An Iconic Modernist Jewel by Boucheron
Lot 398 

This striking wrist cuff, a masterpiece of French 20th Century jewelry, shows the formative influence of African art and artifacts on modernist design. It was designed in the African style by Boucheron and made for them in May of 1931 by the atelier Sellier-Dumont in Paris. The bracelet was exhibited by Boucheron at the Exposition Coloniale Internationale in Paris the same year, along with a modernist necklace composed of the same materials. Both the strong barbaric armlet form of the bracelet and the use of specifc  materials pointed to the richness of colonial culture and resources. The malachite came from the Congo, a French colony, and the polished gold beads told of Africa’s gold resources, its alluvial deposits and the cultural significance of Ashanti gold. The purpurine, the dark reddish purple brilliant opaque glass, seems most likely to reference the Venetian glass beads so widely traded across Africa since the 16th Century. Alternatively, the color and shine of the purpurine possibly evoked the sang de boeuf glaze of Chinese pottery, and therefore French territories in China.

Lot 398
Iconic 18 Karat Gold, Malachite, Purpurine and Ivory Bracelet, Boucheron, Paris
Estimate: 150,000-250,000 USD

Developed in the Imperial Glassworks of St. Petersburg in the 19th Century, purpurine was a derivation or imitation of the earlier porporino, red glass made by the Venetians and later used by expert Roman glass mosaicists. Two Italian glass chemists went to Russia (at the behest of the Tsar) to develop glassworking and mosaic skills, and it was there that purpurine was invented. It appears to have been developed specifically for major exhibitions and was first shown at the Paris Exposition in 1867, then Vienna in 1873. Fabergé also developed his own secret recipe for purpurine.

The bracelet shows the eclecticism that characterized Boucheron’s designs in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The house was able to move from early exotic and luxurious Art Deco (as seen in their carved hardstone ornaments shown at the 1925 Exposition Universelle), to this style of sophisticated barbarism that also demonstrated stone carving skills. The perfect proportions and composition of line, form and color, this superlative design points to the influence of African colonial art on modern European art, specifically Cubism with its fragmented and geometric shapes. The bracelet further tells of the cultural signifcance, underlying meanings and spirituality of African ornaments. Jewelry in Africa was rarely purely ornamental, instead worn for very specific reasons including tribal identification, status, protection from evil spirits and various rituals. Bangles and ankle bangles were particularly important and ubiquitous, often worn as fighting bangles by boys and women, and the style quickly spread to Europe. By the 1930s, socialite Nancy Cunard was famed for wearing armfuls of original African ivory fighting bangles.

Nancy Cunard wearing stacked African bangles
Courtesy of the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's

The Exposition Coloniale Internationale of 1931 was a major cultural extravaganza, a tour de force that left a widespread legacy in the art and design world. Described as a Tour du Monde en un Jour,the exhibition took place in the Bois de Vincennes, where massive structures recreated African jungles, the palaces of Angkor, Congolese mud hut villages, Chinese temples and more.

The aim was to show the rich cultural diversity and precious resources of the French colonies, although other countries also participated to show their colonial riches. Boucheron’s display in the jewelry pavilion, amongst other Parisian jewelers such as Dusausoy, was greeted with great critical acclaim. A 1931 Vogue article on Parisian jewelry noted, “Boucheron has made a whole-hearted response to the Colonial Exhibition that has aroused everyone’s interest and delight.” The feature goes on to describe Boucheron’s use of “frankly barbaric” materials such as the teeth and claws of “savage beasts, which were set into soft and primitive-looking yellow gold” to create their jeweled masterpieces. Looking at French jewelry at the Exhibition as a whole, a special report noted the broad array of designs, all brought together by French ingenuity, refinement and taste for beautiful objects. The role of the jewel in France was to please and flatter La Femme and only there did such a strong cult of beauty and charms exist.

Sketch courtesy of the Archives at Boucheron, Paris

An interesting reference is also made to the frequent use of the circular form in jewels at the Exhibition, inspired by the African drum. An influence clearly seen in this bracelet, the drum represented the circle with no beginning or end, “The magic of the circle which is at the same time the image of perfection and the infinite.”

- Vivienne Becker