Chanel fine jewellery director Benjamin Comar discusses the technology and talent driving a new era of design
Tapping into the cosmopolitan tempo, Art Deco lines and bohemian flair of the 20th century's jazz era, Chanel's latest fine jewellery collection, Café Society, toys with geometric mosaics and architectural marquetry in a shimmering ode to Coco Chanel's own social set.
It's been over two decades since the French fashion house relaunched its fine jewellery category in 1993 - some sixty years after Mademoiselle Chanel famously debuted her one and only fine jewellery collection, Bijoux de Diamants in 1932 - and two years since the brand took production in-house with a state of the art workshop overlooking place Vendôme. Later this year Chanel will also unveil its largest fine jewellery store on London's Old Bond Street, designed by Peter Marino. It's testament to its investment in the category.
Of late the fine jewellery market has undergone a profound transformation as old family names have diversified into luxury brands with handbag and sunglass lines, just as haute couture houses have added high jewellery to their fashion repertoire. Jewellery is, after all, the design category where the price range is the most pronounced. 'Say £1,000 to £10 million, with some brands going from £500 to £50 million,' explains Chanel fine jewellery director Benjamin Comar, sitting in a salon within the house's place Vendôme HQ. 'You don't have a standard price so your spectrum of clients is very wide.'
So what is Chanel bringing to this re-invigorated sector? Mirroring their runway prowess, a design-driven fine jewellery offering. Unlike traditional houses, at Chanel, creation begins with design, rather than building pieces around procured stones, a typical approach at other fine jewellery brands. '95 percent of our designs are done first and then we find the stones after,' continues Comar. 'So as we don't start with the stones our lead time is very long - two and a half years.'
Just upstairs, Chanel's six-strong design team are already working on 2017. The house's state-of-the-art workshop, manned by 25 artisans, is cleverly located just across the hall as each bi-annual collection includes between 70 and 80 pieces - staggeringly large by industry standards, and driven by client demand.
The contemporary fine jewellery arena is currently seeing a wealth of new, independent design talent. 'We are very pleased that there are newcomers, because when there are not, a business is not dynamic.' Comar remembers Chanel's's entry to market in 1993: 'In a time of minimalism we came with these big camellia rings.'
Picking up an Art Deco piece from the latest Café Society collection he adds, 'The way of manufacturing has changed a lot. The mix of technology and craft allows us to do pieces that are more flexible and easy-to-wear.' The storied fine jewellery tradition of matching box sets is also drawing to a close at Chanel. He explains that their clientele is instead mixing pieces from different collections and pairing their diamonds with denim, in the same way that Madame Chanel wore hers with strings of faux pearls, and Karl Lagerfeld teams the house's signature tweed jackets with sneakers. 'I don't like categories. I think mix and match. You have a Chanel jacket with jeans, you have high jewellery with a t-shirt. That's Chanel.'