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The Chanel Necklace: Cascades of Pearls and Beyond

By Erica Kagan
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Coco Chanel and Her Beloved Pearls

Chanel Gold Plated with Resin Pearl Haute Couture Fantasy Choker, 1950's

“Go and fetch my pearls. I will not go up to the atelier until I have my pearls,” declared the impassioned Coco Chanel. There is no piece of jewelry more directly tied to the image of Coco Chanel than the opulent layering of pearl ropes. According to fashion lore, two of Coco’s lovers, Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich and the Duke of Westminster, regularly gifted her one-of-a-kind, precious jewels. Out of the copious number of jewels she was given, it is said that the ropes of pearls were her undisputed favorite. Regarded as the “Queen of Gems” for their understated elegance, pearls have a magical ability to capture light and illuminate a woman’s facial features. This unique luminescence is what Coco Chanel admired most about them. The perfect accent to her minimalist style, Coco always sported ropes of pearls, even for the most casual of occasions. Indeed, it was the idea to design oversized, faux pearls that first inspired the launch of a Chanel costume jewelry line.

Beyond her status as a luxury fashion designer, Coco Chanel was an arbiter of change and advocate of women’s liberation. Unfazed by the status quo, she encouraged women to free their physical form and embrace costume jewelry in complement to precious jewels. Intrigued by her enigmatic persona and provocative ideas, women of all social classes were influenced by Coco Chanel. As explained by British writer Justine Picardie, author of “Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life,” Coco was a public figure who possessed tremendous social power. “Chanel used jewelry to display her authority, as well as her social supremacy,” Picardie noted. “These were made manifesting the manner in which she wore her precious gems—the Duke of Westminster’s pearls and emeralds slung over tweeds and plain woolen knits, in an insouciant disregard for tradition—and in her apparently effortless ability to persuade rich women to follow suit.” As such, cascades of faux Chanel pearls would prove to be just as iconic and timeless as the little black dress.

Chanel Gold Plated with Resin Pearl Haute Couture Fantasy Choker, 1950's

An Inspired Partnership: Mademoiselle Chanel and Monsieur Bijou 

While Coco Chanel initially collaborated with Duke Fulco di Verdura to spearhead the Chanel costume jewelry line, it was a goldsmith and jeweler by the name of Robert Goossens who truly diversified the design of the Chanel necklace. Coco Chanel first met Goossens in 1953, and found herself immediately captivated by his Baroque-inspired designs. A uniquely gifted master craftsman, Robert Goossens could create beauty out of any and all materials, from tortoiseshell to rock crystal. Regarded as the designer who elevated “the true nature of faux” in collaboration with Chanel, Goossens quickly became known as “Monsieur Bijou.” In an inspired partnership, Mademoiselle Chanel and Monsieur Bijou expanded on the idea of the costume necklace, far beyond pearls. By the 1960s, Goossens and Chanel were designing necklaces with beads, flowers, glass and velvet. Among the most remarkable pieces they created together is the Haute Couture Fantasy Choker, designed in the 1950s and crafted from resin pearl with gold plating. With interlacing panels of fantasy animals hugging the neck and a resin pearl drop, this unique timepiece is visually striking. Available in Sotheby’s upcoming Fashion Through Time sale in Geneva, this Chanel necklace is worthy of the spotlight.

Chanel Victoire de Castellane Wreath Necklace Pink and Blue Glass Beaded Gold Plated, 1984

The Modernization of Chanel Costume

Today, the line of Chanel costume necklaces is expansive and diverse in style, from chunky metal chains to delicate chokers. The interlocking C’s is a recurring symbol present on Chanel necklaces as an iconic identifier of the luxury fashion house. Over the years, Chanel has brought in the world’s most gifted jewelry designers to design visually spectacular pieces. Among these notable designers is Victorie de Castellane, who became assistant to Karl Lagerfeld at only 24 years old. It was 1984 and Lagerfeld had just been tapped as creative director, eagerly searching for bold aesthetics and playful designs. Awed by her vibrant and inspired creations, Lagerfeld quickly promoted de Castellane to lead Chanel’s costume jewelry department. Best recognized for her earring designs that resembled Chanel handbags and dramatic string necklaces, de Castellane was at Chanel for just over a decade, but her impact is permanently ingrained. The Pink and Blue Glass Beaded Wreath Necklace from 1984, infused with vibrancy and romance, is just one example of her most memorable creations. Chanel costume jewelry continues to embrace decadence and timeless glamour, captivating generations of women with its limitless styling potential.

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