A Thousand Flights of Fancy

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The Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris conjures a trove of treasures to fulfill the wildest wishes of collectors around the world. 

The catalog of riches reads like an inventory of the contents of Aladdin’s cave in One Thousand and One Nights: a 10-carat scarlet-red Burmese ruby; a carved sky-blue Ceylon sapphire; an exquisite natural pearl as large as a grape that once belonged to Queen Mary of the United Kingdom, the wife of King George V; and hundreds of other rare jewels. These items, however, are not part of a tale told by Scheherazade. Rather, they offer a preview of the wonders to be showcased at the Biennale des Antiquaires, the biennial exhibition (held this year from September 11 through 21) at which 15 of the world’s most important jewelers will assemble their most extravagant creations beneath the glass and iron-fretwork ceiling of the Grand Palais in Paris.  

“There is a kind of excitement at the show that only exists at the Biennale,” says Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s director of image, style, and heritage. “People know they will leave with a memorable experience and see something unforgettable from one booth to the next.” 

Though the atmosphere of the gathering is noticeably festive, serious  buying negotiations take place throughout the week, fueled by the private showings (even just of drawings) with which some of the attending brands entice key clients as early as July. “The rule of such an event is that the first [person] to say yes will get the piece,” says Rainero, whose top clients from around the world turn out for the Biennale. 

Because many of the designs conceived for the exhibit express themes drawn from folklore, mythology, poetry, and art, an air of fantasy pervades the cavernous space. “The Biennale is a way to make people dream,” says Jean-Bernard Forot, head of jewelry for Piaget. “It’s an opportunity to show a brand’s creativity, expertise, and know-how—and a way to share our patrimony and history with a wide range of clients.” 

This year’s program features many museum-worthy treasures, including Cartier’s Royal Pearl, which Queen Mary bequeathed to Princess Mary; Piaget’s 20-carat engraved ruby and 20.2-carat cushion-cut sapphire; and Siegelson’s 23-carat cushion-cut Golconda diamond.

The push to impress collectors, however, does not end with the display of imposing stones: The participants combine their acumen at locating important gems with artistic vision and breathtaking skill. Musa, Bulgari’s series of 26 pieces, for instance, pays homage to the Muses, the goddesses of creative inspiration in ancient Greece. The Roman jeweler enhances this fanciful motif by arranging the smooth, polished takhti-cut gemstones that were popular in the Mughal Empire in rainbow arrays of color on large-scale necklaces and bracelets. Van Cleef & Arpels’s collection embraces whimsy, drawing on the French fairy tale “Peau d’Âne,” first published in 1694, as the theme for its gemstone-encrusted fairy clips. Similarly, Boucheron’s 120-piece collection, called Rêves d’Ailleurs (Dreams of Elsewhere), celebrates the cultures of Persia, Japan, China, India, and Russia through its colorful designs. 

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Photo by Michael Oldford
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