Chanel Exhibits 1932 Tribute Pieces in NYC
by Laurie brookins
Coco Chanel, as the story goes, was strolling the Avenue des Champs-Élysées one early-1930s evening while contemplating her next project, both the magnitude of it and how she would imbue this particular challenge with her singular aesthetic. The couturier glanced up at the Parisian night sky and, as she would later tell a journalist, discovered her answer among the stars: I wanted to cover women in constellations, she said.
As with so many of Chanel’s recollections throughout her lifetime, it’s debatable whether this moment actually occurred or perhaps might have been a romantic tale she conjured to enhance her mythology. But there’s no denying the significance of what she ultimately created: Chanel’s first fine-jewelry collection, which debuted on November 7, 1932, and was christened “Bijoux de Diamants,” indeed took its cue partly from her love of stars and astrology, although that premiere collection also included references that by then had already become codes of the house, namely, feathers, fringe, ribbons, bows, and the sun.
Eight decades later, that inaugural collection is being celebrated with an 80-piece, high-jewelry tribute that has been simply titled 1932; the collection debuted in March in Beijing and then in Paris in early July; this month the House of Chanel brings this homage of diamonds and platinum, gold and pearls, rock crystal and sapphires to New York. From October 9 through 16, the label takes over a custom space adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art in Midtown, turning it into the ultimate Chanel planetarium, a by-invitation-only happening designed for private appointments and events.
In this custom space, a dazzling observatory in which constellations on a domed sky share equal space with the brilliance of haute-couture jewels, clients will view the history and heritage inherent in Chanel’s attitude toward fine jewelry—which, unsurprisingly, walked a similar path as her approach to ready-to-wear. “Chanel translated the idea of freedom into everything she did, and that extended to the jewelry as well,” notes Benjamin Comar, international director of Chanel Fine Jewelry. “She freed women from very stiff, trophy-oriented jewelry, and in my opinion transformed the industry with what she created. In this tribute collection, we wanted to honor that.”
Bringing the collection to New York required a Herculean effort to plan, but it’s worth it, says Barbara Cirkva, the New York–based president of Chanel’s fashion, watches, and fine jewelry divisions. “High jewelry is really all about the dream and the creation of that dream,” she says. “That’s why it was imperative to take the concept [that debuted] in Paris and remake it, if you will, for New York. It’s a great opportunity to explore how the fine jewelry ties back to the history and heritage of Coco Chanel and her fascination with comets and stars, but we’ve never been able to share that on a large scale with people here in the United States.”
More than two years in the making, the 1932 tribute collection largely takes its cue from Chanel’s original creations: an updated version of the iconic Comete necklace, which wraps around the throat from its five-pronged star (reinterpreted in today’s 1932 collection to showcase at its center a 15-carat diamond) to its splashy tail of round-cut diamonds. “Here’s the most exciting thing about that piece,” says Cirkva. “The same workshop that crafted the original Comete necklace continues to work for us and did [the 1932 tribute] necklace as well. That is a wonderful statement not only about our history, but our commitment to continue crafting this art form within Paris.”
When you consider the timing of Chanel’s fine-jewelry debut, the weight of her undertaking begins to take on a more significant meaning. In 1932, Depression-era diamond merchants were struggling, holding onto a surplus of stones that enticed exceedingly few; to create excitement once again in jewelry, the International Diamond Guild reached out to the one woman who seemed to possess the magic touch, both in modernity and with the public’s favor. “Gabrielle Chanel was very famous at the time, known for creativity and freedom and giving new blood to an industry, and they wanted that,” Comar says. “But it was also a creative challenge for her, the chance to try something new.”
Respecting the past is key, but the tribute collection also exhibits an undeniable versatility, an idea Chanel encouraged in her original collection and would undoubtedly appreciate. Connoisseurs can start with the sautoir necklaces, in which sun pendants can instantly become brooches, while drippy chains that form a portion of a necklace could serve double-duty as bracelets (an homage to Chanel’s love for convertible jewelry), on through to a grouping of lion-inspired jewels in diamonds or rutile quartz, an homage to Chanel’s astrological sign, Leo. “The lion pieces are quite special,” Comar says. “Chanel never used the lion as inspiration or jewelry, and yet it was very important to her.
Ultimately, Chanel’s mastery of craft is the integral component of this celebratory collection. “To show 80 pieces of high jewelry in one room, that’s almost unheard of,” says Cirkva, who also divulged that several pieces from the same Paris workrooms that crafted the iconic Comete, but which have never before been seen, will make their debut in New York. Certainly Coco Chanel would appreciate her house’s reasoning behind such an idea. As Cirkva puts it, “We had to keep a few secrets.” 733 Madison Ave., 212-535- 5828
Cover shoot: May/June 2014 issue of Gotham magazine.