Gabrielle Chanel’s obsession with antique Chinese coromandel screens is legendary. She is believed to have owned 32 of these richly lacquered red, gold and black folding screens.
SEE ALSO: Chanel’s Code Coco watch
In Paris, her opulent apartment at 31 Rue Cambon — which has been preserved pretty much as she had left it — housed eight of them, which date from the 17th and 18th centuries. They stretched from floor to ceiling and were reflected infinitely in the mirrors and rock crystals that filled the interior. She employed them in unconventional ways, decorating her walls with them like wallpaper or using them to structure her private space, even to hide doors to keep her guests from leaving after dinner. She rearranged them from room to room, cutting, reducing, detaching and transforming them to suit her tastes, sometimes pinning photographs and drawings by her artist-friends to create a new moodboard and interior landscape. “When I look at this screen in the evening, for example,” she remarked, “I see doors opening and knights setting off on horseback.”
These screens even played the role that tapestries did in the Middle Ages, accompanying Chanel on her travels from her residences on Avenue de New-York and Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré to her suite at Hotel Ritz Paris and her villa in Lausanne, thus enabling her to recreate a home everywhere, as she could surround herself with aesthetically pleasing stories of exotic voyages, foreign lands, sailing ships, palaces, flowers and birds wherever she went. “I’m like a snail,” she confided. “I carry my house with me…Two Chinese screens, books everywhere. I’ve never been able to live in an open house. The first thing I look for are screens.”
Symbolising Chanel’s passion for Chinese art, coromandel screens were introduced to her by her English beau, Boy Capel, and she started collecting them around 1910. “I’ve loved Chinese screens since I was 18 years old…I nearly fainted with joy when, entering a Chinese shop, I saw a coromandel for the first time…Screens were the first thing I bought,” she once told author Claude Delay.
Chanel’s Global Head of Watches & Fine Jewellery, Marianne Etchebarne, discloses, “What Mademoiselle Chanel loved about the coromandel screens is their flexibility and also the imaginary universe behind the motifs because they are full of details, birds, animals, landscapes — a very rich universe.”
After the launch of Mademoiselle Privé timepieces in 2012, Chanel has incorporated these enigmatic screens into its high jewellery designs, reinterpreting the lacquered motifs its founder helped popularise among the fashionable society, to conceive a new collection that spent two years in the making. Encompassing 59 pieces, 24 of which are unique, the Coromandel collection was presented during Paris Couture Week in July.
It is divided into three themes: Floral, to evoke peonies and camellias (her favourite flower); animals, to represent the bestiary of the coromandel panels; and minerals, to reflect her passion for gemstones and crystals (she believed in their healing power) and illustrating natural landscapes found on the screens.
The gemstones used echo the hues of the lacquers on the coromandel: The greens of tsavorite garnets and tourmalines on the Evocation Florale four-strand sautoir and a 10.20-ct Colombian emerald on the Evocation Florale ring; the reds of the 10.25-ct, cushion-cut spinel on the Evocation Florale ring and 845 ruby beads on the Evocation Florale bracelet; the blacks of the shiny lacquer on the Fleur de Laque earrings and watch and spinels on the Florale Calligraphie cuff and ring; and the whites of the mother-of-pearl on the delicate, open-worked Fleur de Nacre earrings, bracelet and necklace.
In the floral category, a reversible cuff that incorporates the geometric structure of the screens — with carved onyx and diamonds on one side and 723 orangey sapphires totalling 50.38cts and diamonds on the other — and set with a pivoting fancy vivid yellow diamond steals the show. “This one was particularly difficult to develop because it is two-sided. The first challenge was to make it very thin, while still offering two ways of wearing it. The second was to make it so supple it felt like fabric around your wrist,” Etchebarne explains. “It is very interesting because the cuff is often associated with Mademoiselle Chanel. She used to wear cuffs, and even a pair of them, which made a real statement,” she adds.
Showcasing an amazing number of remarkable white diamonds is the Evocation Florale necklace, the most expensive piece in the collection. It features 962 round-cut diamonds, a middle strand of 44 emerald-cut diamonds in increasing sizes that culminate in a 8.62-ct emerald-cut diamond, and five diamond-set panels depicting a camellia motif. It was challenging to find diamonds of the same quality that would achieve a harmonious radiance. The team took three months to source the central stone, another five to find the other 25 principal emerald-cut diamonds, and 1,000 hours on crafting.
Another unforgettable piece is the Florale Calligraphie watch. It is designed with a “cut-and-sewn” appearance with frames of blackened gold, obtained through electrolysis, to imitate the borders of coromandel screens, providing a striking contrast to the eight Burmese pigeon’s blood rubies, emeralds, orange sapphires and diamonds. Together, they come together to form a luxurious modern floral garden.
In the animal section, birds in motion are given pride of place, such as cranes (representing longevity and wisdom), eagles (strength), magpies (happiness) and swallows (success). They feature polished beaks and stones of different cuts to create the impression of liveliness. Mirroring a scene from one of the screens, a bird that appears primed for flight and surrounded by flowers, adorns the Précieux Envol necklace set with hundreds of baguette-cut, marquise-cut and round diamonds and one 7.09-ct emerald-cut diamond pendant. Complementing this necklace is a white and fancy yellow diamond ring with a 13.24-ct pear-cut diamond, and tassel earrings with 210 briolette-cut fancy orange diamonds that weigh 53.50cts.
A stunning series of five one-off Bestiaire d’Asie brooches rounds off the theme. Particularly eye-catching numbers are a tortoise in red jasper, yellow sapphires, diamonds and a red spinel suspended off an Indonesian gold cultured pearl; a wapiti in red jasper, emeralds, sapphires, diamonds and onyx with a tourmaline drop; and a horse in diamonds and a 17.88-ct cushion-cut topaz. “You have different animals that you can see on the panels, with various techniques in a combination of carved stones, hard stones and precious stones, which conveys the idea of craftsmanship,” Etchebarne explains.
Under the mineral theme, the Horizon Lointain platinum and yellow gold necklace with clouds of mother-of-pearl and 2,250 diamonds surrounding a 6.52-ct, oval-cut diamond suggests an imaginary coromandel landscape. Further demonstrating Chanel’s first-time use of lacquer in haute joaillerie is the head-turning Vibration Minerale sautoir, bangle and earrings in yellow gold, platinum, green and blue lacquer, Japanese cultured pearls, mother-of-pearl and diamonds, to portray mountains, gardens, trees, waves and clouds.
Etchebarne concludes, “The whole collection is very consistent because you can recognise the structure of the coromandel panel on every piece, and inside the panel, you have a profusion of baroque effects and stories, whether it is birds, flowers or mountains.” And maybe just like Chanel, fans of the Coromandel collection can now step into their own imaginary universe overflowing with fanciful tales of faraway lands.