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Watches Jewellery Discover the History of Place Vendôme in Paris

Discover the History of Place Vendôme in Paris

Discover the History of Place Vendôme in Paris
Photo: Cheng Siu Hin
By Laura Beaney
October 31, 2019
Few destinations stir up a sense of unparalleled luxury and cinematic history like Place Vendôme. From its seminal maisons to its storied clients and the magnificent jewels they covet, we pinpoint the exceptional moments that left a lasting imprint on the legacy of high jewellery

At the epicentre of exceptional jewellery lies one Parisian address: Place Vendôme. Its history, punctuated by war, revolt and the rise and fall of dynasties is almost as dazzling as the pieces its workshops produce. Completed in 1699 by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, whose design stamp can be traced across France’s architectural high points, from the Palace of Versailles to Notre-Dame, the ambitious feat of urban design was initiated to frame the statue of then ruler Louis XIV.

Breaking away from the typical square format, Hardouin-Mansart traced out a perfect octagon, with the clean lines of the sandstone-clad, neoclassical townhouses forming its perimeter. More than a symbol of monarchy, Place Vendôme was a rare open space, where people could breathe freely beyond the maze of winding Parisian streets.

A Part of Parisian History

It could have faded into history, but the square kept pace with the City of Light. Napoleon Bonaparte took high jewellery as his own symbol of political power. His wife, Empress Joséphine, became the original muse for Chaumet, popularising tiaras among the ladies of her court. Enlisting Marie-Étienne Nitot, Chaumet’s founder, as their official jeweller, the rulers created a thirst within the elite for flamboyant diamond-studded pieces, which led to a wave of workshops springing up across Paris throughout the 19th century.

Uniting sophisticated tastes with tastemakers, Place Vendôme solidified its position as a global high jewellery hub in 1893, with the addition of two leading names. César Ritz took number 15 for his legendary Hôtel Ritz, while Frédéric Boucheron opened his boutique at number 26. From maharajas to actress Marlene Dietrich, philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and 30-year resident Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, the royalty and intelligentsia that frequented the hotel had only to crisscross the square to indulge their tastes in exceptional jewels. On the address that has come to be immortalised in both literature and film, writer Ernest Hemingway famously professed, “When I dream of an afterlife in heaven, the action always takes place at the Ritz, Paris.”

See also: Inspire Your New Season Wardrobe With This Pretty Jewellery Collection

Photo: Cheng Siu Hin
Photo: Cheng Siu Hin

The red lacquer walls of Boucheron’s Salon Chinois welcomed equally intriguing clientele. Steeped in mystery, the secret passageway that once concealed mistresses selecting jewels is still there today. One such notable client of the maison was the enigmatic Virginia Oldoïni, Countess of Castiglione and mistress of Napoleon III, who lived in the mezzanine apartments below the boutique. Known as “the divine one,” she was a commanding figure and reputedly the most beautiful woman in Europe.

Preserving her beauty from daylight by only leaving her apartment in the evening, she adorned herself in jaw-dropping jewels that glistened under the favourable glow of the square. “Twenty six Place Vendôme challenges the conventions of jewellery and demonstrates that it is possible to do things differently,” says Hélène Poulit-Duquesne, Boucheron’s CEO. “Frédéric Boucheron put women to the front and centre of his creative process… That is still the spirit of the house today. We create jewellery that allows women to express their uniqueness, to assert their identity. But it is always they who decide what they want to do with it.”

A Playground for the Elite

The leading maisons quickly joined Boucheron in the square. Cartier arrived in 1898, followed by Chaumet in 1902 and Van Cleef & Arpels in 1906. Chanel opened its fine jewellery boutique much later in 1997, directly facing Coco’s Ritz suite, at number 18. Coco is, of course, the starting point for everything at Chanel. In her own words, “An interior is the natural projection of a soul,” so naturally her codes are heavily present in the sumptuous boutique, which architect Peter Marino has blended luxurious accents of gold with the founder’s beloved Asian artefacts: touches of the earth realised in suede, complementing Coco’s silk-covered walls. The spirit of Place Vendôme lives anew in Chanel’s aesthetic too. Its geometry and proportions were reimagined in the octagonal form of the cap of her first perfume, Chanel No. 5, and later in the Première watch.

The advent of the steamboat in the early 20th century facilitated unprecedented travel between Europe and Asia. Place Vendôme, a lavish playground for the elite and haven for jewellery’s most remarkable talents, drew in gilded Indian royals harbouring a penchant for European fashions. The jewellers, attending to the most outlandish commissions, were hard to surprise. Yet the Maharaja of Patiala, a notable client of Boucheron, managed to astonish when he arrived in 1923, accompanied by 12 guards and six trunks of emeralds, and commissioned no less than 149 pieces of jewellery from his trove.

Photo: Cheng Siu Hin
Photo: Cheng Siu Hin

A few years later in 1928, Cartier received one of its most significant single commissions too, a piece of ceremonial jewellery known as the Patiala necklace, which comprised 2,930 diamonds and weighed nearly 1,000 carats. And Asia, in return, became an equally rich resource for the maisons. Claude and Jacques Arpels of Van Cleef & Arpels frequented India in search of rare precious stones, amassing a following of notables during their journeys and injecting India’s decadent motifs into notable designs including the Hindu clip (1924) and the Indian Embroidery necklace (1970).

The Maharani of Baroda, nicknamed “the Indian Wallis Simpson,” was known to check into the Ritz and make her way to the Van Cleef & Arpels boutique, where she would work with the maison to place the stones from her husband’s crown jewels into contemporary settings. Of these updates, perhaps none were more remarkable than the illustrious Baroda necklace, which she commissioned in 1950. The design included 13 magnificent pear-shaped Colombian emeralds weighing a total of 154.70 carats, set with pavé diamonds.

A marriage of history and artistry, Elsa Schiaparelli’s Place Vendôme boutique – adorned with the artworks of her anti-establishment contemporaries such as Salvador Dalí – attracted alternative thinkers, and was frequented by the likes of US actress Mae West and socialite Wallis Simpson. The Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson adored jewellery, and would frequent the boutiques of Place Vendôme, working closely with its maisons to realise bespoke designs that sparked legends.

One such celebrated piece is the joyfully coloured Flamingo brooch crafted by Cartier in 1940. The maison unmounted a vivid array of sapphires, rubies, emeralds, citrines and diamonds from Mrs Simpson’s existing pieces. In fact, she often did this, even resetting jewels that previously belonged to royalty, including Queen Alexandra of Denmark.

See also: 6 Best Mechanical Watches By Fashion Brands

Photo: Cheng Siu Hin
Photo: Cheng Siu Hin
Photo: Cheng Siu Hin
Photo: Cheng Siu Hin

In constant flux, Place Vendôme was further shaken as the Second World War raged across France. When Paris was under occupation, the jewellery business, with its largely Jewish leading practitioners, almost ground to a halt. Esther Arpels escaped the Gestapo under a false identity and received written recognition from the commander of the Free French forces for having “greatly aided the Resistance.”

It’s only right that many of high jewellery’s high points have played out in a space befitting them. But beyond its intrigue and explosive history, Place Vendôme retains its status as a window into contemporary luxury. Clients come from all over the world to view its precious collections, while modern day additions, like Louis Vuitton taking up a post at number two in 2017 and Gucci’s fine and high jewellery boutique at number 16, reaffirm its continued relevance as jewellery’s most desirable address.

A gentle nod to high jewellery’s next frontier, the recently opened Chinese jeweller Qeelin next door to Boucheron’s flagship, reinvigorates the mix, underscoring the symphony between the East and West that jewellery has long represented. A space where travel, fashion, high jewellery and great minds co-exist, it seems no other cultural quarter can claim the same grasp on the imagination as Place Vendôme. 

See also: Chanel's New High Jewellery Collection Is From Russia, With Love

  • Illustration Cheng Siu Hin

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