On The Rocks Magazine

07.03.2018

Wild At Heart

People

Crowned eagle ring in petrified wood, black, white and brown diamonds with white and yellow gold, eyes in aventurine by Harumi Klossowska de Rola. Blazer by Dusan; Salopette by Véronique Leroy; Sandals by Narciso Rodriguez.

Her magical jewelled menageries – untamed
and a little deadly – are an extension of Harumi
Klossowska de Rola’s life less ordinary. We reprint
Hannah Lack’s fantastic profile of the gifted
designer from Issue III of On The Rocks.

One of Harumi Klossowska de Rola’s earliest memories is foraging her garden for stones and miniscule pieces of glass to create patterns, tiny blue-and-green mosaics which she would present to her father as gifts. That childhood garden was the vast, landscaped grounds of the Villa Medici in Rome, a sumptuous Renaissance palace filled with ancient frescoes, sculptures and Medici skulduggery – and her father was Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, better known as Balthus, the mysterious Polish-French painter whose depictions of languid adolescent girls hang in the world’s most illustrious collections, from the Rothschild’s to the Met. Italian contessas, cardinals and dolce vita-Rome – Fellini, Visconti, Sophia Loren – climbed the Spanish steps to pay homage to the distinguished artist, then director of the Académie Française, but Balthus’ daughter was less interested in the city’s glittering high society than the colours and shapes around her. A photograph taken at the time shows her (pink pyjamas, page-boy haircut, stuffed rabbit) in a spectacular Turkish-styled room situated in one of the Villa’s towers, a kaleidoscope of Moorish tiles spreading across walls, floor and ceiling. “It was my bedroom,” the now 42-year-old says, “and what I remember most is the colours, and the way the Italian light fell on the buildings.” That bedroom, with Rome unfolding beneath its windows, inspired her first jewellery collection using precious stones and silk, and her work since has remained steeped in childlike wonder. Her growing bestiary of jewelled animals are so tactile they’re luminous with life, with a fairytale quality that seems weaved through her family’s history like golden thread. 

We meet on a pale Paris day during the city’s couture collections, in a light-flooded apartment in the tenth arrondissement – Harumi’s base when she visits from her home
in Switzerland. Still life paintings by both Balthus and her mother, Japanese-born artist Countess Setsuko Klossowska de Rola, hang on the walls (the pair were married in 1967, the Countess 34 years his junior), while in the study, keepsakes and curiosities jostle for space – animal skulls with bones as delicate as lace, framed butterflies and scorpions, sketches of sea dragons and serpents. The day before at Valentino, those serpents were rendered in gold, exquisite headpieces that rippled across models’ foreheads as they floated down the runway in light-as-air dresses that didn’t hang so much as hover around their bodies like fog. The jewellery designer’s collaboration with Valentino for the most rarefied schedule on the fashion calendar – over 800 hours of work can go into each garment, with every stitch, button and pearl hand-sewn by accomplished petite mains – is perfectly aligned with Harumi’s own unique creations, mini-sculptures with distinct personalities: an ebony jaguar’s head ring with piercing emerald eyes, tiny mammoth-ivory teeth, and a slither-of-gold tongue; diamond and gold Manta Ray earrings so fluid they appear to gently undulate in some unseen current; a rattlesnake pendant made of dalbergia wood, a ball of gold tinkling inside its pink-gold tail. 

“It started very early in my childhood,” she says of her fascination for precious stones. “When I was seven, I went with my father to visit his gallerist in Paris, Claude Bernard. He was quite eccentric, he wore big glasses with fake diamonds on them, and he had a whole room full of bright stones in beautiful colour combinations, just at my eye-level. I spent hours around them, imagining all kinds of stories.” But it was another eccentric personality – who smiles mischievously out from a Polaroid pinned above her desk – whose off-kilter, fearless style gave Harumi an early lesson in the power of accessories: Loulou de la Falaise, the walking fashion sketch who intoxicated Yves Saint Laurent
as she flitted between Le Sept in Paris and the souks of Marrakech, was the wife of Harumi’s half-brother, Thadée. (She has another half-brother, flamboyant Rolling Stones accomplice Stanislas, who was busted with Brian Jones in 1967.) “I grew up with Loulou, and she’s part of the reason I’m a jewellery designer,” she nods. “Just being around her – the way she moved and dressed herself, with wrists full of jewellery, bangles, but it was never too much, she was always elegant. She gave me a beautiful Afghan silver and corneline bracelet that I still have.”

De la Falaise would have appreciated the unexpected mixing of minerals, wood, stone and fabric in Harumi’s work – a lion’s head ring in carved myrtlewood with a nose of white gold, or a lioness in smooth buffalo horn, white diamonds ringing its green aventurine eyes. But her use of wood, and more recently petrified wood, is also a nod to the designer’s Japanese roots. She has recently returned from a trip to Kyoto, where her young son marked his fifth birthday with a traditional Samurai ceremony known as Shichi-Go-San (she has two children with husband, photographer Benoit Peverelli): “It was the rainy season, so nobody was there,” she remembers. “We visited many temples and were completely surrounded by wood. In Japan there is this idea of wabi-sabi, about the beauty in subtle things that are used by time. Something irregular like wood – simple, not shiny and perfect – that can be part of its beauty. I love working with it because it’s
a living material, so each piece is completely unique.” 

“There will always be snakes and big
cats,they’re my recurring passions. It’s about
trying to represent the beauty of nature”

Wood surrounds her at home in Switzerland, too: since her family left the Villa Medici when she was four, Harumi has lived for much of her life in the largest chalet in Europe, nestled in a valley near the luxury ski-resort of Gstaad. I first met her there three years ago, over tea and toast one snowbound winter, after catching the panoramic train that winds its way up from Lake Geneva into the Alps. A short walk from Rossinière’s picture-postcard station, once described by Balthus as “like a childhood memory kept intact”, a spiky, thistled iron gate opens onto the chalet’s colossal wooden edifice, elaborately carved with stags, birds and tulips. Once inside, you might be safely ensconced in an ancient oak tree. Originally a hotel (Victor Hugo once stayed), her parents were holidaying there in 1977 when they discovered it was for sale. “It was owned by an English man called Devinish,” said Harumi’s mother, who shares ‘the Grand Chalet’ with her daughter. “We thought he was exactly the person you’d find in Agatha Christie. In the salon, there was a retired English colonel who had been in India, there were Russian ballerinas… if somebody had introduced Monsieur Poirot, we wouldn’t have been surprised.” Still packed with hundreds of books and pairs of skis from former guests, the chalet became a creative salon for a galaxy of artists, intellectuals and Hollywood royalty: from Richard Gere to the Dalai Lama, Henri Cartier Bresson (who photographed a 17-year-old Harumi) and even Madonna, who popped round while skiing and caused a minor paparazzi storm in the usually pin-drop quiet village. “We had a lot of people coming and going, and we still do,” says Harumi, who was fluent in five languages by her teens. “Bowie came in the 90s and did a beautiful interview with my father for Connaissance des Arts.”

If she was inspired by the lively exchange of ideas inside the chalet (“My parents were constantly speaking about colours and images. I think unconsciously, I can still hear those conversations going on between them,” she told one journalist), the spellbinding natural world outside its walls provides Harumi with stimulation of the less cultivated kind. The chalet’s 113 windows eye a vista of rumpled mountains, muffled in snow all winter, exploding with wildflowers in the spring: “I do a lot of hiking up in the mountains,” she says. “From there I have all kinds of inspiration. If you go horseback riding, the horse covers your human smell, so you can approach wild animals quite easily. That’s where it starts in my mind. It’s about trying to represent the beauty of nature.” A dragonfly balancing on the air, a midnight encounter with a fox, the glimpse of an eagle (a pair live in the next village, and once hitched a ride on the mountain train as it chugged through the valley), are little epiphanies she brings back to the chalet where, along with a room for kimonos, a perfume room, a plant room, a room full of Japanese Edo-dolls and a basement ballroom, she has her jewellery studio, situated in Balthus’ old library. Surrounded by the cracking and sighing of the chalet’s wood, amongst pots of coloured pencils and fat tubes of oil paint, she makes her initial sketches. “When I’m drawing I can’t be disturbed at all,” she says. “One interruption and it’s almost like a thread is cut and it’s very hard to come back into it. It’s so much about representing something in your head.” 

“In Japan there’s this idea of wabi-sabi,
about the beauty in subtle things that are
used by time. Something irregular like
wood, something simple that’s not shiny and
perfect – that can be part of its beauty”

That immersive process echoes the compulsive painting ritual of her late father, a kind of daily act of faith. Across the lane from the chalet, his moss-covered studio has been left exactly as it was on the day he died in 2001, down to the last cigarette crushed out in an ashtray. “From morning to late afternoon, it was an everyday, constant rhythm that never stopped,” she says. “If you interrupted him, he would look straight through you. He was in another world. It was a very strange feeling. Years later, my philosophy teacher said, do you remember when your father came back from the studio, he – se frotter les yeux – rubbed his eyes – like he needed to come back to reality? That was the first time I understood that look I’d get from him.”

For Harumi however, the deep-water hours of solitary work are followed by a close process of collaboration with skilled craftsmen in France and Switzerland who bring her dreamlike visions into three-dimensional reality: “I’m very obsessive, so I push them quite a lot!” she says with a laugh. “Sometimes I make models first because I’m bad at explaining things and I get frustrated because it’s not exactly the way I want it.” Her attention to detail – capturing the silky lustre of a black jaguar’s fur with cognac and black diamonds, or the iridescent scales of a snake in mother-of-pearl and tortoiseshell – breathes life into her creations, each with the tiniest irregularities only discernible in an object entirely made by hand.

Four years ago, she found a kindred spirit in luxury Swiss house Chopard, renowned for its menagerie of real and imaginary jewelled animals. Their collaboration has resulted in some opulent flights of fantasy, from a mythical dragon riddled with gems to a venomous-looking Mamba necklace that was two years in the making – its coiling, metre-long body of blackened gold is able to transform into a bracelet, headpiece or belt, and fastens by sinking its fangs into its tail. “There will always be snakes and big cats, they’re my recurring passions,” she says – a taxidermied mountain lion looks ready to pounce from a corner of her studio – “but I’m also now working on how to represent birds.” The designer has a history of feathered friends: she once constructed a “bird room” in the chalet, where canaries flew free; she remembers wild birds passing twigs and food to their tamed comrades through the wires of the window. Another new project has recalled her early days in the Villa Medici, where Balthus once read to his daughter from Alice in Wonderland: she has reinterpreted the Medici floor lamps her father designed by giving them panther’s heads – a signature Harumi twist bringing a little of nature’s tooth and claw from the outside, in.

Hair

Vi Sapyyapy @ Management Artists

Make-Up

Adrien Pinault @ Management Artists

Photography Assistant

Chris Miller

Digital Production Coordinator

Pierre-Etienne Huvenoit

Make-Up Assistant

Manon Sabot

Digital Assistant

Louis Cusy @ Pin Up

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