It’s no secret – especially for those of you who have met me – that I absolutely love all things French.
Even going back to my childhood in France, I was always enchanted by the nostalgic glamour and elegance of so many things – especially French jewellery – that have such an illustrious history, rich with tales of nobility, wealth and mystery. It definitely has had a big influence on my own jewellery designs.
So today I thought it would be fun to hop aboard some bicycles, baskets of baguettes and cheese at the ready, and take a short tour through the beguiling history of les bijoux français…
French Jewellery in the 19th Century
Did you know that French jewellery has been in existence for over a thousand years? In fact, during medieval times, wearing jewellery in French society was a mark of status, while farmers and commoners were forbidden from using certain pieces themselves for the same purpose.
It wasn’t until the 19th Century when Napoleon, as emperor of the new French Empire, lifted such bans and soon enough displays of wealth and finery was on show from all citizens. And you thought rappers invented the concept of bling?!
Lifting the ban also helped to give the jewellery industry in France a boost once commoners were also allowed to be consumers.
New trends in French jewellery also began during this time too. The new French imperial family got in on the act by having the former French royal family’s jewels reset in gorgeous neo-classical style.
Soon, the rest of Europe followed suit, because even going back to medieval times, many looked to the French as true innovators of class and style. (And they still do!).
Parures and Cameos
Parures were a matching suite of precious gems that might include a necklace, comb, tiara, diadem, bandeau, pair of bracelets, pins, rings, drop earrings or cluster stud earrings, and possibly a belt clasp. Both Josephine and Napoleon’s second wife had sets of Parures to die for!
Cameos, meanwhile, also caught on as a trend after people got a glimpse of them in Napoleon’s coronation crown. They were usually carved out of hardstone, conch shells or set pieces of Wedgwood porcelain.
Art Nouveau, which began in the 1890s, was another French led movement.
The jewellery of this period showcased the female form, following the curves of long limbed ethereal beauties that sometimes turned into birds and flowers. Famed master goldsmith, Rene Lalique, produced some beautiful pieces during this time.
However, Art Nouveau began to lose some of it’s mojo when the pieces became mass-produced. As so often happens in life, once the individuality and rarity disappears, so does the allure. But not always.
In the 1920s, Lalique started mass-producing gorgeous glass jewellery – known as fake jewellery, costume jewellery or cocktail jewellery – that allowed everyday Parisians to share in the glamour of the period. And it was all the rage.
One of the reasons for its popularity was the influence of both Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli. They made it acceptable, fun and imaginative by encouraging their clients to mix costume jewellery with genuine pieces, and often sported fabulous fakes of their own.
At the same time Art Deco strutted on the scene, and was supposed to represent the modern and functional. It was intended to be a rebuff of all things decadent and indulgent (how very un-French!) and was built on a philosophy of ‘no barriers between artists and craftsmen.’
By the end of World War I, however, society’s values and attitudes began to shift and so did the trends of French jewellery, which began to adopt more subdued and demure designs in its creations.
Interestingly, Art Deco jewellery has come back into vogue. Perhaps it’s a rebellion against our 21st century culture of excess.
So, are enjoying our little tour as much as I am? Feel free to stop in a field for some bread, cheese, and perhaps even a drop of vin de Bordeaux!
Or cycle straight into part two where I’ll tell you about modern French jewellery, prices and two very famous jewellery pieces!
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