With windows that overlook the crowds bustling along New York City’s Fifth Avenue and the bright yellow taxis swerving along Central Park South, an elegant salon is carefully preserving the jewels of a 1900s Paris designer: Madame Suzanne Belperron.
The jeweler has carved out a place in history for her work. It has set auction records, attracted admiration from the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, and graced celebrities like the Duchess of Windsor. Her rebellious and beautiful designs are recognized for breaking the Art Deco rules of her time. As Vogue put it in 1934, her work was “new” and “barbaric,” poised to redefine jewelry with its exceptionally modern aesthetic.
Amid the Belperron salon’s purple velvet couches and sleek jewelry cases, it isn’t hard to see why her jewelry has appealed to so many. The strong geometry of an Art Deco diamond bracelet set against the gentle, feminine glow of a rock crystal cuff. Gracefully coiling gold-and-diamond earrings ready to fiercely scale the ears of whoever dares wear them. Rigid torque necklaces that furl around the neck to set a soft, colorful stone like coral in the perfect spot on a woman’s neck.
Belperron’s confidence in her own taste only added to her mystique, and might be why she was able to shatter the status quo all those years ago, particularly as a woman in a male-dominated world. In her hands, the straight lines of Art Deco style grew organic and sensuous. When selecting gems, she was not afraid to choose stones like rock quartz and chalcedony—which many considered unsuitable for fine jewelry—or to pair them with diamonds and sapphires. In ways like these, she juxtaposed two concepts just dissimilar enough to bring a tension to her work. Work she refused to sign, in another break with tradition, because as she said, “My style is my signature.”
A striking woman with dark hair, fine features, and quizzically arched eyebrows, Belperron dreamed up many of her designs from her salon at 59 Rue de Châteaudun. There, she would spill cascades of loose stones onto her desk, which was covered in blue felt, and deftly arrange them like a couturier might drape fabric. She played with different forms and colors in the natural light that flowed in from outside. Once she settled on a design, no matter how complex, if one of her craftsmen voiced a concern about execution she would famously command, “Débrouillez-vous.” Find a way.
“Once she chose a stone simply because it gave her a ‘wink’.”
As one of Belperron’s suppliers remembers, when selecting stones she looked beyond face value. She wanted the stones that displayed “unusual charm and character.” Once she chose a stone simply because it gave her a “wink.”
Clearly, the French designer has secured a place in jewelry history and in great collections. But as Belperron unveils a new collection called Fearless Girl inspired by the jeweler’s earliest student drawings, one question remains. Will the jewelry and the “charm and character” of Suzanne Belperron catch the eye of modern jewelry lovers?
Belperron owner Ward Landrigan and president Nico Landrigan, the father-and-son team who helped revive the brand after Belperron passed away in 1983, believe the answer is yes—and the jeweler’s story is one reason for their conviction. Landrigan describes their customer as “enchanted with the personal story of Suzanne and the strength of the woman behind the designs.”
Unveiled this month, Fearless Girl opens a window onto a new facet of her story with the designs of the young Belperron. The collection marks the centenary of the designer’s final year at the École des Beaux Arts in Besançon, France and is inspired by the drawings she did at the time, when she was just 18 years old.
The earrings, cuffs, and necklaces in the collection outline a visual repertoire that jewelry devotees will recognize, because Belperron explored it throughout the rest of her life. Viewers will see the spiral motif, which might have been inspired by the seventeenth-century wrought-iron railings the young jeweler walked by each day in her childhood home in Saint-Claude. There is rock quartz and chalcedony, which Belperron likely encountered at the local lapidaries in her hometown that supplied stones to goldsmiths and watchmakers in Geneva. The Asian and Middle Eastern iconography as well as the tribal designs that are themes in her jewelry, she would have first grown to love at her local museum, which was the oldest public museum in France.
Belperron produced some of the pieces in the collection during her life, but in many cases the brand has made small updates for a contemporary audience. For example, the collection re-imagines a rock quartz cuff with gold inserts into a pair of sleek earrings to match; a sculptural wave necklace is set with sharp marquise rather than round diamonds. Still, across all, the inspiration stays the same.
“Her aesthetic appears just as modern today as when she first put brush to paper,” says Landrigan about the new collection. “Her strength, confidence, and ability to persevere in a male-dominated industry I think speaks to women today.”
Fearless Girl does indeed give jewelry lovers a glimpse into a story that might resonate with them. Unlike many of her rivals, Belperron came from humble beginnings and was a woman born into a male-run world. However, her life also coincided with a flash point in history and in women’s rights, which gave her unprecedented opportunities—opportunities that, despite the odds and adversity, she seized fearlessly.
Her early life was harsh. Her father died when she was only thirteen. Her family did not enjoy the comforts of heating, plumbing, or electricity. As an older woman, she often told the story of waking up in the morning and cracking the ice in her pitcher, which had frozen overnight, in order to bathe.
However, the teenage Belperron also had a strong female role model in her mother, who took over as head of the family after her husband died. At about the same time, World War I began to rip across Europe. The war mobilized many men, including male students and professors, which opened doors to women that had previously been closed.
Belperron’s mother took advantage of this development in 1916, when the battles of Verdun and the Somme raged, and wrote to the mayor of her town requesting permission for her daughter to attend the École des Beaux Arts. It was here, studying at night, without heat or electricity in a school that was in dire need of renovation, that Belperron sketched by candlelight the imaginative, fine jewels that have inspired the new collection.
“Belperron created strong, bold and dynamic jewelry for women who wanted their jewels to do more than just adorn them.”
“The discipline she learned at this formative age gave her the strength of character she needed to enter a man’s world and shine in such a remarkable way,” says Landrigan.
When looking at the new collection, one might notice the imprint of the jeweler’s story in the aesthetic tensions and bold, yet sensuously feminine designs that mirror the upended gender roles, world war and cultural revolution of Belperron’s life and times. And this might speak to them, a new generation of jewelry lovers who are contending with the crosscurrents of their own age.
“Belperron created strong, bold and dynamic jewelry for women who wanted their jewels to do more than just adorn them—they wanted the jewelry to be a representation of their modernity,” says jeweler Lauren Adriana, who is inspired by the life and work of Belperron. “These were women who were not just dressing for the male gaze, but were exploring the new freedoms of travel and cultural expression that were opening to them … Bold, big and yes, sometimes tough-looking—beautiful design is not always delicate and discreet, and Belperron led the way.”
When asked about the future for Belperron, Landrigan says, “We feel one day she will be recognized as a ground breaking modern artist. She deserves that honor and recognition.”
When I asked some friends in the jewelry industry for their take, they agreed. Lin Jamison, a jewelry advisor in New York City: “Belperron let her designs speak for themselves, irrespective of her gender or her socials status. We feel a connection with her because her jewelry is bold, confident, and prescient. All three adjectives are ones that women want to associate themselves with today.”
There seems a strong chance that Belperron will continue to connect with a contemporary audience, especially with collections like Fearless Girl, but her journey from a name known in jewelry circles to one more widely recognized might yet have more chapters. Fortunately, the brand has lots with which to work. After graduating from the École des Beaux Arts, Belperron became one of the few women to run her own jewelry business. She followed her heart and broke with convention to be with the man she loved. She created exceptional jewelry through two world wars, and she bedazzled many well-known rebels of her time—perhaps most famously Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor.
While we wait for these next chapters and to see just how big a renaissance of this pioneer is in the offing, for now, jewelry lovers can enjoy this glimpse into the life of a fearless girl and the jewelry she created—which, one might say, gives us a “wink” across time.
This article was first published in the #6 Current Obsession Paper for New York City Jewelry Week