In Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken, he stands before two pathways in a yellow wood.  One feels familiar and inviting, the other is devoid of footprints and undisturbed. He ponders both before taking the road less travelled, and his poem has become a poignant metaphor for individualism.  Frost won four Pulitzer Prizes with his ability to use rural settings to examine deep philosophical themes, undeterred by an impoverished childhood.  He could have succumbed to lack of aspiration but instead he doggedly pursued his love of poetry and this individualist thinking, the rejection of well cushioned comfort zones and social expectations, enabled him to become a pioneer.  The jewellery artists who make their mark on history like Frost, are all part of an individualist movement.  They have all gone into the yellow wood without a map and discovered who they were whatever the consequences.

Unlike literature, poetry or painting, the cost of precious materials in jewellery combined with hiring a skilled workshop to execute a singular vision can crush a dream before it begins or worst still, turn a jewel destined for greatness into an ‘investment vehicle’, but not if James de Givenchy has anything to say about it. In his twenties he was commissioned by powerful collectors such as Nan Kempner who gave him the freedom to be himself but also valuable guidance at the beginning of his journey. Yet it was a collaboration with Sotheby’s Diamonds that inspired him to start his own workshop and ultimately take control of his own creativity.  Over those three years he experimented with steel, leather and ceramic, finally making a rubber necklace with diamond buttons that he was told ‘ruined the stones’.  Despite this, his designs sold out on opening night, and he learnt a valuable lesson.  “Individualism is about doing things my way.  Not so much on my own but standing alone in the way I look at things.” Wildness of this kind cannot be taught, and it cannot be diminished by those with a lesser imagination.

Wallace Chan was considered a disgrace to his family when at 16 years old, he decided to leave his apprenticeship at a gemstone carving workshop in Hong Kong and start his own practise.  His parents were furious, but he wanted to carve intaglios and Greek mythological scenes in rock crystal which eventually led to his invention of The Wallace Cut, a technique where a single face etched inside a stone has multiple reflections.  Just like De Givenchy, he was reprimanded for devaluing the stones and he also found his way to an auction house who first sent him and his work to the jewellery and then the art department when they couldn’t decide where to put him. “My eagerness to belong was in constant conflict with my desire to break free.” He says thoughtfully. “Half a century of experience has taught me… at the end, only history will give me my place.” He will exhibit over 150 unique jewels at Christies London this autumn in his largest European exhibition to date entitled Wallace Chan: The Wheel of Time proving no category can contain him.

Being unique at Van Cleef & Arpels has come with the responsibility of educating others via their L’Ecole, School of Jewellery Arts which is expanding to Shanghai and Dubai so that the next generation of mavericks can evolve into something more.  The sculptural Escale Antique ‘Rome’ bracelet from their new Le Grand Tour collection takes homage from a time in the 18th and 19th centuries when individualists in the making would go out into the world, broaden their minds, and find their place in society.  Surviving financially while creating something the world might yet be ready is something rarely taught at school, however.  “To be totally free is difficult” muses Christian Hemmerle whose family business has created designs over the last 130 years which have shifted the spectrum of figurative jewellery.  “We don’t have to answer to the stock market, we’re not doing it for the balance sheet, and I truly believe that this is part of our success.  If you look at all creations with an eye on profitability, then the greatest of jewels would never have been made.” Hemmerle’s matchstick earrings in iron and patinated bronze with rubellite tips follow on from their carved jade Leibniz biscuit earrings and a brilliant series of mushroom brooches which have their own cult following.  Balance sheet be damned.

Ideas really are at the root of it all.  Claire Choisne the Creative Director at Boucheron recently crafted a massive bow out of magnesium which is ten times lighter than gold as a hair ornament, a bejewelled pocket and a gargantuan optical illusion necklace as part of her More is More collection and presented it from a Tawaraya Boxing Ring.  She designs two high jewellery collections a year – the first a reinterpretation of the archives but the second aims to fully indulge her creativity with no limits, supported by her executive team.  “We are living up to our reputations as the rule breakers of the Place Vendome” chuckles CEO Hélène Poulit-Duquesne.  Having a vertically integrated business where everything happens under one roof make the economics easier to control even if flawless diamonds are riskier to play with according to Francois Graff. “We are diamond artists and our experience, combined with an unrivalled inventory of stones, ensures that our designers and master artisans have the freedom to experiment.” Experimentation leads to avant-garde thinking which is everything.

From whopper diamonds to ancient artefacts, Glenn Spiro is a man who has exuberantly embraced both within a design language which is resolutely him, but which grows more eclectic as time goes on. Spiro’s Old World Collection showing at PAD London in October is an ode to the medieval modern aesthetic, stuffed full of peppery antique wood, fat glossy amber beads and spicy citrine. He makes this kind of evolution look easier than it really is which can be dangerous for those starting out.  There will always be a need for the exquisite talents of the master jeweller because as the world gets smaller, the thirst for undeniable originality grows stronger, but collectors need to be brave. “There are two types of people.  The ones who want the Rolex everybody has and the ones who want what no one has.  These are my clients and the clients of everyone else who does what I do” observes De Givenchy.  The majority of jewellers trample down the picnic route towards hum drum design which is why these artists are so special.  They rebel against the basic economic principle of making something everyone loves to make something they love.  Frost wrote another poem in 1923 entitled Nothing Gold Can Stay where he asserts that precious things are fleeting and temporary by nature.  Jewellery immortalises the power of individualism, sealed forever in gold and stone and for that I’d gladly walk to the ends of the earth.


Written by Melanie Grant for Country & Townhouse in October for the Autumn / Winter issue 2023.



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