Haute Bijou: When Fantasy Trumps Fine


Christian Dior fitting the final touch of jewelry to his “Zaire” evening gown on house model “Victoire” from his Autumn/Winter 1954 “H-Line” Collection. Photographed by Mark Shaw

Amidst these uncertain times, it is completely understandable to find a glamorously cathartic method as an escape from ones reality to the endless realm of the imagination; a “fantasy” as one should call it. Delving into the topic of costume jewelry, it should be perhaps be known that in some romantic languages, French in particular, the term for costume jewelry translates into English as: “Fantasy Jewelry”.

Now, why fantasy do you ask? Well, in terms of the popularization of adorning oneself in baubles that weren’t quite executed in precious stones and medals, “Bijou Fantasie” definitely has its place in fashion history, not to mention our fashion present.

L: 18th Century Portrait of Georges Frédéric Stras R: Pair of Paste Earrings C.1760-75. The Metropolitan Museum of Art 

In the history of western dress for example, the first prevalent use of fake but fabulous jewels (in the form of cut glass widely known as “paste”) was first prevalently documented being worn on the aristocracy during the 18th century. It was this unique “mass produced lead glass of high brilliance” invented by Georges Frederic Stras was used to fool the most conspicuously discerning eyes such high circles, causing a legacy in which the founder’s name to this day is associated with imitation crystal stones. Even though the royal courts of England and France could most certainly commission fine jewelry with no strain of expense spared, to quote antique jewelry historian Jacquelyn Babush, “They knew it was paste, but it was the look they were going for.”

Gabrielle Chanel C. 1938 wearing Gripoix jewelry. Photographed by François Kollar

As we drive our Fashion Delorean into the early 20th century, it is by then that costume jewelry became increasingly popular with the grand dames of high society, especially the clients of haute couture houses to which a select few are household names today. The house of Chanel guided by the shrewd pioneering spirit of its notorious founder, knew how to cultivate the potential power of costume jewelry as it enchanted upon the eyes of many a covetous beholder.

“Pâte de Verre” Suzanne Gripoix for Chanel C. 1938. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

For instance, the pieces executed under the hand of Maison Gripoix were a feat of craftsmanship that challenged the best of what the velvet lined vitrines of Plâce Vendôme had to offer. The unique process of her technique of “Pâte de Verre” (translating to glass paste), involved pouring brilliant hues of molten glass into delicate molds in which the finished piece resembled a series of finely carved cabochons. If Chanel, had commissioned them in genuine rubies and emeralds, not only would such a feat have been prohibitively expensive, but to have production increased to limited quantities with consistent high quality would have heightened the nature of such a task to be near impossible.

Yves Saint Laurent in his studio at 7 Ave. Marceau in Paris preparing jewelry for a collection. C. Late 1970s-Early 1980s

Fast tracking a bit further into the last century, Costume jewelers would flourish partnered with well known companies and fashion houses alike, with names ranging from Trifari and Kenneth Lane to Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. Saint Laurent considered by many during his prime to continue the legacy of Chanel, was well versed in the entrancing effects of bijou in his collections; To the extent of contracting artisans who once worked with Gabrielle such as his wonderful relationship with Robert Goossens.

This particular belt executed by Goossens, for Saint Laurent’s groundbreaking secondary line “Rive Gauche” gives the prowess of something more exquisite, beyond the restraints of the humble materials of which it is casted from. This fine accessory appears to have been freshly excavated from an Etruscan tomb, with the exuded wounds of passion malleted by the master craftsman into the raw gold metal. Alas, it is not entirely composed of pure gold nor does it have the age and value of an artwork that has lasted over a millennia. The 24 Karat gold plated, hand finished piece although not formally precious, provides the illusion, or the “fantasy” that it is.  

It is such a fantasy that we can find meaningful solace in which we can fully forget our present, even if it’s just for a blissful moment. A fantasy that can transform an outlook dramatically into a dream like the flick of wand by a fairy godmother. A fantasy of something that not only is stunningly beautiful and well crafted, but ethically sustainable that will be enjoyed for years to come.

A fantasy is something we all could make use of right about now.

Find your own “Fantasy” here @Decadesinc.



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