The Worlds of Chaumet Exhibition, held at Tokyo’s Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, is a saga come to life. Tracing the maison’s 238-year history, Chaumet has managed to corral more than 300 gorgeous pieces comprising precious stones, objets d’arts, paintings and drawings from private collectors, archives and museums into one space for public view.
Spread across eight rooms, the exhibition tracks the brand’s journey from its origins as purveyor of haute joaillerie to the court of France’s first Emperor, and later to royalty in Japan and India, as well as to popes, to its modern status as one of the most storied of jewellery maisons.
It’s always been the case when it comes to jewels that those with stories behind them are the ones that stand the test of time. Value lies in lore before cut, colour, carat and clarity come into play. Most of the jewels on display at the exhibition existed before the advent of modern classification systems and are no less stunning for it, cut to release their luminescence in candlelight before there was electricity.
My Chaumet journey begins in the first room of the exhibition, which houses what’s probably the star of the show – the tiara given by Napoleon I to Pope Pius VII, as a token of thanks for the latter’s attendance at the newly minted Emperor’s coronation. Napoleon had asked Marie-Étienne Nitot, founder of Chaumet, to set his coronation regalia – robes, consul’s sword, crown of laurels, necklace of the Légion d’Honneur, globe, sceptre and hand of justice – with jewels and gems, all of which can be seen in a François Gérard painting in the same room.
Moving past the tiaras I arrive at exhibits that depict Chaumet’s first forays abroad. There’s the Hope Cup and the belt of Empress Marie-Louise, which took its inspiration from Greek mythology. More impressive, however, is the Bayadere necklace, made in 1920 and a magnificent piece created in the image of the tasselled chains of Hindu dancers. Constructed from natural seed pearls, platinum, sapphire cabochon and rose-cut diamonds, this is a perfect example of the early artistic exchange that arose when French jewellers visited maharajas to peer into their vast collections of precious stones.
In the same room are Chinese style pompoms, pendants and vanity cases. Joseph Chaumet interpreted the Chinese motifs using gold, platinum, diamonds and jade to fashion cigarette cases made of enamel for the fashionable set of the 1920s.
From there, the exhibition homes in on the house’s reverence for nature. There are beautifully rendered fruits, ears of wheat, hazelnuts and butterflies. The Rose brooch retains the natural quality of mother-of-pearl to fashion a delicate flower. Amid the strength of the Chimera brooch is a strange Unicorn clip made of lapis lazuli, turquoise, diamonds and gold. The original piece of lapis lazuli holds its natural shape while a mane of gold, diamonds and turquoise is fashioned to sit on top of the unshaped piece of deep blue stone.
There’s a stomacher with a shell motif and the largest piece of aquamarine I’ve ever set eyes on – 332 carats in total and the colour the sea should always be. A symbol for a happy marriage, the piece was in fact a wedding gift and has remained in a private collection until now.
Finally, I reach the Japanese room, dedicated to the inspirations by the exhibition’s host country. An Edo-period suzuribako writing case from Marie-Antoinette’s collection is displayed with all the exemplary craftsmanship associated with the Asian island nation. Alongside it are 22 Japanese-inspired designs ranging from handbag watches, vanity cases, powder compacts, cigarette cases, brooches and pins – all made in the 1920s as a response to Japonism, a fashion phenomenon that inspired French art at the time.
There’s a necklace featuring a stylised ginkgo leaf with diamonds delicately set around the stem, but the crowning glory is the haute joaillerie interpretation of East and West coming together – the Japanese set Chant de Printemps, which combines geometric designs with sakura.
I’ve come to the end of the exhibition, with all of its histories and stories swilling around in my head. I’ve learnt that Tokyo hosts more Chaumet stores than any city outside of France – in fact, there’s a new Chaumet flagship in Ginza to which I find myself irresistibly drawn.
As if the staff can read my mind, I’m led to a small alcove next to the stairs where a set of maillechorts sits. I begin trying each one on.