Taher Chemirik’s atelier in a working class Paris district is not easy to find. With good reason, jewellers like to guard their anonymity. And, once inside this Aladdin’s cave of stones, precious metals and the chunky geometric cuffs and necklaces that are his hallmark, it is easy to see why the Algerian-born jewellery designer values his privacy.
Apart from his jewellery, the atelier houses an eclectic array of objects, including a poster of model Linda Evangelista wearing Mr Chemirik’s jewellery for Chloé and a representation of artist Damien Hirst’s notorious diamond-studded skull. “The work involved in that is enormous – that’s what interested me,” he explains.
There are fewer of these ateliers to be found in Paris as developers buy them up to turn into apartments in edgy areas on the cusp of gentrification. The economic recession and the soaring price of gold, which Mr Chemirik blames on speculators, have taken their toll on independent creators and artisans.
Some have shut up shop in France and gone to work abroad in countries with cheaper labour and living costs, such as Tunisia or even Asia.
But Mr Chemirik’s inventiveness has demonstrated its utility in these harder times.
A year ago, he started mixing plastic and gold, and has designed a chain belt and necklace with large circular dangling elements in silver blanketed by gold, reducing the cost. For his next collection he plans to use wood and brass.
“The material is not as important as the ideas, and the form,” he says, adding that men tend to want to buy gold for their wives and girlfriends, whereas women who buy for themselves are less influenced by the material and more by the look of what they like.
He is best-known for juxtaposing materials – such as ebony and diamonds, aquamarine and pearls – and his unconventional, bold and sculptural jewellery. He is often asked whether his eye for form and shape derives from his boyhood in Algeria.
He says he is passionate about black African art but attributes his creativity to his artistic and open-minded parents.
“When I was small, the jeweller would come and visit our house, lay out his stones and I would choose for my mother. I was 14 years old when I started designing for my mother.”
After studying interior design in Algiers, Mr Chemirik left for Paris where he learnt stage and costume design. He went on to design at the Opera de Paris where his signature style began to evolve through the necessity of making bold, statement jewellery that could be seen from a distance.
He then moved to Ralph Lauren but, after three years, decided to pursue his vocation in jewellery design by working as an apprentice to a jeweller, whom he paid out of his savings for the privilege.
Within 18 months, he was designing jewellery for Karl Lagerfeld, at the time designer at Chloé fashion house. It was the start of a fulfilling decade-long collaboration.
“He loves novelty; he is very respectful of people and a great supporter of workshops; I think it was because of him that Chanel supported and preserved so many. He is someone with a conscience whom I respect a lot.”
Mr Chemirik also designed for other fashion houses, including Yves Saint Laurent, Roger Vivier, Balenciaga, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Chanel, where Lagerfeld moved after Chloé. He was recognised in 2007 as one of Time magazine’s “The Design 100”.
Janet Brown, the powerful, US fashion retailer and guru, who died in 2007, was a big fan, finding in his dramatic and individualistic style something of a “court jeweller”.
Today, he designs principally for Bernardaud, the French porcelain maker and jeweller, where he has juxtaposed porcelain with gold and silver. He has also found new customers and markets, including in Asia, which has been a help in the downturn.
He was invited by Lane Crawford, the Hong Kong-based designer retailer, to design a line of jewellery. He used jadeite – rarer and more expensive than jade – to create a contemporary and exclusive line. The costliest piece was a pendant retailing for HK$10.8m ($1.4m).
He is working on a secret project, bigger and more sculptural than anything he has done before, which he refers to as “ma petite folie” – a playful series akin to artwork, “both mysterious and beautiful”, which will take about a year to complete.
He sees signs of an upturn in the arrival of new buyers. “They are from other countries and they are opening up new boutiques – I find that very encouraging.”
But he thinks there are grounds for government intervention to help protect France’s small, creative industries. “I would like the state to save the small ateliers because they are the image of France. It would be a great shame to lose that because this is the savoir faire of France,” he says. “I have been able to get through because I have loyal customers but that is not the case for everyone else. My customers don’t buy as much as before but they still come back.”
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