If you fancy playing queen for the day, then head to the newly revamped Chaumet boutique at Elements shopping mall. Tucked away at the back of the store is a mysterious sliding door engraved with gold-plated aigrette (egret feather and jewel headdress). Beyond lies a treasure trove accessible only to a select few, a glittering display of tiara models based on actual designs that have graced the heads of the rich and famous. Unfortunately, the privilege of trying (and owning) a Chaumet tiara is reserved for the truly elite – past clients have included Marie Antoinette, Empress Josephine and Queen Victoria – but you can pretend, if only for a day.
Since it was founded in Paris in 1780 by Marie-Étienne Nitot, Chaumet has been decorating royalty and aristocracy with its creations. While these ties may form a core part of its heritage, CEO Jean-Marc Mansvelt is determined to create a new, enduring legacy that goes beyond its tiaras.
“For me, there’s only one goal. Our duty is to be at the level of our predecessors and to find a way to give heritage to our successors by bringing Chaumet back to its rightful place now. Despite its amazing history, it’s still a sleeping beauty, a brand that’s still [relatively] unknown. Our job is to make it contemporary and strengthen its majesty,” he says.
Mansvelt, whose successful career includes stints at Louis Vuitton and L’Oréal, is the prince charged with waking the sleeping beauty and bringing her story to a new generation. Since his appointment two years ago he has spearheaded several projects, including a semi-permanent museum at Place Vendôme, while adding more high-jewellery collections to highlight the maison’s savoir-faire.
The latest, called La Nature de Chaumet, heralds a new chapter and pays tribute to the brand’s past and future. It takes inspiration from four motifs that have always played a starring role in the house’s creations – the laurel, the wheat sheaf, the oak and the lily – and have now been transformed into contemporary pieces. Highlights include the Firmament Apollinien jewellery set featuring two large necklaces made from moonstone and Burmese sapphires, one of which can be transformed into a tiara. The wheat collection is classic in theme and inspired by 1980s-vintage jewellery, but the designs are ultra-modern and include between-the-finger rings and cuff-like earrings that hug the ears.
While Chaumet’s history and artistry are its strengths, transmitting these ideals to a global audience is more difficult. As Chaumet’s store network is still relatively small (it has 83 boutiques globally; Cartier in comparison has more than 200), Mansvelt has relied on other avenues to get his message across, namely social media. He saw his labours come to fruition when Chinese actress Angelababy posted an image of her 5.5-carat Joséphine Aigrette Impériale engagement ring from Chaumet on Instagram, instantly giving the brand exposure.
A few months later the brand released images of the actress and her husband visiting its Place Vendôme headquarters to select the tiaras and jewels used in the wedding (Angelababy eventually borrowed an antique pearl tiara and brooch from the museum to wear at her nuptials). The social-media networks went crazy.
“Angelababy had the opportunity to select other big players, but their choice was Chaumet. In some ways we replayed the love story of Napoleon and Joséphine, which is a founding myth of Chaumet, in a modern way. It really appealed to the people of today and the current time we are living in, while showcasing emotion,” says Mansvelt.
Since then the digital initiatives have kept on coming. In January, Chaumet launched a global app “You and Me Paris”, featuring a romantic guide for couples, including walking tours and exclusive experiences, produced in collaboration with city experts My Little Paris.
The latest is the launch of the brand’s first-ever virtual gallery space entirely online. Jumping off the success of the museum in Paris, it allows millions of people to learn more about the maison’s heritage and history through photos, drawings and archive pieces, in an interactive and engaging way.
“Hosting exhibitions is difficult for many reasons – the pieces are limited and logistics can be difficult. This museum, however, is open to everyone and we will keep adding new galleries and exhibitions online. When you have a maison with nearly two and a half centuries [of history], you can make parallels in terms of creativity, trends and periods in history. We want to express this through the virtual museum.
“Our first gallery is called “Une Éducation Sentimentale”, which covers our themes of love and attachment. Six months later we’ll open another. There will also be virtual games and tours. It’s like a painting – it will be unveiled and come to life over time,” says Mansvelt.
While harnessing the digital world is part of Mansvelt’s overall global strategy, he also eyes growth in Asia. This may come as a surprise considering that most brands are consolidating their stores and presence in the region, but Chaumet is still relatively unknown here, which gives it an advantage. To prove it, the brand will host a landmark exhibition at the Forbidden City in Beijing in April featuring more than 300 pieces of jewellery lent by 17 museums and around 100 owners. It will include French national treasures that have never left the country.
“Asia in general is crucial, but for us it’s more about being cautious and flexible. Our starting point is different from that of many other players – one of our characteristics is that we’re international, but not everywhere. We feel an appetite for high jewellery, and brands with a meaning, and a sense of exclusivity. Typically the audience in Asia is looking for creations of today, but also for depth or meaning behind the creation. When you buy Chaumet you buy a piece of history.
“More than that, what we really notice is that people are in search of something different. I use the word ‘distinction’ but it really is what’s behind the brand. They look for something that no one else is going to wear. Distinction in the eyes of others, but also in the taste they demonstrate by wearing Chaumet,” he says.