Workshop visit: At Chanel, it’s all wheat, no chaff

Chanel L'Epi brooch fine jewellery Les Bles de Chanel

When did wheat get such a bad rap? What was once revered for giving us our daily bread is now feared for making us fat, tired and irritable. Time for a rebranding campaign perhaps, but who would have expected the redeemer to be…Chanel?

In fact, the notion isn’t quite as eccentric as it seems if you know the history of Chanel. The young Gabrielle Chanel had humble beginnings, spending her childhood in the rural French region of Auvergne, known for its wheat fields. As a young woman she became friends with Salvador Dali, who once gifted her a painting of wheat, a gesture that symbolised success, growth and prosperity. From there on, wheat became one of the signature house codes, woven, embroidered and knitted into many a collection. Fast-forward to 2016 and the humble ear of wheat is the focus of some of the most extravagant Chanel pieces you can buy – from the ‘Les Blés de Chanel’ high jewellery collection. Using wheat as the common motif, these one-off jewels comprise diamonds, yellow sapphires, peridots, rarely used emeralds and gold of every hue – including green.

Getting insider access is my favourite thing about writing this blog, so it was a privilege to Eurostar it across the Channel as a guest of Chanel to see this collection unveiled. And where better to see it, than in Place Vendôme, located in a specially planted field of wheat – well, almost. To coincide with the launch, artist Gad Weil created a wheat installation in what was temporarily renamed ‘Blés Vendôme’. A comment on nature and how we treat it, it was intended for busy Parisians to stroll through and enjoy a moment of reflection.

Bles Vendome installation by Gad weil in collaboration with Chanel

High jewellery sits at the top of the luxury tree at Chanel. These are one-off pieces that cost thousands upon thousands, a market trend that’s on the up, even in challenging markets such as China, Brazil and the Middle East (according to the New York Times). At Chanel, these ultra special pieces are hand made in a workshop above its Place Vendôme jewellery boutique, just a few metres from where the collection was presented.

In a calm showroom, spotlit on plinths, each piece was displayed, with discreet security guards on standby. To show the details up close, the PRs donned cotton gloves to protect their glittering charges. While these rare jewels are designed to hold their appeal and value over time, there were a few more daring pieces in the mix. For example, a mismatched ‘pair’ of earrings comprising a diamond ear cuff (a first for Chanel fine jewellery) and a small earring (below). As ultra high net worth luxury consumers get younger, so high jewellery can be worn a little more casually. Lucy Williams (of Fashion Me Now) tried the ear cuff on with her black leather jacket, proving that you can pull anything off with the right élan. Well, didn’t Coco Chanel invent the very concept of high-low jewellery, with her audacious ropes of faux pearls?
Chanel high jewellery ear cuff - from the collection, Les Bles de Chanel

While some of the pieces are incredibly ornate and generously sized, in action they’re practically weightless as they’re ergonomically designed to rest into the curves of your collarbone or wrist. Everything is adjusted to your measurements, so a piece becomes truly yours. While necklaces are always a key feature of the high jewellery line and we audibly sighed over them, it was the brooches that took my fancy. In particular, the ‘L’Epi brooch‘ (top and below), a lengthy blade of wheat in platinum and 18-carat yellow gold and diamonds, with nuanced tones picked out in coloured sapphires, topaz and garnet. And the ‘Moisson Ensoleille brooch‘ (bottom) with its bedazzling yellow sapphire.

Chanel brooch Les Bles de Chanel high jewellery

Meanwhile, my inner horologist was dragging me towards the elaborate timepieces. Of note, the ‘Moisson D’Or Watch’ of jumbo marquise cut diamonds and yellow sapphires, and my piece de resistance, the ‘Bouquet de Moisson clock‘ (below) of three different shades of gold; red, yellow and green (to represent the different growth phases of wheat!). Arranged in a wheat sheaf, the blades were tied together with a single diamond-adorned blade, the watch pendant casually dripping in diamonds and yellow sapphires. Only at Chanel…

Chanel Bouquet de Moisson clock
 Chanel Moisson D'Or watch from Les Bles de Chanel high jewellery collection
 Chanel Moisson D'Or watch from Les Bles de Chanel high jewellery collection

Chanel Paris trip
4 Les Bles de Chanel
Chanel high jewellery
Paris Chanel
Les Bles de Chanel Moisson Ensoleille brooch

So where does all this finery get dreamt up and made? Chanel has immense pride in its artisans and seems to take any opportunity to show them off. So as I was in Paris, a private tour of the hallowed high jewellery workshop was in order. I’m new to the world of jewellery craftsmanship and one thing I realised; it’s very technical. Clothes and leathergoods, I feel I have more understanding of, but jewellery has so many more intricate techniques to get your head around.

Chanel uses a number of workshops in Paris for its jewellery operations, but here at Place Vendôme is where the high end magic happens. This workshop, which only opened a few years ago, is something of a test lab for new designs. It’s also where the VIP fine jewellery pieces are made – and believe this, anything is possible. Unlike most other jewellery brands, the pieces start with a design, not the stones. They cost up the design before sourcing the stones and then it’s the job of their very good stone buyers to find whatever rare diamonds or pearls are required.

You may be surprised to know that 3D printing is as much part of the modern jewellery making process as age-old techniques using traditional tools. Wax 3D printed casts are made for prototypes and for the framework of the jewels. We watched some of this in action in a special temperature controlled chamber. Our guide was very keen for us to get a good look at all the processes and encouraged us to ask the jewellery makers about their work.

As in other luxury artisan workshops I’ve been to, everyone gets their own workstation and personalises it to a certain degree. (Alas, I couldn’t take photos here as they often work on new designs two years in advance.) And they all have their own set of tools that only they are allowed to use. I loved the workstations; well-worn wooden benches incorporating a scooped leather apron to catch fallen stones or gold dust!

Different people work on different parts of a piece of jewellery – someone on the ‘architecture’ (the bare bones of the piece), someone else setting stones, someone else polishing. Every skill is highly valued. The polisher even gets her own room overlooking Place Vendôme (and Coco Chanel’s Ritz suite opposite), where her job involves a laborious, patience-testing technique using intricate threads.

And where do the finished pieces go? Why, to the quality control department of course, where eagle-eyed checkers have their own highly skilled job. Yes, it’s someone’s job to check that an earring of 100 diamonds, doesn’t only have 99. At Chanel, you learn to expect the very best of the best. Like sorting the wheat from the chaff, you might say…

WORDS: Disneyrollergirl/Navaz Batliwalla
IMAGES: Disneyrollergirl, Chanel
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