Coco Chanel | May 3rd, 2016
She slowly pulled it out of the small, blue velvet bag and placed it carefully into my hands so I could get a closer look. It was striking.
A girlfriend of mine returned from Paris, France with a stunning vintage Chanel necklace made of aqua blue glass, freshwater pearls, and antique gold that she found at the Saint-Ouen Flea Market in a northern suburb of Paris. And now I was lucky enough to be holding it, admiring the incredible detail in every inch of this necklace.
It was August 19, 1883 when Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born to an unwed mother in Saumur, France. Her father was a traveling salesman. She was only 12 years old when her mother died, so her father placed her in an orphanage of the Catholic monastery of Aubazine. She was raised by nuns who taught her how to sew which is what led her to her career as a fashion designer years later.
Chanel in 1920
When Chanel turned 18, she left the orphanage and took off for the town of Moulins to become a cabaret singer. She performed in clubs where she was nicknamed “Coco” by the soldiers after one of the songs she used to sing. When she was unable to get steady work as a singer, she began designing and selling hats in 1909.
Actress Gabrielle Dorziat wearing a Chanel plumed hat in 1912
Chanel soon opened a couple of couture shops as well as a large dress shop near the Hotel Ritz in Paris and began designing clothing. She always emphasized comfort, even with her flattering trademark suits and little black dresses, helping women leave behind the days of corsets and other confining garments.
As Chanel once said, “Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury.”
By 1915, the designs and clothing produced by the House of Chanel were known all throughout France. A year later, she had 300 employees working for her at her three locations.
Chanel No. 5
On the fifth day of the fifth month in 1921, Chanel launched her first perfume called Chanel No. 5, compounded by Russian-French chemist and perfumer Ernest Beaux.
He presented her with small glass vials containing sample scents that she had asked him to create, modernized for the liberated spirit of the 1920s. They numbered 1 to 5 and 20 to 24. She chose the fifth vial. Thus, the name Chanel No. 5.
She perceived perfume as “the unseen, unforgettable, ultimate accessory of fashion that heralds your arrival and prolongs your departure.” This floral fragrance was backed by department store owner Théophile Bader and businessmen Pierre and Paul Wertheimer.
A deal was negotiated to give the Wertheimers 70% of the profits for Chanel No. 5 for producing the perfume at their factories. Bader received 20% and Chanel only received a mere 10%. The perfume became an enormous source of revenue, so Chanel sued repeatedly to have the terms of the deal renegotiated. Finally, in May of 1947, they renegotiated the 1924 contract. Her earnings would now be approximately $25 million a year, making her at the time, one of the richest women in the world.
The Addition of Faux and Fine Jewelry
During the late 1920s, Chanel hired the legendary Duke Fulco di Verdura, an influential Italian jeweler who was introduced to Chanel at a party. He worked for her as her head designer of Chanel jewelry for eight years before opening his own shop in 1939.
He is credited with creating the now iconic Maltese cross cuffs, setting a gold cross decorated with bright colored cabochons in white enamel. They have been copied numerous times over the years. He created many pieces that became Chanel’s most desired and recognizable jewelry today.
Duke Fulco di Verdura (1939)
Chanel launched her first fine jewelry collection using diamonds in the 1930s. It was inspired by the night sky with designs in the shapes of stars, constellations, and comets. She also loved layering multiple strands of both faux and real pearls with her clothing and wore them often.
With the international economic depression of the 1930s and ultimately, when World War II broke out in ’39, Chanel moved to the Hotel Ritz in Paris and was forced to close her business, shutting down her shops and leaving only jewelry and perfume for sale.
Chanel Jewelry Marks
In the beginning, Chanel rarely marked her pieces, perhaps because she viewed her jewelry as part of an entire ensemble to go with her clothing. The jewelry produced during this time period that did have the Chanel name stamped on it was actually not even made by Chanel.
In 1941, an American costume jewelry company called the Chanel Novelty Company began producing costume jewelry stamping Chanel in script on each piece. Chanel protested the use of her name and sued the company which forced them to change their name and stop using the Chanel stamp. If you happen to own any of these pieces, however, they are still quite valuable as they mark a significant and stormy time in Chanel’s history.
In 1954, Chanel reopened her boutique in Paris. Although she was not very well accepted at first, critics and shoppers were soon won over with her easy-fitting classic designs and she became successful once again.
Chanel suit (1965)
She continued to manufacture costume jewelry such as necklaces, bracelets, brooches, and earrings to accompany her fashions. Much of it still remained unmarked until Robert Goossens, a French jeweler who also liked to mix genuine stones with fakes, helped design many of Chanel’s costume jewelry pieces which then began being stamped CHANEL along with three stars underneath.
Goossens created original pieces made of real gold and genuine stones which were copied for fashion shows and presentations, serving as the foundation for Chanel’s costume jewelry designs.
As one who truly enjoys collecting, repurposing, and wearing costume jewelry, I love this quote of hers: “Costume jewelry is not made to give women an aura of wealth, but to make them beautiful.”
Coco Chanel continued designing until her death at age 88 on January 10, 1971, at her apartment in the Hotel Ritz Paris. Goossens continued designing with the House of Chanel.
The markings on Chanel costume jewelry radically changed, now enclosing the name CHANEL in a stamped circle with the copyright and registered trademark stamps in the upper left and upper right corners of the circle, respectively.
In the lower half of this circle was stamped MADE IN FRANCE. And for the first time, pieces began to bear the interlocked CC logo which was stamped between CHANEL and MADE IN FRANCE.
The stamped plate on necklaces changed as well. A small, circular plate with the same stamp was folded in half over a link, barely noticeable unless one were to examine the piece closely. It took me quite a while to find it on this necklace from the Saint-Ouen Flea Market, but here it is:
In 1980, MADE IN FRANCE was removed and replaced by a simple copyright symbol with the date that the piece was produced.
Continuing the Legacy
German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld became Chief Designer in 1983 to continue the legacy of Chanel, experimenting with different fabrics and styles.
Throughout the ’80s, over 40 Chanel boutiques opened worldwide. Goosens collaborated with Lagerfeld throughout the 1980s and ’90s on costume jewelry designs for Chanel’s ready-to-wear and couture collections.
During the mid-’80s, Lagerfeld hired the inspiring Parisian jewelry designer Victoire de Castellane to be head designer of costume jewelry. A new mark was designed by her with CHANEL now stamped on an oval plate. It still had the copyright and registered trademark signs to the left and right, but underneath in the very center of the plate was the interlocked CC logo.
In addition, on either side of the logo were numbers that indicated the season the piece was released. For example, if a piece was from Chanel’s 23rd season, it would have a 2 and 3 on either side of the logo. MADE IN FRANCE was brought back to the bottom of the oval plate. This style lasted from Chanel’s 23rd through their 29th season.
The plate was redesigned again in 1993. Most of it remained unchanged, but the numbers indicating the season were replaced by de Castellane with the last two digits of the year the piece was released to the left of the logo. It now also had the letter A or P which represented Automne / Autumn or Printemps / Spring, indicating the season within that year.
Although Victoire de Castellane left Chanel in 1998, there have been very few changes to the stamp that she introduced. A few of those changes include MADE IN ITALY rather than MADE IN FRANCE, reflecting where it is produced, and the logo is stamped directly onto the pieces rather than first stamped onto a metal plate.
Chanel in the 21st Century
Today, Chanel is a privately held French company owned by Alain and Gerard Wertheimer, the grandsons of Pierre Wertheimer. The House of Chanel remains one of the premiere haute couture companies in the world, operating 310 boutiques worldwide, located in wealthy communities.
The company recently paid the highest amount ever paid for retail space in Los Angeles, California at $152 million or more than $13,000 per square foot for 11,500 square feet! Its products now include clothing, fragrances, handbags, and watches with its brand revenue totaling $5.4 billion in 2015.
I must say, it wasn’t easy giving that beautiful necklace back. But if I ever get the chance to go to Paris, I’ll be headed straight for the flea markets to search for an amazing vintage Chanel treasure of my very own!
*Chanel Suit – photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Mabalu
*Karl Lagerfeld – photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/adach/14071166986/ Christopher William Adach
*Chanel on Rodeo Drive – photo credit: Arnaud-Victor Monteux
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