When I hear jewellery I always think of that scene from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, in which Marilyn Monroe, donning a striking pink gown and covered in blinding jewels sings:
“The French are glad to die for love, they delight in fighting duels, but I prefer a man who lives and gives expensive jewels. […] But diamonds are a girl’s best friend!”
And then she lists – Tiffany’s, Cartier, stores I have often window-shopped at. But I always feel like one name is missing. I hold my breath, waiting for those three syllables, the name of one of the most talented female jewellers of the twentieth century, to roll off Marilyn’s lips. Belperron – it never comes. Belperron – a woman whose talent and courage were as precious as the stones she arranged to sparkling works of art. Belperron – a pioneer, a patriot.
It is time to wind back the clocks.
The story of Suzanne Belperron, née Vuillerme, begins away from the Parisian spotlight, in the small town of Saint-Denis, tucked in the Jura Mountains of eastern France. Her talent for design was discovered when she was quite young and, having won first prize at the School of Fine Arts in Besançon in 1918, Suzanne moved to the French capital at the tender age of nineteen. Immediately hired by the widowed Jeanne Boivin, whose husband, founder of the bijouterie Boivin, had recently passed away, Suzanne began making a name for herself, drawing inspiration from her earlier designs and challenging the then widespread Art Deco jewellery with curvaceous jewels encrusted with chalcedony, rock crystal, and smoky quartz.
At just twenty-three years of age, Suzanne Vuillerme became co-director of the Boivin jewellery house – no mean feat considering that the majority of famous jewellers and company founders at the time were men. However, she soon grew frustrated by not having any of her creations be attributed to her and joined Bernhard Herz, a famous Parisian dealer in precious stones, who gave her complete carte-blanche when it came to jewellery designs. At 59 rue de Châteaudun in Paris, history was made, stone by stone. The jewellery of Suzanne, now Belperron, was the object of much praise, appearing in fashion magazines such as Vogue alongside Cartier, Boucheron and Van Cleef & Arpels. She did not sign her creations – in her own words, her style was her signature.
Her address was spread by word of mouth in a circle of admirers, fascinated by the distinctiveness of her work. With the precision and diligence of a couturier, she would take her clients’ exact measurements and sometimes ask them to make multiple appointments to ensure that the ordered jewellery pieces fit and suited them. Ever the perfectionist, she left no detail of design or manufacture to chance.
Suzanne Belperron was not only a pioneer in her field, but a patriot. During the Occupation of Paris, Belperron was instructed by Herz, who was of Jewish origin, to take full control of the company and rename it “Suzanne Belperron SARL”. Though she managed to save Herz from the Gestapo on one occasion, he was eventually sent to Drancy internment camp and ultimately to Auschwitz, where he died. Belperron was harassed by the Gestapo multiple times and the story goes that she even swallowed all the pages of Herz’s address book. She joined the French Resistance and one of her most noted contributions is the medal she designed for General Leclerc’s 2nd Armoured Division.
In 1963, Suzanne Belperron received the rank of Knight of the Légion d’Honneur, the highest French order of military and civil merit, for her career as a jewellery designer. Despite the shortage of materials, she never stopped working throughout the entire Second World War and retired in the early 70s, around twenty years after honouring Bernhard Herz’s wishes by splitting the ownership and name of the company with Jean Herz, his son, and a former prisoner of war.
During her life, Suzanne Belperron is said to have designed between 3000 and 5000 pieces of jewellery. She gained the trust and respect of countless celebrities such as members of the Rothschild family, the Duke of Windsor, Christian Dior, Nina Ricci, and Jeanne Lanvin. Though asked many times, she refused to collaborate with several American companies, including Tiffany & Co. Though her work was largely forgotten for some decades because of a large part of it not being signed, it resurfaced thanks to the sale of jewels belonging to the Duchess of Windsor, the re-editions of some of her most famous pieces and the discovery of the invaluable archives which were said to have been set ablaze by none other than their owner and creator. Many myths shrouded the discreet Belperron, who valued privacy above all else. Belperron jewellery has retained its value and continues to bear six figure price tags to this day.
Looking at some of Belperron’s creations, I cannot help but think of them as a cornucopia of contrasts – they are vibrant, studded with colourful and unusual stones, and they are just the right degree of a little too much. Unique and provocative, sometimes almost carnal, curvaceous, and feminine, they have withstood the test of time, intended today as they were all those decades ago, for the fearless emancipated woman who wears whatever the hell she wants, who is vivacious and fierce, not timid, and abiding. I remember reading somewhere that Belperron jewellery was made “by a modern woman for a modern woman” and I cannot agree more. She did not adhere to the geometry or the precious stones characteristic of the jewellery of the time, instead letting her creations embody the exotic spirit of ancient civilizations and distant Asian and African cultures. From Congolese tribal motives to Japanese sakura, her jewellery has it all. Her fascination with underwater life and with the magnificent colour palette of nature heavily influenced her works. And, in spite of being a die-hard fan of simple, delicate jewellery who prefers to stay away from chunky and eye-grabbing designs, I feel inexplicably drawn to the sapphire and diamond Belperron bangle and the yellow gold and cabochon emerald torque necklace…ah, a girl can dream!
Cartier, Boucheron, Piaget, Harry Winston…oh, how they make my heart swoon! But Belperron, way ahead of the curve, daring and fierce to the very end…she holds a special place in it. If there is one thing that I am convinced of, it is this: Belperron is a girl’s best friend.
by C. Rocher