When Chanel commissioned an elaborately constructed art installation to mark this summer’s Paris premiere of Éléments Célestes—the latest additions to its high-jewelry Collection Privée—it was an unusual way to make the introduction, but it was not unprecedented for the jewelry house. This unconventional merging of art, diamonds, and fashion parallels the launch of Coco Chanel’s first precious jewels more than 70 years ago.
In 1932, the nadir of the Great Depression, the provocative fashion designer unveiled with great fanfare in her Paris apartment a groundbreaking diamond jewelry collection. To present such extravagant pieces at the time was a daring move; nevertheless, Chanel debuted her creations with characteristic panache. The display featured the diamond-encrusted comets, moons, and stars draped on wax busts placed atop black marble columns. The room’s strategically dim lighting emphasized the radiance and sparkle of the stones.
With its sheer simplicity, lightness, and flexibility, the collection’s jewelry presented a sharp contrast to the era’s prevailing classical designs and astonished members of the fashion media. “Through the fire of diamonds, Chanel wanted to translate her dazzling vision of the stars, the constellations, the comets, the night sky, and bring it to the Champs-Elysées,” wrote art historian Jean Leymarie at the time. In another bold move, Chanel charged a fee to view the exhibition—and donated the proceeds to charities that encouraged women to breast-feed their babies.
The chaos of the era, however, quickly eclipsed Coco Chanel’s rising star in fine jewelry, as Europe’s profound political and social issues and the impending war overshadowed extravagant fashion indulgences. In the ensuing decades, Chanel returned to producing costume jewelry designed around her favorite motifs: camellias, Byzantine symbols, and ribbons (which her namesake house continues to produce to this day). More than 70 years passed before the house of Chanel revisited high jewelry, returning to its archives and the original 1932 collection specifically to draw inspiration for 2003’s Collection Privée, an assemblage of one-of-a-kind high-jewelry pieces that the brand exhibits throughout the world. Last year and again this year, Chanel expanded the collection with new designs in selected themes.
Elements Célestes evokes Coco Chanel’s original fine jewelry pieces with starkly modern designs that also pay homage to the designer’s fascination with the cosmos. The pieces portray stars, moons, planets, and comets in geometric forms rendered in 18-karat white gold that has been embellished with white and black diamonds, South Sea pearls, sapphires, and raw crystal.
To showcase these avant-garde pieces, French contemporary artist Xavier Veilhan created a striking and graphic art installation that premiered in Paris before traveling to Tokyo and, this October, Manhattan. Veilhan—whose diverse body of work includes sculpture, film, and photography—is best known for his integration of various media, including digital images and manipulated light play. Among his most notable projects is Le Grand Mobile, an installation that was displayed at the Pompidou Center at the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris. Commissioning Veilhan to design an art exhibit for the collection is in keeping with Coco Chanel’s practice of working with the contemporary artists of her day. Cocteau, Stravinsky, and Diaghilev were among her collaborators. (She designed the costumes for Cocteau’s adaptation of Sophocles’ play Antigone, among other projects.)
Much of Veilhan’s Chanel exhibition plays with the concept of proportion, creating an Alice-in-Wonderland-like fantasyland by juxtaposing objects of varying scales: A large chair, for instance, sits next to a tiny window. Still photography, light fixtures, and film also are among the media that Veilhan employs in the installation, which he spent nearly a year developing. He showcases the jewelry by making the pieces focal points of large, geometric, intricately engineered scenes. In one composition, black discs float atop what appears to be a black air-hockey game table, and each of the discs holds sparkling jewelry. Walls constructed of black and white light cubes feature other pieces, and on a stand at the exhibit’s entrance sits a display that comprises 10 luminescent sheets, each of which depicts X-ray photos of the jewelry.
“I started the creative process by visiting Mlle. Chanel’s apartment,” says Veilhan, who made note of her preference for simple black and white color schemes and imagery. He also enlisted composer Sebastien Tellier, photographer Ola Rindal, and graphic artists Andreas and Fredrika to contribute to the project.
Like the installation, the jewelry concepts represented in Éléments Célestes are refreshing and inventive. The pieces not only move in interesting and surprising ways, but they also transform for multiple uses, as did some of Chanel’s original designs. One of the new rings features a white gold-and-diamond web that spins around a center diamond, and a necklace converts into a bracelet while its pendant can also be worn as a brooch. The collection also explores innovative designs exemplified by a pendant with a giant pearl suspended inside a delicate, moving white gold cage set with diamonds. Another highlight is the Mandala bracelet composed of circular shapes that can contract and expand. The piece is made of 18-karat white gold and 2,249 individually set diamonds totaling nearly 40 carats.
“I’m struck by the high level of technique revealed in each object,” says Veilhan, who visited Chanel’s Parisian jewelry ateliers to observe the jewelry being crafted and assembled. “I’m also fascinated by the flexibility and almost organic feeling in these metal designs, and the light emitted from the diamonds.”
The brilliance of diamonds was the impetus for Chanel’s original fine jewelry collection. At a time when she produced only costume jewelry, Coco Chanel was approached by a group of influential diamond merchants seeking to spark interest in the precious stones. Upon hearing their revolutionary idea of creating fashionable diamond jewelry to resurrect the gems, she immediately responded. As Chanel developed an appreciation for the authenticity and brilliance of the stones, she demanded only the best diamonds for her pieces, which evoked a lesser-known romantic aspect of her personality. The couturier’s clothing was chic yet decidedly simple, but in her fine jewelry designs she seemed to indulge her creative fantasies. With Éléments Célestes, Collection Privée continues to draw on the dreamier side of the visionary designer who had stars in her eyes.
Chanel Fine Jewelry