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Chaumet’s Grand Salon on the Place Vendôme has a perfectly maintained 18th-century interior, complete with marble fireplace, gilded Corinthian columns and marquetry compass inset into the wooden floor. But one room away from all this rococo glory — apt for the house’s foundation in 1780 — is a very modern white-walled, high-tech laboratory.
This compact, climate-controlled room hosts shelf after shelf of box files that Béatrice de Plinval, elegant curator of Chaumet’s museum and archives, brings out. Within them are drawings, carefully concealed in paper slips, which stretch over Chaumet’s history and show the jewellery of every type, metal, stone and configuration the house has made. They are drawn by the designer not necessarily as something to be made but also as something that has been made — pour mémoire, as the French say.
As pictures, they are no less rich than the jewellery they show. Tight twists of green paint stand for emeralds, red for rubies. Shades of white and grey are luminous against a black background to suggest the scintillating of a platinum and diamond fern-leaf brooch turning in the light. Some sheets have several allied designs pasted on — crescent-shaped brooches and tiaras and necklaces with sharp horns, all done at the same time, perhaps as a process of deciding which to make. Papers, materials, styles change over centuries, and the hand of the draughtsman is always visible. The drawings and photographs can stand by themselves, disassociated from the objects, almost like a taxonomy of images.
Chaumet studies for insect jewellery (1890)
A maison’s archives — which can also comprise photographs, account books, inventory books and letters — are a glimpse not just into their past. The future is in some ways the least interesting as designers trawl through previous pieces for inspiration for new collections. But the present is much more revealing: how houses take care of their archives tells you much about their strategies, their concerns, their resources. Ms de Plinval, for example, says that drawings and photographs (including glass plates) are digitised as needed for reference or display.
Across town, Catherine Cariou, heritage director at Van Cleef & Arpels, works on an extensive digital database. She can also bring out the originals, and while you might expect these drawings to be formal, elegant, many of them are lively sketches on lined notecards, a post-sale record. Tiffany has more than a million same-size jewellery sketches and blueprints for tableware in watercolour, pencil and ink, kept in New Jersey.
Tiffany & Co study for starbust brooch (c1895); Tiffany & Co butterfly brooch (19th century)
There is a practical reason for these archives too: when a piece comes up for sale, it may need to be validated as authentic. Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s image and style director, says: “We can understand the archive’s ‘completeness’ in the sense that there is always a way, using a combination of records or documents, to discover the information we need to authenticate a piece.”
Cartier keeps records in London, Paris and New York; the archives on the fourth floor of its Bond Street shop are of the clean, bright, quiet lab-kind. There are white metal shelves packed with green-leather ledgers, which have labels like “Necklaces” and “Cigarette Cases” stamped in gilt on the spine. These contain 1:1-scale photographs of items produced in London since the workshop opened in 1922 — an almost complete record, methodical from the start.
There are 30,000 hand-drawn designs too, says archivist Jenny Rourke, including those pasted into books and those which are loose. Intriguingly, Cartier draughtsmen use a pale blue wash to represent diamonds, unlike others’ white gouache. The Maharajah of Nawanagar collaborated with Cartier on an outré, oversized diamond necklace — drawings represent stages of its evolution and the archive also shows a photo of the prince with his piece.
Cartier study for the Maharajah of Nawanagar’s necklace (1930s)
The room is temperature and humidity controlled, and work is ongoing “to conserve and stabilise designs and photographs”, says Mr Rainero. New conservation standards demand new archival boxes, and conservation must occur before digitisation.
Back in Paris is a very different approach to archiving. Visiting the basement of Mellerio dits Meller, founded in 1613, far below the Rue de la Paix, archive storage suggests the 17th century, not the 21st. Hefty order ledgers press up against one another in dark bookcases in tight, low-lit rooms. Diane-Sophie Lanselle, communications director for the maison, describes the temperature and humidity controlled space as “a cave” (in the wine-cellar sense).
Ms Lanselle says there are probably 500 order, account and customer books dating from 1775, and more than 200,000 individual designs. It is impressive such records at Mellerio or any Parisian house survived the French Revolution’s radical sans-culottes.
Mellerio studies for earrings (c1865)
But the more enduring threat, says Sarah Vowles, curator of Italian and French prints and drawings at the British Museum, is nature. Drawings kept in a bureau or in an album, in the dark, would survive very well, she says, and their role as a “knowledge base”, for successive designers to occasionally consult, suits this.
The type of paper used before the 19th century also helped preservation; it was after then that you got “cheaper-quality paper which does discolour quite rapidly” because of chemicals used to make it. Blue paper, which was the best for providing a full range of colour-tones to the draughtsman, is “the most fugitive shade”, says Ms Vowles, and can now appear brown because of its exposure to light.
When it comes to jewellery houses’ archives, people concentrate mainly on the objects: jewels reclaimed from history. They are fabulous to see and valuable to study. But if a maison’s reputation lives in the objects it created, the documents around them are no less salutary or significant.
Garrard Iris earrings; Bulgari necklaces (1965-67); Carrington & Co tiaras
Additional research by Tatjana Mitevska