Carnivorous plants, Disney cartoons, hallucinogenic drugs—the inspirations behind Victoire de Castellane’s jewelry designs are about as unconventional as it gets. But for more than a decade as the creative director of Dior Fine Jewelry, de Castellane has won acclaim for the French fashion house with mind-blowing combinations of major gems, vivid colors, and visionary, if somewhat unsettling, designs.
De Castellane herself is almost as varied and surprising. The eccentric Parisian designer descended from aristocracy and is known for a signature personal style of severe bangs, incredible high heels, and a coquettish grin. She is drawn to bold gemstones such as Paraíba tourmalines, Ethiopian opals, and diamonds, and likes to mix them up with lacquered gold in Technicolor shades of fuchsia and acid green. In the conservative, competitive world of fine jewelry, her idiosyncratic style has breathed life into the Dior brand and lifted it alongside established houses like Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels at the Biennale des Antiquaires, the biennial Parisian exhibition that brings together premier art dealers and jewelers.
De Castellane’s latest high-jewelry collection, Le Bal des Roses, was unveiled in the designer’s own secret garden, created outside the Musée Rodin during the July haute couture shows in Paris. The collection is another trip of the imagination: Each of the 12 voluptuous blossoms is meant to personify a woman wearing a couture ball gown, from innocent pink to femme-fatale purple. The rose petals are carved from gemstones and set with stones to reflect couturier elements like soft satin or refined embroidery. One necklace is composed of six large rubellite rose petals hand-carved by a glyptician, a specialist in the art of sculpting gemstones. The petals are set with hundreds of tiny spinels and rubies, secured without any metal to create the illusion of subtly glistening dew on a flower.
De Castellane’s limited-edition collections tend to sell out quickly. And so, to satisfy Dior’s loyal followers, the house quietly offers the opportunity to work directly with de Castellane to create bespoke jewelry. "I love being commissioned to create individual pieces for clients," de Castellane says, "which convey their personal stories or fantasies." The process takes up to a year and a half, beginning with a private meeting with de Castellane or a member of her design team, to share the fantasy in mind—be it a favorite gemstone, a passion for horses, or a fabulous flower. The designers then explore aesthetic references and ideas, de Castellane sketches a proposal, and it is presented for review and approval. The pieces are made in one of Dior’s 15 workshops in Paris, each a small atelier specializing in an artisanal craft such as lacquer finishing or stone carving. Finally, the client is invited to Paris for the presentation of the piece.
Their visions may be personal, but clients are drawn to Dior for de Castellane’s unfettered, imaginative style. One woman wanted a classically set blue-diamond ring remade into a more fashionable design. In a nod to Dior’s couturier roots, de Castellane surrounded the stone with a fluid bow of pavé diamonds and white gold. Another client requested floral jewelry suites for each of his five daughters. De Castellane met with the family and together they selected the particular flower, stones, and settings that reflect each of the women’s personalities: A jasmine suite was made in rubies; a lily of the valley was created in emeralds and white diamonds; and cherry-blossom jewelry was made in pink sapphires and coral.
In her collections for Dior, de Castellane often weaves a story around the pieces, complete with narrative twists and sequels. In 2007 she presented a showstopping, man-eating-plant line called Belladone Island, at the Musée de l’Orangerie. After these designs made headlines, she created what she called the babies of Belladone Island—the Milly Carnivora collection—featuring a second generation of jeweled and enameled carnivorous plants. Milly Carnivora was presented at Dior Fine Jewelry’s first exhibition at the Biennale des Antiquaires, in September 2008, in a tableau representing a maternity ward, each piece in a bassinet with stark white lights and walls—a real shocker amid the serious, high-profile art and antiques dealers. De Castellane is now at work on her next Biennale collection, which debuts next September and will no doubt transform gold and gemstones into something beyond imagination.
Dior Fine Jewelry, 212.931.2950, www.dior.com