a purse suspended on a long chain, suitable for wearing over the shoulder. This was a first, as previous purses were clutched in the hand or carried over the arm (3).

In September of 1939 France declared war on Germany. Three weeks later, Chanel closed House of Chanel in Paris and laid off the staff without warning. She did leave the Paris boutique open, however, selling mainly perfume (2). One source says that the boutique continued to sell jewelry, as well (7). When the outskirts of Paris were bombed by the Germans, Coco fled to the south. She returned to Paris in August of 1940 and resumed residence in the Ritz Hotel (2). After the war ended in 1945, Chanel's wartime affair with a high-ranking Nazi officer, Hans Gunther Dincklage, created a hostile environment for her in France. She and Dincklage moved to Switzerland, where she remained for the next nine years, even after they separated in 1950 (2). During this time, the primary Chanel product was perfume, though one source reports that the great French glass house of Rousselet made pearl sautoirs for boutique sales between 1948 and 1952 (7).

The early 1950s fashion scene was dominated by the New Look of Dior and Balenciaga. These designers put women back into tightly fitted, boned and crinolined gowns (5). This look was the antithesis of Chanel style and philosophy, and she rebounded out of retirement in 1954 with a new mission. She reported that she was no longer interested in dressing a few hundred women, private clients. I shall dress thousands (5 pg. 122). She reopened her salon, launched a comeback collection, and began marketing off-the-rack styles to American department stores. Chanel's 1950s jewelry designs included jeweled cufflinks worn on men's style shirts, gold chains and medallions, and gilt and pearl earrings (2).

Figure 18  - 1954 Byzantine Necklace, Reissued in 1971.  From <q>Jewelry by Chanel</q> by Mauries.

Figure 18 - 1954 Byzantine Necklace, Reissued in 1971. From Jewelry by Chanel by Mauries.

Robert Goossens became Chief Designer for Chanel in 1960, though he had been working for her indirectly since 1954 through his goldsmith employer, DeGorse (4). His designs included rosary-style necklaces, long chains with beads and pearls, pate de verre eagles derived from Anglo-Saxon belt buckles, and huge Maltese cross brooches (3). Goossens designs were massive. He used bronze, silver, molten glass, and Swarovski crystals to create bold, photogenic ornaments (6).

Figure 19 - Front and back views of 1960s Robert Goossens for Chanel Pendant.  From <q>Jewelry by Chanel</q> by Mauries.

Figure 19 - Front and back views of 1960s Robert Goossens for Chanel Pendant. From Jewelry by Chanel by Mauries.

In 1971, at the age of 88, Chanel died in her beloved Paris. She was still working and designing until the very end. Friends joked that it was no coincidence that she passed away on a Sunday, since that was the only day that the salon was closed, so it was the only day she had time to do it (2, 3).

Figure 20 - Bracelets said to be Chanel's last design before her death.  From <q>Jewelry by Chanel</q> by Mauries.

Figure 20 - Bracelets said to be Chanel's last design before her death. From Jewelry by Chanel by Mauries.

For the next 12 years, from 1971 until 1983, the Chanel company continued to issue faithful reproductions of her designs (3). In 1983, however, Karl Lagerfeld assumed directorship of the Chanel corporation. He was charged with reinterpreting and modernizing the classic Chanel style (3).

Figure 21 - Classic Chanel Chain Belt.  Courtesy of Milky Way Jewels.

Figure 21 - Classic Chanel Chain Belt. Courtesy of Milky Way Jewels.

The 1980s was an era devoted to designer labels. Lagerfeld put the entwined CC logo on everything from belt buckles to earrings (3). His designs were based on the original Chanel themes and included her classic gilt chains, coins, and pearls, but all of these were updated with an exaggerated 1980s flash (5). Lagerfeld continues to design for Chanel today, though he also has his own company.

Figure 22 - Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel Pin.  Dated 1984.  Courtesy of Milky Way Jewels.

Figure 22 - Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel Pin. Dated 1984. Courtesy of Milky Way Jewels.

Coco Chanel left us with a strong legacy. Many of the fashion choices women take for granted today began with her vision and her challenge to the traditional view of women's lives and bodies. Throughout her career she resisted every attempt to restrict women's freedom of movement. Her designs were radical and revolutionary and absolutely essential to the liberation of women from the strictures of corsets and inhibiting ornamentation. Whenever you wear a comfy jacket that fits like a sweater, a well-fitting suit that lets you breathe, a little black dress, a crisp white shirt, or a cozy navy-style pea jacket, you should take a moment to pause and thank Chanel. Also included in her amazing legacy are masses of bold jewelry with bright cabochons and pearls, gold buttons, quilted bags, and black-tipped sling-back shoes that make your legs look miles long... All these are products of Chanel's genius.

Figure 23 - Chanel at her apartment at the Ritz in Paris, 1937.  From <q>Jewelry by Chanel</q> by Mauries.

Figure 23 - Chanel at her apartment at the Ritz in Paris, 1937. From Jewelry by Chanel by Mauries.

A special Chanel exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is currently being shown and will ran through August 7, 2005. This exhibit has gathered an unprecedented presentation of more than 50 designs and accessories from the Metropolitan MuseumÕs Costume Institute Collection, the Chanel Archives, and other international institutions such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Examining the history of the House of Chanel thematically, the exhibition illustrates the ideas and elements of ChanelÕs life and work.

Figure 24 - Circa 1970 Chanel Necklace Inspired by the Moghuls.  From <q>Jewelry by Chanel</q> by Mauries.

Figure 24 - Circa 1970 Chanel Necklace Inspired by the Moghuls. From Jewelry by Chanel by Mauries.


References:

  1. Cera, Deanna Farneti. Amazing Gems: An Illustrated Guide to the World's Most Dazzling Costume Jewelry (Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1995)
  2. Madsen, Axel. Chanel: A Woman of Her Own (Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1990)
  3. Miller, Judith. Costume Jewelry (DK Publishing, New York, 2003)
  4. Mauries, Patrick. Jewelry by Chanel (Little, Brown and Company, Boston, New York, London, 2000)
  5. Tolkein, Tracy & Wilkinson, Henrietta. A Collector's Guide to Costume Jewelry: Key Styles and How to Recognize Them (Firefly, Ontario, Canada, 1997)
  6. Miller, Harrice Simons. Official Price Guide to Costume Jewelry, 3rd Ed. (Crown Publishing Group, New York, 2002)
  7. Moro, Ginger. European Designer Jewelry (Schiffer, Atglen, PA, 1995)
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