The 1932 Chanel "Bijoux de Diamants" collection. © Roger Viollet via Getty Images

When fashion designer Coco Chanel launched her first fine jewellery collection in 1932, the established jewellery houses of the time lampooned her. But while the Bijoux de Diamants line was a one-off at the time, it demonstrated that a fashion house could expand into fine jewellery and become a serious competitor to incumbents.

Chanel made its second foray into fine jewellery in 1993, followed by Dior in 1999 and Louis Vuitton in 2001. More recently, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada and Armani have all introduced fine jewellery lines, while Gucci opened a jewellery-only shop on Paris’s Place Vendôme in 2019.

By then, branded jewellery accounted for 30 per cent of a market worth €90bn, up from a 10 per cent share in 2008, according to Boston Consulting Group. Sarah Willersdorf, head of luxury at BCG, says “fine jewellery collections can help elevate the brands” as well as provide a way to increase sales to wealthy customers.

However, starting out in jewellery is not easy, even for a brand as big as Louis Vuitton. “Stone sellers did not necessarily think we were a legitimate client,” says Michael Burke, chief executive. “It was the same thing with designers — we had to convince [them] to come on board, even though we did not have clients yet and we did not have the stones. You have to go in a very humble way, and you have to learn, and learning means 10 years minimum.”

Michael Burke, Louis Vuitton CEO © Magali Delporte

To reap the rewards, though, new jewellery brands must differentiate themselves from rivals and invest for the long term. “Very simply put, nobody needed another jewellery house on Place Vendôme creating a centre stone ring with diamonds around it,” says Burke. Louis Vuitton has since patented its own diamond cuts and partnered with miner Lucara Diamond for the marketing and cutting of the 1,758ct Sewelô and 549ct Sethunya rough diamonds.

At Dior, creative director Victoire de Castellane conveyed the avant-garde spirit of founder Christian Dior by initially avoiding the big four stones of jewellery — rubies, emeralds, sapphires and diamonds — in favour of amethysts or tourmalines, and using every conceivable colour of lacquer, which is anathema to many established jewellers.

At Chanel, jewellery is intertwined with the house’s other designs. “In 2020, we dedicated a high jewellery collection to tweed, a fabric dear to Mademoiselle Chanel,” says Frédéric Grangié, president of Chanel watches and jewellery.

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of its Chanel No 5 perfume this year, the Parisian brand has unveiled a collection including a 55.55ct diamond necklace, although it will not be for sale. “Creating jewellery means thinking long term; our creations have to make sense now and in 20 years’ time, and this project is thought this way too,” says Grangié.

Chanel’s 55.55ct diamond necklace
Chanel’s 55.55ct diamond necklace

Historically, the timelessness of fine jewellery and its aura of mystique have defined the difference between the fashion and jewellery sectors. However, Willersdorf has observed some productive cross-pollination between the two. “Today, in fine jewellery there is much more focus on newness and excitement,” she says. “Even the market shift from more national and local jewellery brands to bigger, more globally branded players could be interpreted as following fashion.”

Fashion houses have also been able to offer more affordable costume jewellery alongside fine jewellery without damaging their brand.

“Mademoiselle Chanel used to mix costume and fine jewellery, so we see these two businesses coherent with the image of our house,” Grangié says.

It is doubtful jewellery houses could do the same and maintain the exclusivity of their brand although, over the past 15 years, they have used a fashion industry model of introducing entry-level collections every year to expand their reach.

Fashion brands’ jewellery lines have survived both the financial crisis and the coronavirus pandemic, though they have some way to go to emulate the longevity of jewellery houses such as Cartier, Boucheron or Chaumet, which have ridden out centuries of political and market turmoil.

Remarkably, Chanel’s jewellery business held up well during the pandemic, even without the support of ecommerce. “We know very well how much turnover ecommerce would represent, but we prefer to focus on the relationship with our clients,” says Grangié.

At Louis Vuitton, Burke says the pandemic was an opportunity to reconnect with clients. “During the pandemic, we went from about 450 stores to 15,000, as every sales assistant became a store manager,” he says, referring to the use of social media or the telephone to communicate with and sell to clients. “If you stick to product creativity and excellence in your relationship with your clients, then you have a chance of becoming a 100- or 200-year-old house,” he says.

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