Where does the French jewellery tradition come from?

When I arrived in Paris and discovered all the jewellery brands of the Place Vendôme, I was impressed by this great French tradition of fine jewellery. I wanted to understand the origin of this tradition.

Agnès Sorel

In the 15th century, under the reign of Charles VII, a character shone, who was perhaps the very first ambassador of French refinement: Agnès Sorel. She was a lady in the company of Isabelle d’Anjou, the sister-in-law of Queen Marie d’Anjou, when, one day in 1443, she was introduced to King Charles VII at a celebration. She was 21 years old. He immediately fell madly in love with this young woman, as beautiful as she was intelligent, as witty and sensitive, as extravagant and provocative. Despite their great age difference and the king’s unattractive physique, Agnes let herself be seduced, became his mistress and first official favourite, which had never been seen before. Until then, the mistresses remained in the shadows. The beautiful Agnes, on the other hand, did not only live under the same roof as the king, she was also involved in the affairs of state and her advice was listened to.

Her provocative extravagance and lifestyle imposed itself at court. Because she was brilliant and powerful, the court imitated her. And at that time, the other courts in Europe were all imitating the court of France…

Agnès Sorel had invented the low-cut dress. Lined with marten or sable furs, the trains of her dresses were endless. She had vertiginous pyramidal headdresses. During a tournament, she presented herself dressed in silver armor, inlaid with gems. She wore pearl necklaces and it was on her that the first diamond cut in the West was seen. She wore lipstick, which was forbidden in the Middle Ages, and introduced oriental body care products such as massages and scented baths to the court.

I told you about Agnès Sorel, because the reputation of jewellery, like that of fashion or perfume, is linked to the image of “savoir-vivre”, a certain French refinement. Even today, the “Parisian” seduces and fascinates. She remains an avant-garde, sometimes provocative, but always a source of inspiration for many women all over the world.

The jewels of the crown

But “savoir-vivre” is not enough to establish a tradition, it also requires “know-how”. Thus, orders for jewellery for the  “crown diamonds” collection have played an important role in the development of the jewellery sector for centuries. It was Francis I who initiated this collection in 1530, after his return from Madrid as a captive. He had, for his liberation, paid Charles V in part with the jewellery that Charles V had collected in the 14th century. Francis I subsequently created, as a kind of insurance, the collection of the crown jewels, which was to be “an inalienable treasure, controlled by the Chamber of Accounts, which the sovereign would enjoy and could be pledged in the event of misfortune”.

This initiative made Francis I the ruler of Europe, the richest in jewellery. Subsequently, the collection continued to grow, especially during the reign of Louis XIV and Napoleon Bonaparte.

Generally speaking, successive rulers have had the jewels dismantled and reassembled over and over again, to bring them up to date. The jewels have therefore not survived the centuries in their original frames since Francis I. But at the end of the 19th century – before being sold off at an auction – the jewels of France had no equivalent in terms of age, diversity and quality of craftsmanship in Europe.

To return to François I, he was one of the first kings to understand that the artistic influence of a country could contribute to give it an image of power and he therefore made many gifts and thus contributed to the notoriety of French know-how in Europe. The jewellery offered as a diplomatic gift by Francis I was copied by craftsmen from other countries. On the other hand, jewellers and engravers published catalogues with the drawings of their creations, which were distributed throughout Europe and inspired everyone.

Emergence of large houses of jewellery

In the Middle Ages, trades were organized into corporations. They were mandatory associations, in which all legal, social or technical issues were regulated. Since Henry IV, the right to practice the profession had been granted by the king.

The abolition of corporations during the revolution in 1791 “liberalized” the trade and gave more importance to jewellers who already had a name.

Etienne Nitot, for example, installed since 1780, made the tiaras for Empress Marie-Louise and the tiara offered to Pope Pius in 1804. He is the founder of CHAUMET.

With colonization and industrialization, the splendour returned to France. The bourgeoisie became richer and more important than the aristocracy. Paris is regaining its international reputation. The universal exhibitions in Paris in 1855 and 1867 attracted a foreign clientele who, from 1898, often stayed at the Ritz, place Vendôme. Jewellers sought the proximity of millionaire industrialists and gradually left the Palais Royal to settle in Place Vendôme, which became the centre of high jewellery.

Louis-François CARTIER was established in 1847. He introduced the “garland” style and the use of platinum from 1900 onwards. Until then, this metal was reserved for costume jewellery.

Frédéric BOUCHERON settled in 1858. It was in the 1910s that Boucheron experimented with new processes: the combination of wood and ivory on gold and cloisonné enamel for example.

In 1906, it was around Van Cleef and Arpels (VCA) to join the circle of great houses.  The invention of the mysterious seam contributes to the house’s fame.

From the 1990s onwards, fashion designers became involved in jewellery and profoundly changed the way it works, but this is another story…….

This post is also available in: GermanFrench