While Chanel is not completely new to the world of haute joaillerie – Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel herself created the first and only collection under her tenure in 1932 – the brand is still perceived as a leader in fashion over jewels.
The house’s lack of heritage in the rarefied world of high jewellery, however, is far from a drawback, as Marianne Etchebarne – global head of watches and fine jewellery product marketing, clients and communication at Chanel – explains. We sat down for an interview in London at the unveiling of Tweed de Chanel, the brand’s latest high jewellery collection.
“We don’t have 100 years of heritage. We still have an endless source of inspiration, but not from jewellery. [ …] Not having a patrimony can be an opportunity because the page is white and you have more freedom,” she says. “Patrice [Leguéreau, director of the Chanel fine jewellery creation studio] can work in so many ways. It gives freedom to investigate and create something new every season as we don’t have that baggage. We have a very special story at Chanel.”
That story is often told through the multifaceted prism of Chanel’s strong iconography – from Gabrielle’s favourite flower, the camellia; to her star sign, Leo; and the constellations and comets that figured prominently in that seminal 1932 collection.
In 2020, Leguéreau celebrated another element that has become synonymous with Chanel: tweed. Gabrielle discovered the material in Scotland and incorporated it into her signature skirt suits and dresses. Leguéreau aimed to recreate the woven fabric as jewellery – not an easy feat, given the tactile texture of the sturdy textile.
“Tweed is a fabric that’s supple and lively, which is very comfortable when you wear it because it lives with you as you move,” says Etchebarne. “It’s not stiff, you have open work, it’s soft and voluminous but not heavy. How do you translate that into jewellery, with stones and metals like gold? That was the first challenge in the 2020 collection: to interpret the fabric.”
While the 2020 creations had a low-key debut because of the coronavirus pandemic, loyal clients of Chanel High Jewellery didn’t have to wait long for chapter two. Earlier this month, the brand unveiled Tweed de Chanel, a series of pieces that turned the famously utilitarian material – it was originally worn by Scottish farmers – into “a precious fabric”. While tweed is the (literal) running thread in the collection, the dazzling array of necklaces, rings and bracelets in the range also pay homage to Chanel’s vast visual vocabulary: the camellia, the star, the sun, the ribbon and the lion.
“In this collection, we pushed boundaries because we wanted to have tweed made of diamonds and coloured stones,” says Etchebarne. “So the first challenge was to find the right stones, like rubies, and then [recreate] tweed as a support to complement jewellery icons like the sun, the lion, the camellia …”
But why does Chanel, a brand that already boasts thriving ready-to-wear, accessories and beauty divisions, not to mention more accessible jewellery lines like the bestselling Coco Crush, dedicate so much effort to a competitive field like high jewellery? After all, it could easily rest on its laurels instead of making the huge investment needed to create one-of-a-kind pieces that require months, if not years, of development.
The two-day London event introducing Tweed de Chanel to media and clients culminated with a glamorous dinner at the British Museum attended by the likes of Keira Knightley and Kylie Minogue, who also performed. That alone shows Chanel’s strong commitment to its high jewellery division, which the brand started in 1993.
“High jewellery is a very different world for us as it showcases exceptional creativity. It’s like a laboratory,” says Etchebarne. “But there is a business with high jewellery – trust me – especially in Hong Kong. In Asia, customers are very young compared to the US or Europe. I’m very surprised by the age of the customers, who buy and wear the pieces out and about also because it’s quite safe.”
Etchebarne believes that approaching high jewellery as something to be worn on even a daily basis is central to the appeal of Chanel and the reason why the brand has built such a loyal clientele for its high jewellery creations.
“Every house has its own strength and story. Customers are not [exclusively loyal] to one house because they have a lot of temptation, but what they recognise at Chanel is the style of the pieces. They also like that we’re here to magnify the allure of women,” she says. “Our pieces are not overwhelming or overpowering, but are meant to sublimate the woman, which you also see in fashion. It’s never too much. You can wear our high jewellery very easily. The customer likes that it’s not for hiding in a drawer or to buy as an investment, but to be worn.”