While there are many, many jewelry designers that I greatly admire there are only a few that I covet almost everything they ever made. Suzanne Belperron is in my top 3 favorite designers of all time. Why am I such a fan? There are three simple reasons; her talent, her vision and her excellent taste. Ms. Belperron’s jewelry has stood the test of time, her designs are as wearable today as they were when they were created. Madame Belperron was a daring style innovator ahead of her time.
Belperron arrived in Paris at a stunningly opportune moment. In 1919, World War I had ended and there was a flood of American industrial wealth and avant-garde tastes.
The daughter of a merchant, Belperron (née Vuillerme) studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in the eastern French city of Besançon. She began her career in 1919 at the Paris jewelry firm, Maison René Boivin, where she was soon named co-director. She grew tired of designing in the new Art Deco style and began to experiment with new materials and methods. As Monsieur Boivin had died in 1917, Belperron was working for his widow, Jeanne Boivin. From 1920 on, the collections of Maison René Boivin featured many jewels inspired by the sketches of Suzanne Vuillerme.
Eventually Jeanne and Suzanne had a falling out and parted on bitter terms. “Suzanne wanted to sign her own pieces, but Jeanne would not allow it,” Ms. Emmanuelle Chassard, director of the Galerie Parisienne, said. “When she left in 1932, Suzanne took many of Boivin’s clients and started her own business using the same ateliers that worked for Boivin.” Emulating her former mentor, Ms. Belperron too refused to sign the pieces she later designed under her own name.
Photo from the Archives of Olivier Baroin.
One of the suppliers that recognized Belperron’s burgeoning talent was Bernard Herz, a Parisian stone dealer. In 1932, Herz gave the young Suzanne the title of “the exclusive, unique and recognized designer creator.” With her newfound artistic freedom, she left behind the rigid lines of Art Deco to carve stones into organic shapes, invoking the delicacy of wings, petals, and fruit, and adorned them with gemstones. She drew on motifs from a range of cultures – African, Cambodian, Celtic, Egyptian, Indian, Mayan – and created a daring new look hailed as both “brilliant” and “barbaric.”
Belperron would stay with the Herz company for the rest of her career. In German occupied Paris, Belperron was arrested with Monsieur Herz, at their boutique at 59 Rue de Châteaudun for operating a company under a Jewish name. They called upon the services of their elite clientele to secure their release from jail. Belperron re-registered the company under her own name until after Bernard’s son Jean returned from the front to resume the partnership of “Herz-Belperron.” Bernard Herz did not survive the war. Herz-Belperron closed in 1975 and Belperron died in 1983.
A Belperron wave form bangle from her personal collection was made between 1955 and 1970. The is set with circular-cut diamonds and natural and cultured pearls. Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.
This rough gemstone bead bracelet was in Belperron’s personal collection. Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.
This colorful bracelet was made around 1935. At first glance it could be a homemade composition of beach glass, but closer inspection reveals it to be composed of 16 rough polished beads of varying sizes. The beads range from pink tourmaline to flawed emeralds and the clasp is finished with tiny rose cut diamonds.
This bracelet is a great example of Belperron’s iconoclastic use of materials. In a 1947 article in French Vogue her unique style of mixing unique materials was described as “a marriage of convenience that turns into a love match.” She was also known for designing jewels to specifically complement a client’s coloring, from blue-tone jewels to match the eyes of the Duchess of Windsor to a ring made of a yellow diamond set into a matrix of smoky quartz for the wife of an African president.
In 1924, Suzanne married Jean Belperron who was an engineer by profession.
This was Belperron’s own Yin and Yang engagement ring created in 1923. Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Imagine what it must have been like for her to wear an engagement ring like this in 1923.
Belperron was one of the first to mix high and low materials and the reason she succeeded was that she did such a exceptional job at intertwining the two. Today no one would blink an eye at such mixture but in the 1920s and 1930s, “fine jewelry” was expected to come from configurations of diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds and platinum. What set Belperron apart was that the finished product was always a masterpiece of flawless design.
While some of her jewelry has been well documented through the famous people that owned the pieces, many of her pieces are not always readily identified. When the Duchess of Windsor’s jewelry was auctioned in 1987, only 5 of 16 Belperron pieces were at first, tentatively identified. Asked once why she never signed her work, Madame Belperron replied: “Mon style est my signature.”
Belperron was known and loved to insiders like the Duchess of Windsor, the Aga Khan, Merle Oberon, Diana Vreeland (of course), Christian Dior, Colette, Josephine Baker, Daisy Fellowes, Nina Ricci, Mona Bismarck, Gary Cooper, the Rothschild family, and Jeanne Lanvin. All fashion and style innovators themselves.
In 1999, Ward Landrigan, former head of Sotheby’s Jewelry and owner of Verdura, purchased Belperron’s archive of designs. Today, Nico Landrigan, Ward’s son and President of Verdura, is responsible for the revival of Madame Belperron’s work.
Duchess of Windsor suite of chalcedony, diamond and sapphire jewelry. Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Suzanne Belperron green beryl and grey chalcedony dress clips recently sold at the Important Jewelry/Estate of Rita Dee Hassenfeld at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers for $197,000. Photo courtesy of Leslie Hindman Auctioneers.
Suzanne Belperron’s pair of sapphire ‘branche’ brooches. Photo courtesy of Symbolic & Chase.
Suzanne Belperron compact, circa 1945. Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Suzanne Belperron chalcedony and sapphire ring. Photo courtesy of 1st dibs.
Suzanne Belperron aquamarine, tourmaline and peridot ear clips, circa 1970. Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Suzanne Belperron, tourmaline, topaz and diamond ‘Ying and Yang’ ring, circa 1970-1974. Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Suzanne Belperron ruby, sapphire and gold ‘Vague’ cuff, circa 1973. Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Suzanne Belperron natural pearl and diamond bracelet, circa 1935. Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.
There were so many pieces that I love that did not make it into this post, perhaps another post another time!