On The Rocks Magazine

02.11.2017

Buried Treasure

People

Ring in yellow gold and chalcedony with three pearls by Belperron. Lilac metallic ruffle denim sleeves by Area.

Her audacious, pioneering designs were beloved of
Lauren Bacall, Princess Grace and Wallis Simpson,
yet intensely private jeweller Suzanne Belperron
has remained an insider secret, until now

How often do designers, working in any medium create a new aesthetic? Most commonly they do not, as ideas and motifs are tweaked in a continual cycle of re-invention. Some do, like Matisse, Frank Lloyd Wright or Christian Dior, and quite rightly their achievements are lauded and celebrated, while often much imitated. How extraordinary then that the body of work by designer Suzanne Belperron, who dominated the 20th-century jewellery landscape for over five decades, and arguably contributed to the kick starting of Art Deco within the decorative arts, is only just receiving her rightful appraisal by a global audience. Known to very few bar discerning jewellery cognoscenti, and certainly far from being a household name, since the 1980s her pieces have surfaced at auctions or with dealers, to be snapped up by those willing to take a gamble. For Belperron never signed her pieces – “My style is my signature”, she would say. It is only now, and down to a Herculean effort by father and son team Ward and Nico Landrigan (Ward re-launched the Verdura brand in the 1980s) that the House of Belperron is slowly and diligently being lifted from its niche obscurity.

Born Suzanne Vuillerme on 26 September, 1900 in the small town of Saint-Claude in the Jura mountains of Eastern France, Suzanne’s upbringing was humble. Her father was a baker, but later relocated the family to the larger town of Besançon after gaining new employment at a gasworks. A history of meticulous craftsmanship dominated that area of France – her father’s forbears were lapidaries, on her mother’s side were three watchmakers – but the ever-increasing dominance of the Swiss watch industry, and the devastating impact of the first world war on skilled craftsmen and designers meant new talent and a new workforce were desperately needed.

Suzanne enrolled at the École Municipales de Musique et des Beaux-Arts in Besançon on a jewellery, metalwork and objets d’art design course. A collection of drawings from her student days have survived, and they already show flashes of her later brilliance. Volume, repetitive motifs like the fish-scale pattern and an uncompromising boldness impressed her tutor, while she immersed herself in various external influences including visits to local factories, galleries, ateliers, gardens and the Besançon museum with its impressive collection of Egyptian art.

By early 1919 Suzanne had built up a small portfolio of designs and set off for Paris at the age of 18. Amazingly, her talent was spotted by Boivin, an established Parisian jewellery house, who counted Degas, Josephine Baker and Claudette Colbert among their clients. Widower of the founder René Boivin, wife Jeanne saw the potential in Suzanne and a synergy that matched the eclectic taste of her company (the Boivin salon was full of antiquities collected by René).

Suzanne married Jean Belperron in 1924 and settled down to a 13-year career at Boivin where she was given the creative freedom to develop her distinctive style. An overriding boldness pervaded her work: swirls of metal formed cuffs, carved chunks of rock crystal like transparent pyramids formed bracelets, a Roof ring with two juxtaposed diamonds set on an angle formed the perfect play of balance and line, and her Bibendum ring with concentric rings of metal that supported a cabochon stone were all instant hits.

“She was an artist, in the true sense
of the word. She just happened
to choose jewellery as her medium”

Impressively, at no stage did Suzanne seem influenced or pressured to conform to the concurrent aesthetics of the time, played out by the Houses of Place Vendôme, with their last gasps of Art Nouveau and the Belle Époque. It’s easy to forget that although houses like Cartier were exploring a new, more graphic aesthetic, including black onyx, the Tutti-Frutti style and less formal compositions, their offerings, like Van Cleef’s and Boucheron’s, were still anchored to a delicate feminine sensibility. A change was palpable but conservatism abounded. Perfection of form and raw material was key to the old guard, all controlled by a male design fraternity. Suzanne’s work during this period, and in the decades ahead, was extraordinarily masculine – in attitude and execution. A pair of casque or helmet cuffs and a brooch in yellow gold, silver and citrines created during this period are provocative, even by today’s standards. Angular, and beautifully aggressive, they were designed to be worn adorning each wrist, as if going into battle: a be-jewelled statement of power. Any woman wearing them in 1920s Paris would be far from a shrinking violet. This was adornment that strived for a change in perception, both in superficial fashion terms but also as a reflection of changing times. Her undiluted vision of form, mass, line and repetition, while all key components of the emerging Art Deco scene, stood out for being more pronounced and daring for the time, made all the more extraordinary by her youth, gender and seemingly unassuming lifestyle.

In 1932 Suzanne was poached by Bernard Herz, a diamond and pearl dealer. It’s thought her acceptance of his offer (other better-known houses were also courting her) was due to a desire for recognition; shortly afterwards she became B Herz’s named designer. In the new role her creativity continued to blossom, with even greater and bolder expressions, working with materials such as smoky quartz, agate, citrine and chalcedony. Suzanne’s eye was invariably drawn to stones that held her interest over and above their inherent value; inclusions were embraced, and a milky iridescence or soft sparkle was favoured above the brilliant clarity of a perfect diamond. A more organic style began to emerge: simplified flowers, leaves and ferns, with forms invariably carved from single pieces of quartz or rock crystal, their edges soft and voluptuous and pin-pricked with gems.

Before long the worlds of fashion and high society were embracing her, clipping her brooches to their couture, or adorning their wrists and fingers with her voluminous creations. Elsa Schiaparelli, Daisy Fellowes, Dorothy Paley, Countess Mona von Bismarck and Diana Vreeland were all clients, while her jewels appeared regularly in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Royal patronage followed soon afterwards with Edward VIII lavishing Belperron gems on Wallis Simpson, including a particularly spectacular blue chalcedony suite designed in 1937.

The advent of the second world war, and the resulting shortage of precious materials forced a new style, with finer proportions, gold wire and negative space coming to the fore. But the war was to have profound and more personal consequences too. By this time, Suzanne had begun an affair with Bernard, and he signed B Herz over to her, knowing in its current guise (with its Jewish name) the Nazis would confiscate the company. Bernard’s son Jean joined the army, and was captured and held as a prisoner of war; Bernard, having evaded capture once, was finally arrested by the Nazis and transported to Auschwitz, where he was executed. In 1945, when Jean returned to Paris, Suzanne immediately offered the business back to him. In turn, he made her an equal partner and Jean Herz-Suzanne Belperron SARL was born.

Postwar, Hollywood began to provide new clients – Frank Sinatra and Lauren Bacall were both patrons, as was Princess Grace of Monaco. Cabochons, a tumbling softness, pops of colour and an overall simplicity marked this period of her work, although the simplest gems often required hours of expert workshop know-how. A back room of Paris’s best cutters, setters and polishers worked tirelessly to translate her designs into reality, with invisible settings, hidden clasps, seemingly random set stones and ‘virgin’ 22 carat gold all perfected and executed to her exacting standards. Suzanne was awarded the Knight of the Legion of Honour in 1963 by the French government, and by 1974, just shy of 30 years since the end of the second world war, she was ready to retire. She died nine years later in 1983.

“One of her earrings has seven hoops
that look like seven piercings. Imagine
that at the opera in the 1930s!”

It is conceivable that Suzanne’s back catalogue and design achievements could have gradually faded from view. With her unsigned jewels, attribution would always prove disputable, making value and re-sale problematic. But one jewellery insider, Ward Landrigan, had trained his expert eye on Belperron as early as 1964, when he was running Sotheby’s jewellery department. For years misinformation abounded (Ward described her as “a mystery lady”), all compounded by the 1987 sale of the Duchess of Windsor’s private jewellery collection, when five pieces were attributed to her, with suspicions that many more (in fact 16) were from her hand. “I was in Basel in 1989 when I received a call from a gentleman. ‘I have something to show you’ he said, and there, spread around his hotel room were 25 original drawings by Belperron. Was I interested? Yes, very!” says Ward, discussing his near 30-year journey to this point. A collaboration in 1991 saw 225 pieces re-made from her designs, sold by Ward through Verdura, and by 1999 he had ownership of the brand and rights. Nico, Ward’s son, remembers seeing the Belperron archive of designs for the first time. “I was 11 years old, so not exactly interested in jewellery, but even then I remember seeing them as paintings and compositions, not just as jewellery drawings,” he says. During a heart-to-heart between father and son whilst on a fishing trip a week after 9/11, Nico suggested he join his father’s business. “But that idea circled in on Belperron,” Nico says. “I made Dad promise I could have it. I loved the idea of re-starting something that was asleep.” 

With an initial offering of only 50 jewels (all signed to distinguish them from those manufactured in Suzanne’s lifetime), the task of choosing which were to be made from the vast archive would seem a daunting one. “The pieces I chose [to re-make] just wouldn’t be quiet, they wouldn’t leave me alone,” says Nico. “And we wanted to represent many of her important phases and periods, from the influences of Congolese tribal jewellery, to East Asian Sakura, to the cherry blossom motif, Chinese art, her Cambodian cuff, to pieces inspired by Brutalist architecture. When you see the scope and breadth of her work it’s easy to see she was at the forefront of Art Deco, even foreshadowing it. And yet when she tired of it she moved on. Dad and I both believe she was an artist, in the true sense of the word. She just happened to choose jewellery as her medium.”

The Belperron salon opened in New York at the end of 2015 to coincide with the launch of their first Belperron collection. Designed to evoke a 1930s apartment, the interior mimics details of an original Herz-Belperron jewellery box with replicated and specially commissioned furniture. Vintage original pieces sit side by side with the new collection. “You wear Belperron not to impress but to look good,” says Nico. “These are jewels to wear during the day, rather than the rigid formality of wearing just in the evening. Don’t forget how shocking her jewellery could be at the time. There was nothing like this on Place Vendôme. One of her earrings climbs up the ear with seven hoops that look like seven piercings. Imagine that at the opera in the 1930s!” He continues: “She was the first female master jeweller and her reputation will only grow. It’s been a 41-year hiatus, and decades of work for us to reach this point. But look at what we’re working with – the jewels speak for themselves.”

This article originally appeared in Issue III of On The Rocks. 

Model

Sabina at Elite NYC

Hair

Shingo Shibata at The Wall Group

Make-up

Kanako Takase at Streeters

Manicure

Holly Falcone at Kate Ryan

Photography Assistants

Remi Lamande, Evan Thomas Schafer

Styling Assistant

Hanna Corrie

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