Madame Boivin: The Legacy Continues

Chic, intelligent, business savvy and ahead of her time, Jeanne Boivin was a force to be reckoned with in the jewelry world. When her husband René Boivin, died in 1917 Madame Boivin made a decision that was unheard of for the time: She decided to continue the Paris-based firm. That decision made her the first woman to preside over a jewelry house in France, a world that was dominated by men.

Boivin Pomegrante brooch, 18-karat yellow gold with emeralds, circa 1930s, courtesy Ernst Faerber.

Madame Boivin had been running the business-end of the company while her husband handled the design end. After working together for twenty plus years, she knew and had relationships with the artisans in the workshops and she knew how to run the business. Beyond that, Madame Boivin had a great deal of style and her own eye for design as well as ideas for new creations.

While she herself did not sketch, draw, or have technical jewelry making skills, Madame Boivin employed designers who had those skills.  She would explain her ideas and what she wanted, which were then rendered for her by the designers. A woman of great style, Madame Boivin  had an innate understanding of how to wear jewelry. She wasn’t one to follow trends (Madame Boivin was after all the sister of couturier Paul Poiret who set the trends) instead she created bold, sculptural jewels brimming with color. The look was so recognizable that Boivin jewelry was only signed if a customer requested it.

Not wanting to deal with the general public, Madame Boivin never opened a street-level storefront, relying on the reputation of the company to move the business forward. Instead she had a private salon for those in the know who found Boivin through word-of-mouth.

The Suzanne Belperron Years

Boivin “Moineau de Paris” Bird of Freedom brooch from a drawing by Juliette Moutard, blue sapphire and pink tourmaline set in 18-karat yellow gold, circa 1945, with certificate of authentication from Francoise Cailles, courtesy Gros Difussion.

In 1919, Madame Boivin hired a young designer fresh out of Ecole des Beaux Arts — Suzanne Belperron. The Art Deco movement was in its early stages at this time and the trend of the moment was minimalist — streamlined jewelry with geometric forms that was often comprised of diamonds combined with onyx, enamel, sapphires, rubies or emeralds. Instead of designing jewelry in that style, the two women forged a new look that was known for its innovation and color as well as its rounded architectural shapes, such as elliptical or spherical. In 1924, Madame Boivin named Suzanne Belperron co-director of the house. Belperron held that title until she left the company in 1932.

Madame Boivin, along with Belperron, created jewelry that mixed precious gemstones with hardstones and other colored gemstones, which was not done at the time and it opened a new path in design that set the firm apart. She also used wood, rock crystal and chalcedony, materials not generally used in jewelry in that era.

The Juliette Moutard Years

Boivin Starfish, one is garnet with bluish-green garnets, the other is peridot with bluish-green garnets set in 18-karat white and blackened gold, courtesy © Christie’s Images Limited 2018.

After Belperron left the firm, Madame Boivin hired Juliette Moutard who stayed with the house until she retired in the 1970s. Working very closely together, Moutard designed and Madame Boivin supervised production. Over time the pieces continued to become larger in scale. Nature was an important theme for the design house with florals and fruits being two favored motifs. Wild animals and aquatic life were also favored themes of the company. One of Moutard’s most recognizable and also one of her most famous pieces, was the articulated jeweled ruby and amethyst starfish brooch created for movie actor Claudette Colbert, who was widely photographed wearing the oversized (it measures 4 inches by 4 inches)  fantastical creature. In 2019 Claudette Colbert’s starfish was acquired by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Very few of these brooches were fabricated and heiress and model Millicent Rogers also had a starfish brooch in amethyst and ruby. In addition, there was a version made in sapphire and moonstone as well as another version made of emerald and aquamarine. The firm later made some of these brooches in a smaller scale.

Boivin Quatrecorps ring, diamonds and white gold, circa 1970, from a private collection.

Claudette Colbert and Millicent Rogers were just two of numerous celebrities that favored Boivin jewelry. Through the years, Boivin had built up a stellar clientele that included such luminaries as artist Edgar Degas, songwriter Cole Porter, neurologist Sigmund Freud and photographer Cecil Beaton among others.

The Later Years

Boivin 18-karat gold, silver and opal, leaf brooch, 1938, with certificate of authentication, courtesy Palais Royal.

René and Jeanne Boivin’s daughter Germaine joined the firm  in 1938; she took over managing the company after Madame Boivin passed away in 1959, leaving the business to Germaine, who sold the company in 1976. The firm continued to craft jewelry in the Boivin legacy until the Asprey Group purchased the firm in 1991 and shut down the business. It is notable that in 1970, designer Caroline DeBrosses joined Boivin, where she stayed until the sale of the company twenty years later.  DeBrosses had a bold style that emphasized voluptuousness and felt like a natural continuation of the look that Juliette Moutard had forged for the company.

In 2020 the Boivin archives was purchased by Geneva-based G. Torroni SA, a six-generation firm specializing in antique jewelry with an international reputation as leading authorities on precious colored gemstones, diamonds, natural pearls, and antique jewelry. The company is currently  authenticating and making special order pieces while re-establishing the business so that the legacy of Boivin lives on for a new generation.

Featured image (top of page): Boivin Leaf Brooches, 1930s, 18-karat yellow gold, diamonds, emerald, ruby and sapphire, come with certificate of authentication from Francoise Cailles dating them at 1938, courtesy Lucas Rarities.

Authored by Amber Michelle

Suzanne Belperron: Visionary Designer

Portrait of Suzanne Belperron and Toi et Moi Virgin Gold ring, all images courtesy Belperron.

Recognized as one of the 20th century’s most influential jewelry designers, Suzanne Belperron remains a bit of an enigma. Fiercely private, almost secretive, her talent was undeniable. Despite being conceived many decades ago, part of the genius of Belperron is that her work looks as contemporary today as when it was first produced.

“She was a woman designing for women at a time when jewelry making was dominated by men,” explains Nico Landrigan, president, Belperron. “She mastered many jewelry making techniques and then combined them all.”

Born Madeleine Suzanne Vuillerme in Saint-Claude, France in 1900, her family moved to Besançon a year later. She became Madame Belperron when she married engineer Jean Belperron in 1924.

Her mother recognized Belperron’s talent at a young age and encouraged her to pursue her art. Belperron attended the Besançon Ecole des Beaux Arts. After graduating from school in 1919, Belperron moved to Paris, where she was hired by the Maison Boivin as a model-maker and designer. She never signed her work, but her style was recognizable and it changed the design aesthetic of the firm. 

Suzanne Belperron and Bernard Herz

Belperron Vintage Pyramide Brooch with sketch.

After a few years at Boivin, Belperron was offered a position by Bernard Herz, a high-end gem and pearl dealer. She was hired to design exclusively under his company name, B. Herz, and was given free rein to design as she pleased. Again she declined to sign her creations famously stating that “my style is my signature.”

So how do you know if a piece is by Belperron? She had a very extensive archives of 9,300 sketches and in 2015 Nico Landrigan and his father Ward, relaunched the brand, after acquiring the archives and the Belperron name and trademark in 1998. One of the things that they needed to figure out before the launch was how to distinguish the newly made Belperron from the vintage pieces.

“The new pieces are signed Belperron in bold block letters,” says Landrigan. “Some pieces are rock crystal or hardstone and there is no space for a signature so we put a coded scratch number on the piece. We have a record of all the pieces we’ve made.”

When Belperron left Boivin for B. Herz, she kept the same workshop, Groené et Darde, and the pieces designed by Belperron have those maker marks. According to Landrigan, the French system of marks is very structured and those pieces with the workshop marks help to identity her vintage jewelry. The Belperron archives can also be accessed to verify that a jewel is actually her design.

“The archives are critical to identifying Belperron’s work,” comments Landrigan. “You have to study how a piece is constructed, see the markings, but without the archives, it’s hard to be sure if the pieces are authentic.”

Belperron and World War II

In 1941 when World War II was on Europe’s doorstep, Bernard Herz asked Belperron to purchase the business from him so she could keep it going during the Nazi occupation of Paris. A year later, he was arrested and sent to jail. Belperron was part of the French Resistance and she was able to get him released, but he was arrested again and she was unable to secure his release the second time. He was sent to a concentration camp and did not survive the war.

Despite the difficulty in accessing materials to make jewelry, Belperron kept the business going throughout the war and in 1945, after spending five years in a prison camp, Bernard Herz’s son Jean Herz returned to Paris. Belperron gave the company back to Herz and he made her an equal partner in the business — Jean Herz-Suzanne Belperron, S.A.R.L.

During her career Belperron challenged traditional thinking about what jewelry should look like and how it is made. She created large-scale, curvaceous and voluptuous pieces that are as stylish now as when they were first made.

“She was an exceptional artist,” observes Landrigan. “I think she foresaw a modern style. She looked into the future. She had restraint and balance in her jewelry. She never gave everything away at a first glance. You really have to zoom in and look at her pieces, the more you look the better it gets.”

Belperron and Serti Couteau

Belperron Paisley Serti Couteau Spinel Earclips.

Landrigan notes that Belperron invented her own style of setting to accommodate her designs. She liked to create pieces with multiple gemstones in different sizes and shapes, so she developed a special setting, serti couteau, or knife edge, to hold the stones in place. The setting technique, which looks like an irregular honeycomb on the back, became a part of the design. The setting allowed Belperron to mount stones of various shapes and sizes into her pieces in a random pattern.  She also pioneered the setting of gemstones into hardstone, a favorite combination was diamonds in rock crystal. Some of her all gold pieces were textured — through the use of microhammering and scratching – to look ancient.

Belperron worked very closely with her clients. She custom made jewels in collaboration with her client, taking meticulous measurements of the fingers and wrists to make sure that the finished jewel was a perfect fit.

In 1963 Belperron was given the Knight of the Legion of Honor award by the French government for her contributions as a jewelry designer. It is the highest distinction given to a French citizen. In 1974, after 55 years in the business, 42 with the Herz family, Belperron and Jean Herz closed up shop and retired. Belperron passed away in Paris in 1983, but her artistic legacy lives on through the jewels she created.

The late great designer Karl Lagerfeld summed up the essence of Belperron’s work when he wrote the forward to the book “The Jewelry of Suzanne Belperron” by Patricia Corbett, Ward Landrigan and Nico Landrigan. “There is a humble splendor you can never find in other designers’ work before her. One feels that the heart always prevailed,” concluded Lagerfeld.

 Authored by Amber Michelle