Special Report: A Cut Above: Jewelry
An Unsigned Iconoclast of 20th-Century Design
By NAZANIN LANKARANI
Published: December 10, 2010
PARIS — In the first quarter of the 20th century, when modernist movements were transforming the world of art, design and architecture, jewelry design was undergoing a revolution of its own.While prestigious jewelry houses like Cartier, Chaumet, Boucheron, and Van Cleef and Arpels continued the tradition of formal gem-set jewelry, a younger generation of iconoclasts introduced a new aesthetic based on geometric forms, associations of uncommon materials and striking color combinations.Among them, the Parisian jeweler René Boivin was a pioneer.“Traditional jewelry designers of that time were highly influenced by Lalique and the Art Nouveau movement. They focused on workmanship and technique, preferring monochromatic designs and stressing stone quality,” said Emmanuelle Chassard, director of the Galerie Parisienne, a design and jewelry gallery in the Seventh Arrondissement of Paris.
“René Boivin’s creations were revolutionary by their imposing size, their unusual proportions and their bright colors,” Ms. Chassard said.Boivin started out in 1890 as a traditional goldsmith and engraver, quickly earning a reputation for quality craftsmanship. but after he married Jeanne Poiret, sister of the famed Parisian couturier, Paul Poiret, in 1893, his craft veered into a new creative direction.“Jeanne came from a fashion background with strong connections to the fashion elite,” said Ms. Chassard, a specialist in Boivin’s work. “Her brother was the most sought after couturier of the time. What Jeanne brought to the table were a completely new set of references in jewelry design.”Inspired by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes — all the rage in Paris in 1910 — Poiret had launched a trend for bold and theatrical styles in fashion. Helped by his wife’s connections and creativity, Boivin began designing accessories for Poiret’s couture collections. Soon, the House of Boivin was catering to illustrious clients that included the fashion icons Elsa Schiaparelli and Diana Vreeland, the artists Kees van Dongen and Marie Laurencin, and intellectuals like Louise de Vilmorin.Over the years, that clientele grew to include royalty, most notably in the 1930s the French-educated Empress Nam Phuong, wife of Emperor Bao Dai of Vietnam, much admired in her time for her style and elegance.At a Christie’s jewelry sale in Geneva last month, one of the more spectacular lots was a piece that had once belonged to the empress, an Art Deco necklace of graduated baguette and brilliant-cut diamond scrolls mounted in platinum, with detachable elements that allowed the piece to be worn as a tiara.The piece more than doubled its low estimate of 100,000 Swiss francs, or $101,000, selling for 243,000 francs.“The piece was an ‘objet à transformation’ with a clever system devised by Boivin, considered an exceptionally avant-garde designer,” said Jean-Marc Lunel, head of Christie’s jewelry department from Geneva.“While Boivin’s production was not extensive, it touched a very sophisticated clientele,” Mr. Lunel said.When her husband died in 1917, Jeanne Boivin took over the company, a bold move for a woman in those days.“Jeanne was the only woman to head a house of jewelry in her time,” said Ms. Chassard.Under her direction for the next several decades, the House of Boivin achieved a reputation as one of the most innovative designers of the century, its jewelry becoming monumental, an object of haute couture rather than a symbol of social status.“Like many of the avant-garde artists of her time, Jeanne turned to exotic sources, like African art and ethnic objects for inspiration,” Ms. Chassard said. “She used wood, ivory and other unusual materials that she combined with rare or semi-precious stones for the first time in jewelry-making.”