The renaissance of Suzanne Belperron : an interview with Olivier Baroin

[section_title title= »Beginnings, life and legacy of a singular style »]

Suzanne Belperron: chapters of a life

Madeleine Suzanne Vuillerme was born in the Jura on the 26thof September 1900. At 18 she won the first prize at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Besançon, and soon after moved to Paris. In March 1919 she was hired as a modelist-designer by Jeanne Boivin, the widow of René Boivin who ran the eponymous house.

Five years later, she was promoted to co-director of Boivin. The same year she married Jean Belperron (1898-1970), an engineer from Besançon, whose name she took. The couple did not have any children.

Aguttes, June 2017. Lot 81. ‘Yin and Yang’ ring in yellow gold. The certificate of authenticity attests that this ring was designed by Suzanne Belperron and was ordered in November 1964. In the archives this ring is described by Suzanne Belperron as “Ring in fine gold cross-over like mine”. Designed in 1923, this ring design is the very one the talented Suzanne Belperron – then still Vuillerme – had designed for her own engagement to Jean Belperron. Estimate: 7,000  – 10,000 EUR. Hammer price: (including fees): 43,350 EUR.

In 1932, Suzanne left Maison Boivin to join Bernard Herz, a great dealer in fine pearls and precious stones, as artistic and technical director at Société Bernard Herz until 1940.

Vogue Paris, September 1933. Courtesy of Claudine Seroussi.

At the beginning of the Second World War, shortly before the anti-Semitic Vichy laws, and at the request of Bernard Herz, Belperron purchased the company and created Suzanne Belperron SARL (1941-1945). In 1943, Bernard Herz was deported to Germany, never to return.

In 1946, Jean Herz, The son of Bernard Herz, returned from the war. Belperron offered – in memory of his father Bernard, for whom she held deep affection – the joint ownership of a company incorporated in equal parts, to be called « Jean Herz Suzanne Belperron ». Belperron assumed the artistic and financial direction of the company until its liquidation on December 31, 1974.

From the 1930s to the 1970s, Suzanne Belperron continuously designed and created, and never once showing any desire to work for another house. She achieved great fame in here lifetime, both in France and abroad. In 1963 she was awarded the rank of Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1963 for her services as a « jewelry designer ».

Personal papers of the Suzanne Belperron. Archives Olivier Baroin

After her retirement, she continued to create pieces just for relatives and close friends. She died in Paris on March 28, 1983. She was eighty-two years old.

Observations on the Belperron style

Her creations reflect a very personal style, a ‘signature’, even though the designer never signed any of her pieces. « My style is my signature, » she said in a famous quote.

Silver brooch, white agate and gray mabe pearls in the form of a stylized bunch of grapes. It formed part of a set that included earrings and a ring. The design is emblematic of the designer’s work. Maker’s mark for Groëné et Darde. Private collection. Sotheby’s. Olivier Baroin Book p.252.

Belperron jewelry is often characterized by the bold choice, for its time, to marry precious stones or fine pearls with fine or ornamental stones. Belperron did not hesitate to set sapphires with chalcedony, diamonds in rock crystal, or silver with hematite, or an amethyst with chrysoprase.

Aguttes. October 2018. A modernist signet ring. Lot 82 Estimate: 8,000 – 10,000 EUR. Hammer price (incl. fees): 75 000 EUR. An important modernist silver (<800) signet ring set with a step-cut amethyst, with all four sides of the body of the ring set with rectangular chrysoprase cabochons. Maker’s mark for Groëné et Darde. Created by Suzanne Belperron between 1933 and 1937. « This ring is a piece never seen before. The maker’s mark dates from the very first period, rings of this era are rare on the market. The raw material is not the most precious, but the creativity for the time is remarkable and gives this piece all its value ».

These combinations of colors and materials (transparent, translucent, opaque) created unusual light effects. However, Suzanne Belperron also created pieces that could be described as « high-jewelry » since they were composed of precious materials.

Christie’s, Paris, November 24, 2011. Lot 275. A Gold bracelet set with emeralds, tourmaline, beryl, peridots and colored sapphires. Estimate: 80,000 – 120,000 EUR Hammer price: 247,000 EUR. Maker’s mark for Darde & Cie. This appeared at auction following the publication of ‘Suzanne Belperron’ in 2011, and is one of the Belperron record auction prices.

Another characteristic of the work of this avant-garde designer, are the volumes that sometimes border on excess. However, says Olivier Baroin, « even if the jewel is sometimes a little exuberant, it does remains elegant. Madame Belperron’s creativity never went beyond the limits of good taste.  » And he adds: « her work is pure and graphic jewelry, but above all sensual, almost carnal ».

Aguttes. June 2018. Lot 122. Large articulated ‘butterfly’ brooch in 18k yellow gold (750) and platinum (950). Circa 1940. The two upper wings are set with cabochon emeralds and surrounded by old-cut diamonds, the lower wings are set with rows of baguettes diamonds and calibré-cut emeralds, the body and antennas are enhanced with brilliant-cut diamonds. The wings are articulated thanks to a ball-and-socket mechanism. Maker’s mark:  Groëné et Darde. Width of the wings: approx. 13.5 cm. Weight: 98.7g. Estimate: 35,000 – 50,000 EUR. Hammer price (incl. fees): 303,460 EUR. In the archives of Suzanne Belperron, a note from Colette was found inside the book “Splendor of Butterflies”, published in 1936 by Plon. In this letter dated March 4, 1937, Colette thanked Belperron – who would later become a friend: « Dear Madam, The blue ring is very pretty, thank you. Perhaps one day I will ask you to remove some height, we’ll see. I’m waiting for the small clip. And I send sincerest regards. Colette ».

The craze for Belperron’s style extended beyond the world of jewelry connoisseurs. For example, Suzanne Belperron was one of the first jewelry designers to be mentioned by name in fashion magazines such as ‘Harper’s Bazaar’ and ‘Vogue’.  As early as 1933, Elsa Schiaparelli posed in Vogue adorned in Belperron jewels. Suzanne Belperron’s jewelry enhanced the creations of fashion designers – so much so, that designers sometimes feared their creations would be entirely overshadowed!

A designer for the happy few

Belperron’s clientele was incredibly varied. It included the members of royal families and the European aristocracy, rich bankers and industrialists, and also actors, artists and writers. Her personal order books show that she received the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Colette, Jean Cocteau, Nina Ricci, Jeanne Lanvin, Elsa Schiaparelli, Gary Cooper, the Begah Aga Khan, the Baroness Rothschild, Daisy Fellowes, the singer Ganna Walska and Merle Oberon, the beautiful heroine of ‘Wuthering Heights’, to name a few!

Even today, her creations remain unknown to the general public. For the past ten years, however, they have become in great demand for art dealers, jewelry dealers and knowledgeable collectors.

Philippine Dupré La Tour, director of the jewelry and watch department at Aguttes, explains that Belperron jewels occupy a special place in her work as an expert because often clients who consign a Belperron piece are unaware of its value. « It is therefore a double pleasure: to see these jewels and to unearth them ».

Aguttes. October 2017. Lot 114. Geometric tiered silver ring (<800) featuring three pyramidal hematite spikes in the center. The certificate of authenticity for this piece states that it was created by Suzanne Belperron before 1935. This type of design appears very early in the cannon of Suzanne Belperron designs, originating from the period when she was working at René Boivin. It is made by hand. Estimate: 4,000 – 5,000 €. Hammer price (incl. fees): 48 450 €.

Today collectors of Belperron are a new kind of elite. Olivier Baroin finds that buyers are influenced more by the design of the jewel than by its intrinsic value. « Collectors who appreciate Belperron pieces do not need their jewelry to be set with diamonds; those who recognize her style understand its importance. »

During auctions, buyers are rarely wrong; the most expensive pieces are those that are the most emblematic of the Belperron oeuvre. Karl Lagerfeld, one of the leading collectors of Belperron jewelry, sums it up as follows: « A Belperron jewel can be recognized right away. It’s an attitude. »

‘Fine Jewels’ Christie’s, Paris, December 4, 2018. Lot 253. Bracelet in fine pearls, cultured pearls, onyx, enamel and diamonds. 26 Fine pearls and 69 cultured pearls, onyx beads, black enamel, round diamonds and square diamonds, platinum (850) and 18K gold (750), French hallmarks, circa 1940. Circumference: 16.2 cm. Estimate: 30,000-40,000 EUR. Hammer price: 122,500 EUR