Traversing Beijing’s clogged arteries is a travail known to many, but when you’re heading for the Palace Museum – once more evocatively known as the Forbidden City, with its aura of mystery – the sense of anticipation overrides the exasperation. Security checkpoints are cleared and we pass gardens of … sakura? There’s no indication what flora blooms around the paths leading up to our destination, but rest assured, our route to the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihe Dian) looks postcard perfect. And then, finally, we reach the wing marked Treasure Gallery.
There are Chaumet signs plastered across several walls and venues, but upon first sight of the royal assemblage of diadems, tiaras, statement necklaces and coronation swords, no signage is necessary. The regal imprimatur is as clear-cut as the pebble-sized diamonds.
Under the direction of Henri Loyrette (the former director of the Musée d’Orsay and of Musée du Louvre, where he was also curator), the exhibition – Imperial Splendours – is built around Chaumet’s body of historic jewels, drawings and vast archives of riches. Imperial Splendours spans the history of the maison from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the 21st in all its jewel-encrusted glory. Roughly 300 works, jewels, paintings, drawings and objets d’art illustrate Chaumet’s characteristic “art of jewellery”.
According to the brand’s officials, the project has been years in the making. Historians, curators and other talents from the Musée du Louvre, the Château de Fontainebleau and the Victoria and Albert Museum of London (among a long list of others) all collaborated to bring this mammoth project to fruition.
In dimly lit halls with focal lights on major pieces, the invaluable collection will be seen by innumerable people in the coming weeks. Many will marvel at the “corridor of crowns”, a path brocaded with glass cases holding diadems and tiaras, while the display of pieces in which East meets West is particularly fascinating – and breathtakingly beautiful.
The Chaumet pieces are not displayed in isolation, but rather alongside works belonging to the Palace Museum itself, offering an exchange between Chinese and French jewellery arts and unveiling shared inspirations and reciprocal influences. Which perhaps explains why this quintessentially French brand travelled halfway across the globe to showcase its historic pieces in the eastern capital. As Loyrette elucidates, “I realised when I was at the Louvre that there has always been a close link between Chaumet and the museum. This imperial legitimacy is a good reason in itself to justify an exhibition in the Palace Museum, who immediately gave a favourable reply to our project request, namely because of the historic dimension, and who judged the selection of works as being worthy of being shown alongside their collections. The display that we conceived in partnership, where French and Chinese creations are placed side by side, illustrates the kinship that exists between our two histories.”
rench scenographer Richard Peruzzi had the complex task of showcasing this rarefied collection of objects in a harmonious way without disrupting the grand architecture of the closely guarded and protected world heritage site that houses the Palace Museum. “I created a great number of decors for the theatre and the opera, a little less for the cinema,” he says. “I always try to design these ephemeral architectures as the silent witnesses of the actor’s art, so that the paper walls I create guide and accompany the story that is unfolding before the eyes of the audience. When I discovered Chaumet’s creations two years ago, I felt an immense emotion. The pieces have never seemed inert to me, I saw them as alive. I was struck by the radiance and beauty of all these extraordinary jewellery pieces that had been created through the ages, by their origins and history. I imagined them moving towards us since the dawn of time. Shivering and trembling on the heads of those who wore them. Jewels transformed into actors.”
Among this troupe of “actors”, our eyes go to an 1848-49 tea fountain and cream server in gilded silver by Jean-Valentin Morel, from the Musée du Louvre. An emblem of the West’s fascination with China in the mid-19th century, the tea-service model was presented at the Exposition des Produits de l’Industrie in Paris; it’s decorated with a number of characteristic Chinese motifs – blossoming boughs on a scale-patterned background, medallions with chinoiserie designs, gnarled branches, architectural elements and fire-breathing dragons. Then there’s a small brooch with a Chinese junk motif that Lacloche created for Joseph Chaumet, circa 1925, made of platinum, imperial jade, rubies, diamonds and onyx from the Collection Chaumet Paris. Decorated with a sculpted jade plaque depicting a junk sailing on a background of waves and cut-out diamond clouds, it’s not to be missed among a parade of glistening and glistering baubles that shimmer in the cavernous hall.
Among these ravishing remnants of an era gone by, a modern take on the tiara stands alone at the farthest wall of the museum. Scott Armstrong, all of 21 and one of the youngest jewellers in the business, had the awesome task of creating a piece to stand the test of time. “The idea of designing a diadem was something that I had never imagined having the opportunity to do,” he says. “It was very difficult in the beginning to decide how a diadem would fit within 21st-century culture.”
As we stand beside his exhibit, I rib that there’s not a huge market for tiara designers in this day and age. Armstrong replies sagely: “Historically, diadems have represented nobility, power, beauty and so many other things that are perhaps not accessible or as relevant in the 21st century. I think that a diadem for the 21st century should hold the same values as any diadem made throughout history; it’s a very special adornment for an exceptional woman.”