chanel 1932 jewellery

How Gabrielle Chanel Became An OG Of High Jewellery

by Imran Jalal  /   March 24, 2023

More than 90 years ago, it took a fashion designer to show the world just how much fun and freedom one can have with diamonds. Her name: Gabrielle Chanel. In time for an exclusive showcase that pays tribute to her landmark high‐end jewellery collection happening in Singapore this month, we delve into how the founder of Chanel helped us use the precious gemstone to find and express ourselves.

To understand how Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel disrupted the world of high jewellery, one needs to rewind the clock to 1932. It was a bleak time – the global economy was in the deep throes of the Great Depression ushered in by the Wall Street crash that had happened three years before. Needless to say, luxuries such as appliances, cars and – for the style conscious – diamonds weren’t exactly top of most people’s shopping lists (that is, if they were even shopping). The situation was so dire that De Beers, which had a lion’s share of the world’s rough diamond output then, had to shutter all its mines that year.

chanel 1932 jewellery
Credit:© Adagp, Paris 2022

“I wanted to cover women in constellations: stars – stars of all sizes to sparkle in the hair and fringes – and crescent moons,” said Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel in an interview with French newspaper L’Intransigeant on the launch of her Bijoux de Diamants collection. Launched in 1932, the line – commissioned by the London Diamond Corporation to help revive the then‐ailing diamond industry – offered unexpected high jewellery designs with cosmic motifs, such as the clasp‐free, open‐collar Comete necklace (above).

To reignite interest and demand for the prized gemstone, the London Diamond Corporation, or LDC for short, went knocking on Mademoiselle Chanel’s door. After all, this was the most famous female designer of the era, celebrated for her forward‐thinking, often unorthodox ideas about how women should dress and turning them into phenomenal successes. Case in point: her signature use of jersey – previously better known as the stuff of men’s underwear – to craft skirts, suits, sweaters and more that were as sophisticated as they were comfortable and liberating for the wearer.

There was also the hype surrounding her prowess with jewellery. From the get‐go – not unlike modern women across ages today – she espoused mixing and matching precious, high‐end designs with the faux (she got a kick out of how it confused onlookers). By the height of the Flapper Age in the ’20s, the first Chanel bijoux pieces hit boutiques, with the press lauding them as being even lovelier than the real thing. Inspired by her circle of bohemian friends, which included Sicilian nobleman Duke Fulco di Verdura, who helped come up with Chanel’s now‐iconic Maltese cross in 1927, they were unapologetically flashy with bold shapes and a protrusion of stones, fake pearls and materials such as vermeil and bronze. Mademoiselle’s approach to wearing them was equally exuberant: Layer, stack and pile them on to express one’s own brand of glamour – women everywhere loved it.

chanel 1932 jewellery

Ninety years on, Chanel pays tribute to this seminal launch with the 1932 collection, selected pieces of which, including the Comete Volute necklace (above), is showcased here this month in a private exhibition.

There was one hurdle the honchos at LDC had to cross though: how to get this powerful style icon who had once declared it “disgraceful to walk around with millions of dollars around your neck just because you are rich” to say yes to them? As it turned out, the ever‐perspicacious Coco didn’t need much convincing. In an interview with French newspaper L’Intransigeant, she explained: “Nothing could be better for forgetting the crisis than feasting one’s eyes on beautiful new things, which the skills of our craftsmen and women never cease to unveil.” And so it was decided that LDC would supply her the stones and bear all the production and publicity costs, and give her carte blanche to work on what’s now regarded as the first high jewellery collection created by a fashion designer.

For two weeks in November 1932, members of the Parisian fashion and creative scene thronged Coco’s apartment at 29 rue du Faubourg de Saint‐Honore to preview her Bijoux de Diamants collection; its name translating directly to “diamond jewellery”. Diverging from how the jewellers at nearby Place Vendome traditionally presented their creations – on trays – everything was displayed on wax busts encased within glass boxes. This showed off not only how the pieces look when worn, but also Coco’s keen technical understanding of working with diamonds: It became clear how every piece boasted classic diamond cuts and no visible settings to allow the stones to shine in their most pristine state.

chanel 1932 jewellery
Credit:© Andre Kertesz/Vogue Paris

The Bijoux de Diamants collection was presented at Chanel’s apartment at 29 rue du Faubourg de Saint‐Honore (above) for two weeks in Nov 1932. Notice how the pieces were displayed on wax busts – a departure from the standard practice of showing jewellery on trays back then.

Design‐wise, they revealed Coco’s gift for fusing the romantic with the pragmatic oh‐so‐effortlessly. Heavenly symbols such as the moon, the sun and comets were transformed into necklaces and cuffs that coiled elegantly around the collarbones and wrist. To add fluidity to one’s outfit, she introduced pieces sculpted in the form of ribbons, fringes and feathers. “I seek out the motifs that best showcase the brilliance of diamonds – the star, the cross, the fall of graduated stones and large sunburst cabochons,” she told L’Intransigeant. All would remain design tropes for Chanel’s fine jewellery right up to this day.

And just like with her costume jewellery, Bijoux de Diamants challenged the way precious jewellery should be worn. For one, Coco did away with clasps, seeing them as restrictive for movement. She also encouraged women to express their individuality with multi‐wear designs such as the Bijoux de Diamants star brooch, which doubled as a hair accessory, and another plume‐style pin that could be attached to the bodice or used to fasten a coat. With Chanel, one is free to accessorise however she wishes.

chanel 1932 jewellery

“Each heavenly body shines with its own light,” says Patrice Leguereau, director of the Chanel Fine Jewelry Creation Studio, of the maison’s 1932 high jewellery collection. In the case of the Soleil 19 Aout necklace, its brilliance comes through in four ways: as it is; as a brooch or a ring by detaching its sun motif and wearing it on its own; and as a pendant‐free multi‐strand necklace.

Fast forward to today and this legacy of transformable jewellery lives on in Chanel’s 1932 collection, launched in 2022 to commemorate the 90th anniversary of Bijoux de Diamants. Of the 77 unique designs – all handcrafted by artisans from the Chanel Fine Jewelry Creation Studio – 13 can be worn in more ways than one. Take, for example, the star piece: the Allure Celeste lariat‐style necklace that features a large diamond‐swathed star motif at the collarbone, a 55.55‐carat oval‐cut sapphire (its weight a nod to Coco’s favourite number) at the centre of the necklace and, at the end of its drop, a 8.05‐carat DFL pear‐cut diamond, all of which are surrounded by even more diamonds positioned to look like bursting rays of light.

The most dazzling aspect of this creation, however, is how various parts can be detached to form entirely new looks and pieces. The central tail of diamonds, for example, can be worn alone as a tennis bracelet, in turn resulting in a shorter, matinee‐length necklace, while the halos of diamonds around each motif can be worn individually as brooches. According to Patrice Leguereau, director of the Chanel Fine Jewelry Creation Studio, there are 20 different ways to wear the Allure Celeste.

chanel 1932 jewellery

The star of the 1932 collection is the Allure Celeste necklace, which features multiple parts that can be detached and transformed into the likes of brooches, a tennis bracelet and a shorter necklace. Said Coco: “My jewellery never stands in isolation from the idea of women and their dresses. It is because dresses change that my jewellery is transformable.”

This month, more of such magic lands right here in Singapore. From March 23 to 28, close to 60 pieces from Chanel’s 1932 high jewellery collection will be unveiled in a private showcase alongside 17 styles from the Bjioux de Diamants archives. The former will then go on display in the brand’s boutique in The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands from April 1 to 6 so that the public can get a close‐up look.

While the Allure Celeste will not be part of this line‐up, expect other “cosmic wonders” such as the Comete Constellation collar‐style necklace. The 10.8‐carat cushion‐cut diamond at each of its open ends can be removed and used to give an accompanying ring extra oomph. Another must‐see: the Soleil 19 Aout necklace, which – as you might have guessed by now – is more than just a necklace. Its central sun motif – anchored by a 22.10‐carat cushion‐cut yellow diamond – can be worn on its own as a ring or a brooch, leaving a more understated yet no less resplendent three‐strand diamond necklace. How brilliant is that?

This article is adapted from a story that first appeared in the March 2023 Express Yourself! Edition of FEMALE