Guide To Antique French Jewelry
by Jack Weir on May 27, 2022
What is there not to love about France? For hundreds of years, it has been an epicenter of culture, fashion, food, wine and romance. France is annually a popular destination for travelers, with Paris, in particular, often cited as an influence for artists and lovers all over the world.
Likewise, the country of France has a rich tradition in jewelry. World renowned brands -- such as Cartier and Boucheron -- began in and are headquartered there. And many a historic French figure, from Marie Antoinette to Louis XVI, were passionate in their love of diamonds and luxury.
Today, the French jewelry industry is a major player on the world market, earning 5.6 billion U.S. dollars (5.2 Euros) annually. Here at Jack Weir & Sons, we specialize in high quality, antique and vintage French jewelry. But where to begin? As always, we must start in the past.
Style Leaders from the Beginning
France had always been the toast of Europe when it came to personal style. But there was a time, about 5 to 6 hundred years ago or so, when, in French society, only the wealthy were allowed to wear any form of jewelry. It was a sign of royalty and power and served to watermark those who were to be treated well from those who were not.
The emperor Napoleon ended the ban, which allowed all French people to display any jewelry they possessed. This one action sparked major growth from the burgeoning French jewelry industry.
First Famous French Jewelry House
Mellerio dits Meller is not only the first jewelry house in Paris, it is the oldest in the world.
The Mellerio family emigrated from Italy in 1515, and were granted exclusive rights to sell to the Medici family in 1613. In 1835, they opened their first shop in Place Vendome in the space where they are still located to this day.
Amazingly, the 14th and 15th generations of the Mellerio family still own the business.
Hallmarks are official symbols put on items of gold, silver or metal, designating their quality, place of creation, and the company or individual that created it. This process was begun over 700 years ago, primarily to protect customers. Fun fact: They are called "hallmarks" because, initially, the marks were authorized by London's Goldsmiths' Hall before they could be sold.
Since 1838, all gold jewelry sold in France is tested for metal purity and marked with an eagle’s head. 18 karat gold is the minimum purity that a piece must be in order to be evaluated and appraised.
Since the Middle Ages, the jewel-making industry has passed down from master to apprentice. This tradition was focused on making the jewels but little thought was given to other aspects of the process.
Wisely, beginning in the late 1860s, the Chambre Syndicale de la Bijouterie-Joaillerie declared that additional training in development, modeling and design was essential. The sketching classes were first taught at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers. Prominent names such as Frederic Boucheron co-signed the project.
Today, many schools in France, like Haute École De Joaillerie (the oldest jewelry school in the world) and L'École, School of Jewelry Arts (sponsored by Van Cleef & Arpels) continue that tradition and propel new generations of into jobs at all of the top brands.
Students are trained in state of the art equipment about online design, management, marketing and sales.
Popular Movements and Eras
Belle Époque (“Beautiful Age" en français) was a time of financial affluence and artistic abundance that started around 1871, shortly after the Franco-Prussian War. The Eiffel Tower and Paris’ opera house, the Palais Garnier, were among the many French landmarks built during this period.
Belle Époque overlapped three periods of jewelry design: Arts and Crafts movement -- a counterattack to the automation and conglomerization of jewelry, Art Nouveau, which we will talk more about below, and the Edwardian Era, named for England’s Edward VII, but heavily inspired by the Belle Époque movement started in Paris.
The jewelry of that time included basic but colorful, platinum-set rings, drooping necklaces, suspended earrings, ornamented tiaras, pendants, chokers and a wide array of styles of the all-important brooches.
Started in late 1880's Paris, Art Nouveau was a popular style that transcended art and architecture. It is considered one of the major eras of antique jewelry and one of the few that did not originate in England. Art Nouveau was named after the 1895 opening of Siegfried Bing’s exhibit “Maison de l’Art Nouveau.” This era influenced most of Western society, with its curved lines and natural structures. By 1910, it had mostly fallen out of favor. Jewels of that era are incredibly hard to find today.
Just like in the United States, post-World War I France was prosperous, and many wanted to party as lavishly as possible. Glass jewels became popular, as a relatively inexpensive way to look glamorous within this period. This eventually became known as costume or cocktail jewelry. The Art Deco period, another major era, is highlighted by sharp-cornered, 3-dimensional shapes, platinum mounts and vibrant gemstones. Art Deco also influenced architecture of buildings made during the 1920s and 30s, such as the Palais de La Méditerranée in Nice, the Empire State Building in New York City and the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles.
French Jewelry Brands You Should Know
Of course, there are many French jewelry brands that you should be familiar with. Here are some of the most prominent:
Boucheron -- Established in 1858, Boucheron is one of the oldest and most renowned French jewelry brands on the planet. They specialize in high quality, nature-based pieces that have stood the test of time.
Cartier -- Arguably the most famous, exclusive and beloved French jewelry company, Cartier is known for the quality, innovation and longevity of their pieces.
Chaumet -- Founded in 1780, Chaumet is one of the most recognized luxury brands in the world. They are unique in that they start with the design sketch from their in-house collective of 14 artisans. The sketch inspires the chosen gem and the overall design. Chaumet is famous for their link and bumblebee motifs and their esteemed Joséphine collection, named for the Napoleonic-era empress.
Hermes -- Named after the Greek god of trade, this opulent line was founded in 1873. It is often ranked as the world's most valuable luxury brand and features distinctive compositions, while reimagining familiar designs with a touch of modern experimentalism.
Mauboussin -- Going strong since 1827, Mauboussin creates one of a kind, glamorous and chic jewelry. Historically, they are most known for flowery brooches, diamond pendants, and brightly colored bracelets.
Van Cleef & Arpels -- Created in 1906, VCA is best known for their themes of mystery and for their prominent use of precious stones in their pieces.
There is so much more but we wanted to familiarize you with all you need to know to get started. Please contact us anytime if you are interested in French jewelry for your collection or have any other questions.