A series of 17th-century buildings, dotted with gargoyles and fitted together in a symmetrical octagon, serves as a backdrop to one of the most dazzling areas of Paris: Place Vendôme. Under the watchful eye of Napoleon, perched high atop a 144-foot bronze column, the world’s most coveted gems are transformed into extravagant trinkets for the world’s rich and famous personalities. Spellbinding names like Boucheron, Cartier, Chaumet and Van Cleef & Arpels all boast of a rich and opulent history that has withstood the test of time and continues to flourish, much like the centuries-old square itself.
Next month, the city will celebrate the renaissance of Place Vendôme. For two years, at a cost of 54 million francs, the Conseil de Paris has been working diligently to restore the square as a pedestrian way. The curbs have been removed and traffic re-routed to discreetly marked lanes around the circumference of the square and parking is now limited to spacious underground facilities. Inspiration for the square’s new look comes from the original plans conceived by Mansard.
In 1683, Louis XIV bought and demolished a Capucine convent along with a townhouse owned by Cézar de Vendôme in order to erect a grand square showcasing his royal equestrian statue. With the backing of financial minister Louvois, Jules Hardouin-Mansard built limestone facades with Corinthian pilasters. (The sculpted masks were added in 1715.) In 1699, the king inaugurated his 40 ton bronze statue in the center of a superbly decorative but nonetheless empty square, named Place Louis Le Grand.
Louis XIV, disturbed by the high expenditures, abandoned “his” square to the city, which sold its property rights to six financiers. They encouraged speculators to buy the lots behind the facades, then hire their own architects to fill the blanks. The Scottish banker John Law, who was also financial adviser to Louis XV, bought the lot at number 21 and set up a “stock market” where shares were sold in exchange for cash, jewelry, furniture, carriages and horses. However, a “stock market crash,” provoked by Prince de Conti, who withdrew all his stakes at once, plunged speculators into bankruptcy, and wreaked havoc. Law fled to Holland and bankers snapped up property put up for auction. Since then, the financial world has been omnipresent around Place Vendôme.
The French Revolution resulted in the evacuation of the area’s residents, who fled when the decapitated heads of nine aristocrats were displayed on spikes. The king’s statue was toppled and the square, transformed into a stage for public executions and corporal punishment, was renamed Place des Piques; it received its current name in 1799.
In 1806, Napoleon I ordered the construction of the boulevards joining Vendôme. A column, topped with a statue of himself as the Roman Caesar by the sculptor Chaudet, was made from 1,200 cannons taken from the Russians and Austrians, to commemorate “the glory of the Great Army.” Later, in 1871, the column was toppled. This destructive act was masterminded by the painter Gustav Courbet for aesthetic and political reasons. When the Third Republic took power, it ordered Courbet to restore the monument at his own expense.
The company Mellerio dits Meller, makers of classic silver and gold jewelry, boasts of being the oldest jeweler in Europe. The Mellerio family which began making simple jewelry in 1200, emigrated to France in 1515, at a time when the Italians were considered trendsetters in the arts. After unearthing a plot to overthrow King Louis XIII, the entire family was offered royal protection under Marie de Medicis and, as a result, enjoyed the benefits of royal patronage and distinguished clients such as Marie de Medicis and Marie Antoinette. During the Revolution, the Mellerios fled to Spain, but they returned to Paris in 1852 where they were embraced by Napoleon III. After the construction of rue de la Paix, Italian-born François Mellerio was the first merchant granted authorization to open a shop there.
The opening of the Ritz Hotel in 1896, with its prestigious clientele, helped transform Place Vendôme into an exciting cosmopolitan center attracting other high-fashion jewelers. In 1893, Boucheron, the first jeweler to move onto Place Vendôme itself, took over a marble-sheathed mansion where Napoleon III’s favorite, the Countess of Castiglione, once resided. Frédéric Boucheron first set up shop in the arcades of the Palais Royal in 1858. Soon after, it became known as a place for “fashionable” fine jewelry, designed in light, botanical forms. The royal families of England, Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as the Begum Aga Khan, Sophia Loren and Elsa Martinelli, have all figured into this jeweler’s roster of prestigious clients. The Shah of Iran, who sneaked Boucheron into Teheran to assess the royal treasury, called him the greatest expert in the world.
In 1902, Joseph Chaumet moved into number 12 Place Vendôme, the former site of the Russian embassy. This was where, in 1849, Chopin took his last breath and where, in 1853, Napoleon III paid sneak visits to the future Empress Eugenie before proposing marriage. Established in 1780, Chaumet was the official gold- and silversmith to Napoleon Bonaparte. Legend has it that Etienne Nitot, who founded the house, heard a commotion and ran outside his shop, discovering a carriage accident involving Napoleon. For having come to his aid, Napoleon commissioned Nitot to make the Consular sword, using the Regent diamond, the best of the crown jewels of France: a 141 carat diamond. He also received an order to create the imperial crown and the tiaras offered to Pope Pius VII and Empress Josephine, along with many other royal baubles (replicas of which are displayed in Chaumet’s in-house museum).
Van Cleef & Arpels was opened in 1906 at number 22 place Vendôme by Alfred Van Cleef, son of a Dutch diamond merchant, and his brothers-in-law, Charles and Julien Arpels, both experts on precious stones. By the 1920s, the talents of designer Renée Puissant had helped Van Cleef & Arpels establish an identifying style during the Art Deco period. Known for its intricacy and refinement of design, much of their jewelry was fashioned into minuscule mosaics carefully assembled into tiny figures and scenes for frothy gem-studded ribbons and bows of gold and platinum. During the 1930s, Van Cleef & Arpels became famous for their painstaking “Invisible Serti” technique, in which as many as 600 stones are joined leaving the metal joints undetectable.
Perhaps the most flamboyant of the Vendôme jewelers is Cartier. Once referred to by the Prince of Wales as “Jeweler to Kings and the King of Jewelers,” Cartier has been associated with some of the most extravagant baubles in modern history, including the 94.8-carat Eastern Star diamond (sold in 1908), the 107.07-carat Louis Cartier diamond (1976), the 245.35-carat Jubilee diamond (sold for $1.5 million in 1900) and the pear-shaped 62-carat Burton-Taylor diamond, sold to Richard Burton in 1967 for $1.1 million and later resold by Liz (post-divorce) for $4 million.
Starting modestly in 1847, Cartier had by 1856 become jeweler to Napoleon III’s cousin, Princess Mathilde. The house cemented its success during the Belle Epoque, and has provided sumptuous jewelry for royalty the world over, along with fêted actresses, American oil, railroad and real estate barons, and of late, musicians, sports figures, and stage and screen stars. In addition to period designs, Cartier’s jewelry continues to be inspired by art and exotic lands.
Haute joaillerie is unique in that the gemstones are precious and rare and each piece of jewelry is handcrafted, taking up to several months to complete. No item is ever duplicated and prices often rise well beyond the stretch of the imagination.
Times are changing and a worldwide economic crisis has forced Vendôme’s merchants to adapt to changing demands for “modern” jewelry without compromising their tradition of quality. Van Cleef was the first to open a store selling more accessible jewelry, “La Boutique,” in 1953. Mauboussin, established in 1827 and known for its line of mother-of-pearl jewelry combined with precious stones, followed in 1957 with “Boutique Mauboussin,” offering to the children of its older clients jewelry to suit their lower ages and budgets. In 1968, Cartier introduced a simple gold striated cigarette lighter, marking the debut of the “Must” (as in “must have”) line, which now includes other affordable items: pens, clocks, gold jewelry, leather goods, watches and an updated version of the world’s first wristwatch, the stainless steel and gold “Santos.” Chaumet opened “Arcade” in 1970, and in 1985 Alain Boucheron launched “Boucheron Cadeaux”: more affordable “everyday” jewelry created from gold, or gold and diamond, married with semi-precious stones like lapis lazuli, coral, onyx and tiger eye.
Even more accessible to the public is the arrival of “liquid gems,” perfumes launched by the square’s jewelers, beginning with “First” by Van Cleef & Arpels in 1976. Five years later Cartier’s “Must” hit the market. The most recent “gem” to surface on Place Vendôme is “Boucheron” in a flacon fashioned like a generously endowed golden ring.
Fortunes may rise and fall, jewels may grow larger or be cut down to size but Hélène Plecy, director of Haute Joaillerie de France, an association of jewelers, feels Place Vendôme will live on. “Even if the market for haute joaillerie is shrinking, that doesn’t mean it will disappear.” Nothing is more intrinsically linked to romance than the sparkle of jewels and, as Jacques Arpels put it, “A man in love can refuse nothing to the woman who makes him happy.”