For those who order their year by the fixed calendar of fashion, late January and early July are synonymous with Paris couture. To be allowed to use the term “haute couture,” a fashion house must maintain an atelier and show twice a year in Paris, present a minimum number of outfits to the fashion press, and make garments to measure with fittings for individual clients.
What I find most interesting about this year’s couture weeks—the latest of which takes place this week, July 5–8—is the official presence on the program of brands that have never lifted a needle and thread: Van Cleef & Arpels, Chaumet, Boucheron, Mellerio. Indeed, Paris’s leading jewelers have used couture week for years to show pieces to clients sub rosa, but for the first time since the foundation of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in 1868, some of Place Vendôme’s great jewelers are presenting their collections alongside the fashions.
Of course, this being France, where everything from red wine to chicken is formally codified, it’s not simply a matter of jewelers joining the couture houses. As Didier Grumbach, president of the Chambre Syndicale, makes clear: “They are not members.” It’s more of an agreement between the haute couture houses and the committee of jewelers, which allows them to be haute joaillerie members. In the opaque hierarchy of the couture system, this helps distinguish among “elite” members (Chanel, Givenchy, Dior, etc.), “correspondent” members (close seconds, including Armani and Valentino), and “temporary” members (up-and-coming talents like Alexis Mabille, Bouchra Jarrar, and Josephus Thimister).
Dior and Chanel paved the way by developing their own jewelry lines. “We fought like hell to be accepted,” says Thierry Fritsch, CEO of LVMH-owned Chaumet. “We started to talk five years ago, and thank God we had the help of our friends from fashion. Dior and Chanel were the obvious go-betweens and helped a lot. We were lucky that there was some space for us this year.” Nevertheless, it will take some adjustment; Fritsch explains that in the past a jewelry house might launch a new collection once a year or every other year, but now it has to be present twice annually.
The Chambre Syndicale is treating the jeweled newcomers gingerly. “Since we included jewelers in the program, we have had a lot of requests to open haute couture to new brands,” says Grumbach, citing shoemakers as just one of the interested groups. But the Chambre Syndicale is in no rush; the French treat haute couture reverently as serious business, and the Chambre Syndicale will doubtless want to gauge public and press reaction to the official recognition of jewelers before forging ahead.
Haute couture and haute joaillerie share many traits, says Stanislas de Quercize, CEO of the resurgent house of Van Cleef & Arpels. Both rely on traditional craftsmanship carried out in Parisian ateliers, smart Paris showrooms, and the capability to make one-off pieces on demand. De Quercize relishes the opportunity to show this work alongside the great names of haute couture. “Until now, it was very seldom that one could see a collection altogether,” he says. “The creative process and craftsmanship needs to be better demonstrated, and twice a year for one week we have all the international editors and customers in Paris.”
As he sees it, the number of full haute couture houses, as distinct from correspondent and guest members, able to show has been thinning, and high jewelry stepped in to fill the space. “They all figured out that the calendar is light because there are only seven haute couture houses showing,” he says. “The inclusion of jewelry gives the opportunity to enjoy another sort of craftsmanship in action.”
But not every jewelry boss shares his enthusiasm. Cartier, for one, is unconvinced that this is a synergistic relationship, and has decided against joining couture week. “It is not the same kind of spirit: jewelry is to celebrate the important moments of life,” says Cartier CEO Bernard Fornas. “Fashion is just in and then it is out. One day your dress will be out of fashion, while the piece you bought at Cartier will stay for eternity.”
I can’t help thinking that Mademoiselle Chanel might have had a thing or two to say about that!
So I leave the last word to neither a couturier nor a jeweler, but to photographer Cecil Beaton, whose sentiments about couture have equal resonance when it comes to jewelry. “In the last analysis, style is not created by the imitators, nor even by the couturiers, whoever they may be,” he wrote in his 1954 book The Glass of Fashion. “You can lead a woman to a Dior dress, but how she will look in it is another matter.” In other words, the stone setters in the jewelry workshops and the embroiderers in their ateliers can put in as much craftsmanship as they like, but in the end it’s all down to how the customer wears it.