The jewellery designed and worn by Coco Chanel and, by extension, the modern-day incarnation of Chanel Fine Jewellery, presents a precise reflection of her overarching mythology, weaving together the three crucial components of this myth – design, biography and contemporary image – into an aesthetic shorthand for its contradictions and consistencies. The jewellery’s positioning as a perpetual counterpoint to the design philosophies Chanel signified through her clothing designs subverted and, at times, reversed the relationships between intricacy and simplicity, abundance and absence.
Cecil Beaton, writing in the year of Chanel’s ‘comeback’ in 1954, contemplated the logic behind the designer’s promotion of rational simplicity within her clothing designs. Bypassing typical attributions to notions of modernity and shifting social mores, Beaton suggested an alternative interpretation: ‘possibly she turned to nature and…reaffirmed, the fact that the female of the species is generally unadorned, that female birds are drab compared to the males’. The dualism inherent within the wider Chanel mythology, however, finds its full force in the couturière’s consistent contrasts: between this minimalistic clothing and a mode of ‘adornment’ defined by luxury, but never ostentation; artistry, but never economical value. She deconstructed the notion of ‘adornment’, stripping it from its conventional space on the clothing’s surface, only to reconstruct it through the medium of jewellery and, subsequently, making this juxtaposition an integral part of her image and identity, both personally and through her brand.
Chanel’s clothing designs appeared to be simple, with their streamlined silhouettes and reductive aesthetic, yet they both contradicted and complemented the bold, graphic qualities of her costume jewellery and the fantastical profusion of her 1932 foray into diamond jewellery. Her ability to incorporate seemingly oppositional elements, such as authentic and imitation stones, as seen in photographic representation of her wearing her own jewellery, alongside the consistency with which she employed recurring motifs and design features – the star, the feather, the lion – as seen in both the 1932 and 2012 collections, is part of her inherent mythology. However, the tensions that surface between contradiction and consistency within Chanel’s jewellery, and indeed clothing, are not limited solely to design. The frictions that have inevitably arisen between Karl Lagerfeld’s desire to respectfully reanimate the iconographical traditions of his predecessor while, simultaneously, avoiding an overtly reverential methodology create a contemporary layer of paradox atop a pre-existing mythology. Similarly, Chanel’s own conscious presentation of a cultivated ‘personality’, which sought to rewrite the more humble and tumultuous aspects of her personal narrative, was crystallized within her own use of adornment. However, an excessive biographical focus in relation to the Chanel ‘myth’, due primarily to a recent cultural propensity to amplify and ‘commercialize’ this particular aspect, can certainly eclipse vital components of a mythology that, in fact, extends further than mere biography. However, without any consideration of Chanel’s heavily mythologized personality, the ‘myth’ as a whole remains incomplete, owing to its significant contribution to the durability of her overall image.
The myth’s three central components are therefore inextricably interlinked in its establishment. Thus, both the jewellery’s design and representation enabled the expression of a mythology that extends beyond design in order to encompass interdependent notions of personality and contemporary image, and which, subsequently, becomes an embodiment of the Chanel brand’s modern, contradictory and indissoluble identity.
Beaton, C. (1954) The Glass of Fashion, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Bolton, A. and Koda, H., eds. (2005) Chanel, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Mauriès, P. (2012) Jewelry by Chanel, London: Thames & Hudson.