Chanel’s new high jewellery collection gleans its inspiration from the riches of the Far East
Is anything more evocative than the term “Coromandel screen?” Its overtones of exoticism, history, art and faraway lives, and the intrigue of what those screens might have hidden, make it irresistible. The reality is just as exciting. The Coromandel coast is on the east side of India, but the screens were made in China from the 17th century onwards, using the ancient craft of lacquerwork, which was then unknown in the West, and depicting the landscapes and lifestyles of Imperial China with vivacity and artistry.
Chinese trading ships took them, along with spices, jade and porcelain, to Coromandel from where the merchants of the Dutch and British East India Companies brought them to Europe. They soon attracted collectors, and were so popular that Chinese artists began copying scenes from Western life. Later the screens became sought-after antiquities, and Coco Chanel fell under their spell – she acquired over 30 of them and moved them from one dwelling to another and within each house created enclosed “room sets” that acted as a background to her life, to display everything from her artist friends’ sketches to inspirations for her designs.
The screens’ technique involves applying to wood up to 30 layers of resin-based lacquer, each one smoothed and polished, and then decorated with red lacquer, gold leaf, mother-of-pearl or jade. The high craft and opulence of the work strengthened its appeal to Chanel. Several of her most prized screens are key features in her reconstructed apartment “above the shop” in Paris’ Rue Cambon. So it is small wonder that they have provided inspiration for the new high jewellery collection, simply entitled Coromandel.
Wide-ranging and eclectic, all 59 pieces have references to both Coromandel style and Chanel’s signature symbols. Three themes unite the two: floral, especially the camellia (her favourite symbol and a flower native to China), animals (the creatures illustrated on screen hunting scenes) and mineral – reflecting the rocky landscapes, stylised clouds and precious mineral embellishment of the screens. All pieces reflect Chanel’s love of gems.
The camellia appears in diamonds
with stylised mother-of-pearl clouds, black onyx and yellow gold bamboo on Oriental-inspired geometric pendants
(including flower and fan shapes) that cascade from a pearl necklace. There’s also an amazing cuff with pavé camellias that reverses from black onyx and white diamonds to rose gold with stones in subtle pinks, a wonderful necklace of green tourmaline beads with a camellia pavé
in pink sapphires and white diamonds,
and a tracery of shapes on sparkling necklaces, rings and watches made from flat, diamond pavé sections. The animals are stylised in the Chinese manner – an impressionist turtle brooch in jasper, diamonds and gold with a golden
pearl, two jasper deer on a brooch with diamonds and a green tourmaline pear-drop. Other pieces include stylised birds or fish in diamond pavé, some with tassels of yellow diamond beads.
Equally astonishing are the mineral pieces, which include stylised landscapes of diamond pavé or lacquer mountains and mother-of-pearl clouds on collars, cuffs and rings. There are also openwork cuffs and rings with blackened gold set with black spinels outlining motifs in pastel sapphires, tsavorites and brownish diamonds, and individual rare gems such as large mint tsavorites, pink spinels or brownish yellow diamonds set in simple diamond rings,
all of which reflect Chanel’s own interest in unusual gems. The Chinese inspiration may nod to a currently buoyant market, but the beauty of these pieces will thrill connoisseurs everywhere.