Suzanne Belperron on her balcony
wearing a kimono in embroidered silk
(Archives Olivier Baroin)
Madeleine, Suzanne, Marie, Claire Vuillerme
26 September 1900
|Died||28 March 1983 (aged 82)|
|Education||School of Fine Arts of Besançon|
Suzanne Belperron (1900–1983), born in Saint-Claude, France, was an influential 20th-century jewellery designer based in Paris. She worked for the Boivin and Herz jewellery houses before the outbreak of World War II. Subsequently, she took over the Herz company, renaming it Herz-Belperron. Belperron had many important clients, from royalty, arts and showbusiness on both sides of the Atlantic.
- 1 Biography
- 2 From the oblivion to rebirth
- 3 References
- 4 Further reading
Madeleine Suzanne Marie Claire Vuillerme, daughter of merchant Jules Alix Vuillerme (1861–1913) and Marie Clarisse Faustine Bailly-Maître (1866–1931), was born 26 Sep 1900 in the town of Saint-Claude, in Jura Mountains (eastern France), 60 kilometres from Geneva (Switzerland).
To fill the long winter months, the inhabitants of the Jura region had developed over the centuries a wide array of traditional crafts, including the art of cutting stones. The town of Saint-Claude was also, between 1885 and 1929, one of the most important world centres of diamonds cutting.
Aware of Suzanne's talent as a designer, her mother encouraged her by enrolling her in the School of Fine Arts in the town of Besançon. This public school was created in 1773 by the Swiss painter Melchior Wirsch and the French sculptor Luc Breton.
Suzanne Vuillerme won first prize in the "Decorative Art" annual competition of 1918, with a pendant-watch. That prize was the reward for her years of study in "Watch-making and Jewelry Decoration".
Boivin jewellery house
In March 1919, soon after her move to Paris at the beginning of the "Golden Twenties", Suzanne Vuillerme was taken on as a modelist-designer by Jeanne Boivin, the widow of René Boivin. The French jewellery house Boivin, created in 1890, had lost its founder in 1917, who was a talented designer.
From 1920 the collections of the Maison René Boivin featured many jewels inspired by the sketches of Suzanne Vuillerme from 1917, when she was still a student at the School of Fine Arts. At the time, these large curvaceous jewels went against the dominant Art Deco style, with its refined, geometric and structured jewels.
Jeanne Boivin, who always considered Suzanne "a bit like her own child", recognised that she 'plays a major role in the artistic life of the Maison René Boivin'. Without child, Suzanne dedicated herself by advancing the creative cachet and international reputation of the jewellery house. Besides, in 1924, Suzanne Belperron becomes, at 23 years old, co-director of the Boivin jewellery house.
Suzanne married Jean Belperron, an engineer by profession, who was born on 18 February 1898 in Dole, also in the Jura region. The civil ceremony took place in the town hall at Besançon on 11 Jul 1924. The couple moved to 49, road Lamarck in the Montmartre area of Paris. In the studio of the Expressionist painter Gen Paul in Montmartre, Suzanne Belperron met the writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the actors Robert Le Vigan and Arletty, and the playwright René Fauchois.
1930s, emerging fame
Suzanne Belperron might have begun to feel bored and become frustrated that the original designs for Boivin's creations were not attributed to her. This was not exceptional – jewellers over many decades had insisted on the anonymity of their designer-creators, no matter how talented they were.
In February 1932, Belperron resigned her position with Maison René Boivin. She was replaced by Juliette Moutard in January 1933 (who previously worked for the manufacturer of luxury watches Verger Frères) and Germaine Boivin, the daughter of Jeanne and René Boivin (who was previously a designer for her uncle the fashion designer Paul Poiret).
In April 1932, Belperron accepted the offer of Bernard Herz, to take up a central position in his company. Bernard Herz, a renowned Parisian dealer in pearls and precious stones, was one of the René Boivin's favourite suppliers. Bernard Herz gave her the freedom to design her own models under the name of Herz. Based in her private salon at 59 rue de Châteaudun in Paris, Belperron secured the services of the stonecutter Adrien Louart (1890–1989) and appointed Groëné et Darde as her exclusive manufacturer.
During the 1930s, the originality of Belperron's works brought increasing international acclaim to the Maison Bernard Herz. Belperron's fame grew, and she became a major figure in the artistic world both in France and abroad. Almost every month, her creations appeared alongside those of jewellers such as Cartier, Boucheron or Van Cleef & Arpels in luxury fashion magazines such as Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, with the regular collaboration of well-known photographers, notably George Hoyningen-Huene and Horst P. Horst. A close friend, Diana Vreeland (1903–1989), a major figure in the history of twentieth-century fashion adored Suzanne Belperron's style. New York jeweller Paul Flato approached her in July 1939 to propose an artistic collaboration, declined by Suzanne Belperron.
" My style is my signature "
As an unrivalled colourist, the essence of Belperron's work was her ability to play with aesthetic influences from many sources and motifs inspired by nature. Suzanne Belperron is fascinated by the arts and the distant cultures Egypt, East (the Assyrian civilisation in particular), India, Far East (China, Japan), Africa and Oceania. She found inspiration in nature's flora and fauna, from creatures like starfish and insects to minutiae of a garden's flower petals and leaves. Suzanne Belperron was also captivated by the underwater world, fascinated by the splendour of its shapes and the combinations of its colours.
Trained at the height of the Art Deco movement, Belperron softened its linear aesthetic, using materials and designs other jewellers hadn't explored yet. She pioneered the technique of setting precious stones in semiprecious materials. In addition to adapting these motifs in a unique way, she also opted for 22 karat gold, a softer karat level than commonly used, purely for its color.
Her jewellery was so original that she never signed her pieces, instead insisting my style is my signature. And only the jewels delivered by the hand of Suzanne Belperron in her salon in the rue de Châteaudun, jewels that passed before her own eyes, can lay claim to the famous quote. She was convinced that the originality of her jewellery made it easily identifiable and that there was therefore no need for it to be signed. It was a principle from which she never erred, yet it does not make the task of art historians or jewellery experts easy, as it can sometimes be very difficult to attribute a piece of jewellery to a designer solely on the basis of a characteristic style.
World War II: end of the Herz jewellery house
Bernard Herz was of Jewish origin. During the Occupation of Paris he was interrogated more than once. On one occasion, Belperron managed to save him from the Gestapo thanks to her friend Rika Radifé (wife of the actor Harry Baur).
Because of the discriminatory "Statute on Jews" legislation, copied from Nazi laws and passed in October 1940 by the Vichy Regime, Belperron took full control of the Maison Bernard Herz (from November 1940) to ensure the company's survival. As requested by Bernard Herz following his first arrest in 1941, Belperron recorded a new limited company, called "Suzanne Belperron SARL", on the Companies Register, with a capital of 700,000 francs. She had one associate, Henri Guiberteau. His friend Marcel Coard helped her and lent her the funds needed for the transaction.
Knowing that the future of the business rested solely on her shoulders, Belperron never stopped working during the war, despite the difficulties she experienced in obtaining the materials for making the jewels.
On 2 November 1942, Belperron was arrested at her office, due to a letter of denunciation indicating that "the Belperron house dissimulates a Jewish business". During her transfer to the Gestapo headquarters in Avenue Foch in Paris, Belperron swallowed all the pages of his address book, one by one. Bernard Herz was arrested the same day at his home and also underwent interrogation by the Gestapo. He was then driven straight to Drancy internment camp, where he stayed until 2 September 1943, when he was deported by the convoy n°59 to a concentration camp, Auschwitz, in Poland. Belperron was harassed by the Gestapo and was ordered to supply them with official documents about the origin and religion of her family.
During the hostilities, Belperron also joined the Resistance.
Belperron was approached by several American companies with offers to design jewellery in America, but she chose to remain in Paris.
After War, creation of Herz-Belperron
In a last letter, dated 21 February 1943, sent from the Drancy internment camp, Bernard Herz entrusts his affairs to Belperron, along with his will, asks her to protect the interests of Aline and Jean, his children. On 6 December 1946, Jean Herz, the son of Bernard Herz, returned to Paris after a period of captivity as war prisoner. In fulfilment of his father's last wishes, Jean took on half-ownership of a new company called "Jean Herz-Suzanne Belperron SARL".
At the start of 1945, Belperron moved from her Montmartre flat to 14 rue d'Aumale in Paris, a short distance from the reception rooms of the Herz-Belperron jewellery house. Her vast flat was on a raised level of a neo-classical building, with a Far Eastern ambience harmoniously blended with a classical aesthetic style. The internal design of all the rooms was entrusted to Suzanne Belperron's close friend Marcel Coard, whom she also commissioned for the decoration of the reception rooms at the rue de Châteaudun.
The younger Herz and Belperron resumed the partnership, working successfully together for the next 30 years.
Haute Joaillerie for a prestigious clientele
Belperron received her clientele exclusively by appointment in salons situated on the third floor of 59, rue de Châteaudun in Paris. She never felt the urge to set up a boutique, so convinced was she that her pieces of jewellery themselves were her best ambassadors. Her address was only ever given out discreetly, by word of mouth, to chosen clients who had been attracted by the originality of her works, thus ensuring her increasing renown both in France and all over the world.
As a matter of utmost importance before carrying out any order, Belperron always found out about her client's lifestyle, and also studied the contours of her face, the complexion of her skin and the shape of her hands. Similarly, Belperron took care to take the finger, wrist or neck measurements precisely, as an haute couture dressmaker. If necessary she would also have several 'fittings' before delivering the 'made-to-measure' ring to her client, to insure that each creation would suit the customer perfectly.
Like a workshop foreman, she kept a strict eye on the completion of each stage of manufacture, anxious that it should be perfect and that nothing should be left to chance. To this end, she set up a daily meeting at the salons in the rue de Châteaudun with the head of the workshop.
Belperron's clientele included most of Europe's royalty and aristocrats as the dynasties of the Aga Khan, Rothschild, Wildenstein and Duke of Windsor. Suzanne Belperron also attracted clients from the worlds of arts and showbusiness (actors, comedians, playwrights, dancers and singers) such as Colette, Robert Mallet-Stevens, Ganna Walska, Maria Félix, Arno Breker, Josephine Baker, Raoul Dufy, Daisy Fellowes, Alice Cocéa, Merle Oberon, Françoise Rosay, Mary Bell, Charles Boyer, Harry Baur, Louise de Vilmorin, Jean Cocteau and Gary Cooper. From the world of fashion, the names include notably her friends Elsa Schiaparelli, Diana Vreeland, Nina Ricci, Christian Dior and Jeanne Lanvin. And for the world of politics, names such as Paul Reynaud, Léon Blum, Maurice Couve de Murville, Gaston Palewski and Houphouët-Boigny.
End of life
On 12 July 1963, the "jewelry designer" Suzanne Belperron was elevated to the rank of Knight of the Légion d'Honneur. The Cross was presented to her by her great friend Jean Marchat, member of the Resistance during World War II, Légion d'Honneur and Secretary of the Comédie-Française.
Four years after the death of her husband in June 1970, Belperron and her associate Jean Herz agreed, at the general meeting held on 28 June 1974, to amicably dissolve their company. The Herz-Belperron company was liquidated on 31 December 1975. But this decision did not signify the end of her professional work. Whether in France or abroad, loyal clients had forged great bonds of friendship and trust with her over many years. They continued to call on her services, so she valued their jewels for the purposes of inheritance, insurance or gifts to museums. However, Suzanne Belperron refused all proposals for collaboration (including Tiffany & Co) to re-edit her jewellery collection.
From the oblivion to rebirth
The auction of the Duchess of Windsor's collection of jewels in 1987
Despite the popularity of her designs in her own time, Belperron's name was largely forgotten until the prestigious jewellery auction in Geneva the 2 and 3 April 1987 by Sotheby's of the Duchess of Windsor's, collection of jewels and precious objects. During this auction, only five out of 16 Belperron pieces were correctly catalogued.
Re-edition of Belperron's jewels
Brought to the fore by the sale of the jewels belonging to the Duchess of Windsor, Belperron's work was finally recognised and highly valued. The "Société Nouvelle Herz-Belperron", at 10, Rue Vivienne in Paris, was founded in June 1991 and had only one exclusive American client, a jeweller based in New York, who ordered re-editions (hence modern jewels) from the Société Nouvelle Herz-Belperron.
The Société Nouvelle Herz-Belperron was liquidated on 28 December 1998, following a 'transfer of shares of the shareholders'.
Discovery of personal archives in 2007
In 2007 the residuary legatee of Suzanne Belperron died. By line of succession, the new residuary legatee became the owner of the Suzanne Belperron estate, including her archives.
It was rumoured that Belperron had burned her archives, but this was just a myth. The new residuary legatee has discovered, at the foot of Montmartre, a small apartment whose doors remained closed since 1983. This apartment contained Belperron's furniture, library, and its complete archives: a vast collection of drawings, sketches, models, casts, sketches, business correspondence, diaries and appointment orders held daily from 1937 to 1974, photos and press articles countersigned. This discovery is crucial to ensure the authenticity, traceability and provenance of his works, that does not allow simple drawings.
These archives reveal that many things which have been written about Belperron, a secret and very discreet woman, are without foundation. Furthermore, Belperron's archives confirm that there was a plan for an art book devoted to her work. Hans Nadelhoffer (1940–1988), an expert from Christie's jewellery department in Geneva, known for its reference monograph devoted to Cartier, planned, in 1981, writing a book about Belperron's work. Seduced by this project, she began to gather all its archives before she died.
In 2008, fascinated by art, the new heir asked a writer specialising in antique jewellery, Sylvie Raulet, and a French expert in jewellery, Olivier Baroin, to continue the draft monograph reference project started by Hans Nadelhoffer. The French expert has acquired 1 October 2008 with a registrered contract at Versailles, Belperron's complete archives and was mandated by the last residual legatee to ensure in perpetuity "the future of the expertise of the complete work created by Suzanne Belperron", including authentication and certification. He manages, with the support from the heirs, the catalogue raisonné of the jewellery designer.
Suzanne Belperron jewellery has kept its value well, as evidenced by two record sales in Paris with a cornucopia brooch of emeralds and diamonds sold for $674,999 in 2010 and a tourmaline, emerald, peridot, beryl, coloured sapphire and gold bracelet sold for $330,895 in 2011.
14 May 2012, Belperron's personal jewellery collection (discovered in the inheritance in 2007) was sold in Geneva. The 60 lots sold for a total price three times higher than originally estimated.
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- Raulet; Baroin (2011). Suzanne Belperron. p. 8 Certificate of employment of Maison René Boivin addressed to Suzanne Belperron, reproduced in the book
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- Raulet; Baroin (2011). Suzanne Belperron. p. 17 Certificate of Knight of the Légion d'Honneur reproduced in the book
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- Sotheby's, Catalogue of the jewels designed by Suzanne Belperron for her close friend Cécyle Simon, Geneva, 14 May 2013
- Sotheby's, Catalogue of the sale of the jewels from the personal collection of Suzanne Belperron, Geneva, 12–14 May 2012
- Christie's, Sale Catalogue Paris, 19 May 2010
- Sotheby's, Catalogue of the sale of the jewels of Diana Vreeland, New York, 1987
- Sotheby's, Catalogue of the sale of the jewels of the Duchess of Windsor, Geneva, 2–3 April 1987
- La Galerie Parisienne, René Boivin, Suzanne Belperron or the art of feminine jewellery, Paris, 6 to 30 November 2009
- Museum of Arts Décoratifs in Paris, Art Deco and Avant-Garde Jewelry, Paris, 19 March to 12 July 2009
- Lecture Suzanne Belperron for the sale of personal jewellery collection, presented by Olivier Baroin & Sylvie Raulet, Sotheby's, Paris, 24 January 2012
- Conference Suzanne Belperron presented by Olivier Baroin & Sylvie Raulet, the French Academy of luxury, Paris, 29 November 2011
- Lecture Suzanne Belperron presented by Olivier Baroin, Sotheby's, Geneva, 12 November 2011
- Lecture Suzanne Belperron apresented by Olivier Baroin, Sotheby's, London, 25 October 2011
- Femina: April 1927, 1948
- Harper's Bazaar: September 1936, March 1938, April 1938, July–August 1938, January 1939
- L'Express, 10 May 1962, exhibition at the Louvre entitled 'Dix siècles de joaillerie Française' by Schneider, Pierre
- Le Figaro illustré, November 1934, December 1935
- San Francisco Sunday Chronicle, 16 November 1961
- Vogue – American edition : September 1933, January 1934, May 1934, June 1935, October 1935, January 1936, February 1936, April 1936, June 1936, January 1937
- Vogue – British edition : August 1934, 1936
- Vogue – French edition : November 1933, May 1934, June 1934, July 1934, January 1935, February 1935, March 1935, April 1935, June 1935, September 1935, February 1936, March 1936, April 1936, August 1936, January 1937, February 1937, March 1937, May–June 1947, December 1947, February 1948, September 1950, December 1951 – January 1952, December 1960, March 1972