Gucci – Top brass: the allure of bold costume jewellery
Delicacy, modesty and subtlety are seemingly done-for when it comes to jewellery. The standout pieces of the spring/summer 2021 collections are, in no particular order, a hammered-brass pair of door-knocker lion brooches at Gucci; enormous rhinestone earrings at Dolce & Gabbana; four-inch-long pop-art strawberries as earrings chez Saint Laurent; a not-so-miniature gold Chanel handbag worn as a necklace; and a set of saucer-sized enamelled Schiaparelli sunglasses with googly eyes. These bijoux are big, they’re bold, they’re brass — and brassy — and they’re absolutely impossible to miss.
“It is huge for us,” says Daniel Roseberry, creative director of Schiaparelli, unironically. Schiaparelli was the Paris couture house responsible for Lady Gaga’s look at the January inauguration of President Joe Biden — a neat navy cashmere jacket and billowing skirt in red silk faille. Her clothes were great, but it was the brass brooch of a near life-size dove of peace — weighty, both literally and symbolically — that stole the show.
It referenced a whole plethora of antecedents: the house’s founder, Elsa Schiaparelli, created outré, surrealist jewellery with artists Jean Cocteau and Salvador Dalí in the 1930s and 1940s, including bejewelled eyes and brooches shaped like mouths with pearl teeth.
Schiaparelli’s work in turn influenced Yves Saint Laurent, whose 1980s jewellery included doves in homage to Georges Braque. In the 1960s, he collaborated with the French artist Claude Lalanne; those originals have been reinterpreted for the modern times by Saint Laurent’s current creative director, Anthony Vaccarello, who included original Lalanne pieces in his spring/summer 2021 digital show.
Lalanne’s work has proved inspiring to other designers too: the 1969 metal casts of fingertips, worn like rings, find contemporary echoes in Roseberry’s Schiaparelli collection, where they are joined by metal ears, enamelled, pearl-set teeth and noses with dangling beaded rings. Beyoncé wore giant Schiaparelli earrings with pearl-set teeth to the Grammys in March; small versions of them have since sold out on the brand’s website.
Gucci’s Alessandro Michele has been offering gargantuan jewels for a few years. But his style is singular and idiosyncratic — he wears multiple knuckle-duster rings himself, and often festoons his neck with chains and pendants. His jewellery designs are a reflection of his personal predilections — a bit talismanic, a bit renaissance, reflective of Rome, where he was born and where Gucci is based.
And, of course, bold jewellery is one of the leitmotifs of Chanel, the house credited with bringing ersatz jewels to fashionability for the first time in the 1920s via Gabrielle Chanel’s famous fake pearls. In the 1950s, Chanel created her own riffs on Byzantine finery, with crosses, necklaces and belts in brass and glass designed by the young jeweller Robert Goossens (Chanel today owns his atelier).
But intuition tells you that this stuff should feel wrong. Regardless of references to Borgias and Sforzas, to avant-garde artists or couture’s storied past, these jewels scream the greed-is-good, more-is-more mentality of the 1980s. Back then, soaring executive pay and the deregulation of financial markets heralded a clutch of modern-day Marie Antoinettes in puffed-out ball gowns and ultra-extravagant bijoux.
The era called for big statements: Christian Lacroix created dangling, doolally jewellery of baroque golf-ball pearls to stand up next to his taffeta puffballs; Saint Laurent reimagined Van Gogh masterpieces as embroidered evening jackets. Karl Lagerfeld spectacularly revived Chanel with jewellery taking pole position — he blew the scale of the house’s pearls way up, jangling them against gilt perfume bottles, double Cs, cabochons like boiled sweets and jumbo chains reminiscent of rap stars. Every other designer followed suit: hammered hunks of brass and coloured glass weighed down the lobes of supermodels well into the early 1990s. Then this junk jewellery — like those junk bonds — seemingly vanished. You haven’t been able to give the stuff away.
Granted, its popularity experienced an uptick a few years back — Jodie Comer’s Villanelle in Killing Eve wore a pair of huge vintage Lacroix chandelier earrings in Season 2, and jewellery of that ilk has been doing healthy business on specialist sites such as 1stDibs.com. But in the past six months, demand has rocketed.
In January, Christie’s auctioned Chanel costume jewellery owned by Susan Gutfreund, wife of the late John Gutfreund, former chief executive of Salomon Brothers and Businessweek’s “King of Wall Street” in the 1980s. A close friend of Karl Lagerfeld, Gutfreund owned some extraordinary pieces — one-offs made for fashion shows, many never commercially produced. They were enormous. One brooch, shaped as a pair of lovebirds on a branch, was almost 18cm long. The hammer came down at $24,000, well exceeding estimates. “The [overall] low estimate was just over $100,000 and the sale ended up bringing $350,000,” says Claibourne Poindexter, associate vice-president of Christie’s New York jewellery department, who oversaw the sale.
The jewels are older than many of their new owners. “I can’t tell you how many clients we had in the sale in their twenties,” he says. “There were so many new buyers to Christie’s, but we had jewellery collectors who were bidding, we had couture collectors who were bidding. And the people that were bidding big prices, they were millennials.” The prices the Gutfreund pieces reached were exceptional, especially for — essentially — artful bits of base metal and glass. “$24,000 for a gilt metal brooch when I sell diamond brooches for $5,000 in our regular online jewellery sales,” says Poindexter, slightly incredulously. “I think that there is this moment where people say it’s much like a painting: the paint is worth nothing, the canvas is worth nothing, it’s what the artist does with the paint on the canvas that makes it valuable.”
That sense of handiwork has always given such jewellery pieces a special value: it is akin to haute couture, allied to art. And their current popularity is perhaps a reaction to mass manufacturing; perfection is a reflection of industrial processes and imperfection now a mark of luxury.
In this online era, they’re also ideal for making an impact on Zoom or Instagram. “It’s fashion that screams, not whispers,” says Schiaparelli’s Roseberry. Sometimes, they look little like emojis (Schiap’s weird tooth-and-pearl combo resembles the aubergine one). As with Lacroix and Lagerfeld in the 1980s, there’s a lightheartedness to these pieces, a sense of frivolity and fun. God knows, we all need that.
What is it that makes the gewgaws of Tom Wolfe’s 1980s “social X-rays” resonate both with the times and a new generation? It isn’t just the fun factor. Tasteful, undersized jewellery — thin gold bangles, slim rings, architectural ear cuffs — has prevailed for a decade, and these blingy pieces prove an antidote. They’re a maximalist palate cleanser that looks good in a selfie.
A heavy helping of nostalgia is also involved. Young consumers are craving a return to normalcy, when they can meet to socialise and dress to show off. It’s an idea infiltrating fashion across the board: the logo boom is big with younger consumers, harking back to the flashiness of the 1980s and the carefree days of the early noughties. And amid a pandemic and a global recession, shoppers are perhaps gravitating towards overt rather than covert signifiers of wealth. We want to look rich, perhaps richer than we actually are. Or as rich as we want to become.
The model in the Schiaparelli Haute Couture pictures is Rouguy. Make-up by Isabelle Kryla. The photographer is Matthieu Delbreuve of Seven Six
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Gucci – Top brass: the allure of bold costume jewellery