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With its main halls dominated by the lavish booths of global brands, Baselworld can be a daunting prospect for an independent designer. Only a few exhibitors — around a dozen — are high-end designers creating unique pieces under their own names. One wonders how Basel works for them.
One answer comes from Lydia Courteille, a mineralogist with a 20-year-old design business run from an opulent Paris boutique. Using unusual and sometimes antique stones, her pleasure is designing one-off pieces based on her research into ethnography and world religions. She makes about 400 pieces a year, priced between €10,000 and €100,000.
Her new collection, Queen of Sheba, contains only 18 pieces, but recent demand from upscale retailers and websites with a personal service element made it worthwhile taking what she describes as “the smallest possible booth” for the first time last year. “When you are not known you have no say, and I was surrounded by clocks rather than other jewellers,” she says. Sales in 2015 justified spending over SFr35,000 ($35,000) on another tiny booth this year, but this time in a better spot.
She hopes to replace falling sales to Russia. “[It] was our most important market from the start of our business, so the fall-off in sales due to its economic and political crises, and high import tariffs, is disappointing. But we have been more than compensated by a rise in US sales in recent years — it is now our foremost market and still increasing.”
Taking a stand at Basel among her large competitors might seem risky, but Mme Courteille has confidence. “As a small company with limited funding we have to be nimble and far-sighted,” she says. “I stockpiled stones like red or green tourmalines and dark or white opals 10 years ago when prices were low. I forecast future trends and act accordingly.”
Most of her large, complex pieces are made in small French workshops but for simpler items which can be made in several versions, albeit with different stones, she uses a French-owned factory in China. “The craftsmanship is excellent but benefits from guidance on European techniques,” she says.
Keeping ahead of the pack means searching out new slants on her distinctive style. “I know I will be copied so each collection is different,” she says. The latest collection derives from a month spent in Ethiopia and uses her cache of in-vogue green stones. “It’s a spiritual place with layers of religion — shamanism, Islam, Coptic Christianity and the Falasha Jews,” she adds. This is reflected in cuffs tracing the cross-shaped outlines of Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches, a ring based on carved angels in an Axum church, menorah-shaped earrings and tangles of green stones based on the foliage headdresses of the Mursi tribe.
Rare acid-yellow tourmalines and dark, white or reddish opals are added for a series inspired by the volcanic, sub-sea-level Danakil Desert, one of the hottest landscapes on earth. Most pieces are set in ancient-looking brown gold alloy. Few such painstakingly imaginative pieces exist at Basel, or indeed elsewhere. “The stores that find me are looking for individual pieces different from well-publicised brands,” she says. “So we are here, holding our heads as high as anyone.”