With a gilded fan like Empress Joséphine, how has the house of Chaumet stayed an insider secret for so long? Here, Wing Sze Tang uncovers the history of the 238-year-old jeweller.
The Paris-based house of Chaumet should not be shrouded in mystery. After all, it has a legendary backstory; wearers have ranged from Napoleon’s beloved Empress Joséphine to Pablo Picasso’s ballerina wife, Olga, to actress Angelina Jolie. It’s a long-time fixture in one of Paris’s most opulent addresses, Place Vendôme. And yet, if you were to name-drop, there’s a fair chance it would be news to your average fashion-phile. “Chaumet had become a sleeping beauty, a much admired and exquisite jewellery house that had nevertheless quietly slipped under the radar over the years,” Jean-Marc Mansvelt, the maison’s CEO, admitted to The New York Times. “When I joined the company, it became my task to wake her up again.” The plan is working: in recent years, the house has attracted new eyes with several jewellery-as-art retrospectives—including Chaumet’s own pop-up Musée Ephémère in Paris. With the brand’s recent arrival at Birks, its North American debut, it’s time for an education in haute joaillerie, complete with a peek through the archives.
By Royal Appointment
Chaumet’s earliest publicity boost and regal design inspiration came courtesy of Napoleon Bonaparte and Empress Joséphine.
Marie-Étienne Nitot establishes his own jewellery house, which later becomes Chaumet. Three of his brothers also become jewellers and the elder Nitot gets royal approval and makes pieces for Aubert, Queen Marie-Antoinette’s court jeweller. In 1802, he assists in creating Napoleon Bonaparte’s Coronation Sword set with the legendary 140ct Regent Diamond.
Talk about a career boost: Nitot is appointed the official jeweller of the Imperial court and Empress Joséphine. A besotted Napoleon funds her passion for glittering objets, and she remains an enduring muse of the jewellery house. Many of the company’s defining pieces, from her Crowning Glory tiara to the iconic wheat sheaf, are shaped by her style, defined as glam, feminine and modern for her era. Chaumet’s aura of grand romance is a tribute to the couple’s love story.
Joseph Chaumet (who takes charge in 1885) moves the atelier to 12 Place Vendôme and Chaumet remains there to this day (composer Frédéric Chopin once called the address home, too). Apart from the Salon des Diadèmes, which showcases hundreds of nickel-silver tiara models, the archives abound with 55,000 gouaché preparatory drawings and almost 300,000 photographic works. The trove of mementos is so vast that only a fraction has been archived, but the house has been welcoming new admirers by organizing exhibitions around the globe in recent years, such as The Worlds of Chaumet exhibition recently shown in Tokyo.
Time For Change
The world modernizes and Chaumet reflects the zeitgeist as its designers experiment with everything from art deco to surrealism.
By the Roaring 20s, Chaumet is a bonafide favourite among stars of the stage such as French chanteuse and actress Yvonne Printemps, shown here with an arm party that includes an art deco bracelet with a 111-carat cabochon emerald. The house maintains a presence in the see-and-be-seen seaside resorts of Cannes and Deauville, and embarks on an expansion to court America’s rich and famous, eventually opening a Fifth Avenue location in 1924.
After closing during the Depression, Chaumet valiantly reopens after World War II and their tiaras are sported by stars like fashion model Ann Gunning. While the aesthetic is evolving to a more stylized look, glimpsed in this foliage clip that’s a step away from realism, it takes the arrival of trained sculptor René Morin as artistic director to set a new vision.
René Morin joins Chaumet in 1962 and sets out to embrace the unconventional, marking the ’70s as an era of experimentation. Familiar themes, such as odes to nature, remain as prominent as always but now appear with a new boldness—like the surrealist edge seen in this 1970 frosted crystal Octopus Necklace by art deco sculptor Robert Lemoine. Hanging from a seaweed garland, its tentacles hold a sparkling rubellite making for an anything-but-ordinary piece commissioned by Sir Valentine Abdy for his bride-to-be.
Steeped in history—but not stuck in the past—the house’s contemporary aesthetic calls for a fresh look on well-established themes.
Claire Dévé-Rakoff, formerly with Chanel, is named the new artistic director of Chaumet. She is one of several women creatives leading the way in the once male-dominated jewellery business. As one of her first moves, Dévé-Rakoff digs into the archives to define a new signature flower for Chaumet: the hortensia or hydrangea. The bloom is the focal point of her debut collection, with petals in shades like blush pink and rose gold. Her designs are unabashedly feminine and, most of all, easy-chic wearable.
She has more than six million Instagram followers, so when Chinese actress, singer and model Angelababy gets married, it’s considered the country’s wedding of the decade. Chaumet completes the fantasy when Angelababy dons two of their antique tiaras (the Perles de Vénus Curvilinear Tiara and the Curls Tiara) plus the house’s six-carat, US$1.6 million Joséphine Aigrette Impériale ring. The moment goes viral and the jeweller’s sales lift in the Chinese market. Fans still flock to Chaumet stores in Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China to ask about the misnomered “Angelababy ring” and a love for the house’s aristocratic aesthetic is reignited.
After 238 years, Chaumet continues to draw from its rich history. For Les Mondes de Chaumet, its new, three-part haute joaillerie collection, one chapter is devoted to the imperial court of Russia. (The country’s aristocratic class was smitten with the maison; Joseph Chaumet was even a guest at the wedding of Princess Irina, niece of Tsar Nicholas II.) The Promenades Impériales transformable, wear-it-your-way necklace comes with a detachable pendant reminiscent of the kokoshnik (the traditional Russian headdress), but it’s far from retro. It expresses the Chaumet of today: a nod to the past, but reinterpreted with new-school cool for right now.