PJ Book Club: Traditional Jewellery from France


Openwork wonders from France and creations that took London by storm.

Jane Perry‘s new book Traditional Jewellery focuses on jewellery designs from 19th centruy Europe. This extract takes a closer look at the openwork wonders from France and creations that took London by storm.

It is harder to identify the roots of traditional jewellery in France than in any other country in Europe, as there is very little evidence of any kind much earlier than the mid-18th century.

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Yet the jewellery that appeared at the end of the 18th century, as if from nowhere, is so distinctive, not only in its design but even in the way that it is worn, that it must have had deep and tenacious roots in French rural life.

The way that jewellery was made and sold in France also differed. A far higher proportion of French traditional jewellery was mass produced than in other countries, using stamping in matrices for example, and this was associated with the concentration of the industry in large centres. As early as the beginning of the 19th century, much traditional jewellery was made in Paris, rather than locally. This jewellery was then exported wholesale to the region, where it was finished off, assembled and sold by local retailers, or distributed to itinerant peddlers for sale at large annual fairs.

Perhaps because of this early mass-production, the French traditional jewellery which survives is more likely to be made of base metal, usually plated with gold or silver, than it is elsewhere. Only a few areas of France, mainly those with strong local identities such as Normandy or Brittany, have a distinctive traditional jewellery. Most French jewellery worn in the 19th century, in particular the earrings is indistinguishable from the fashionable jewellery worn throughout Europe at the time.

Even so, French traditional jewellery is quite different from that worn in other countries in Europe, and clearly identifiable. But a new kind of regional jewellery developed alongside the traditional jewellery, partly to augment its important role in economic tourism, but also possibly to express the concepts of regional identity that would have been embodied in the original jewellery which no longer existed, yet which survived undisturbed in most other countries. Examples include Bressan enamels and the Celtic silver jewellery of Brittany. For these reasons, the landscape of French traditional jewellery is quite different from that of other countries.

Crosses and other religious pendants
As elsewhere in Catholic Europe, the cross was the most distinctive piece of jewellery. The most characteristic French cross found throughout the country, and in neighbouring regions as far away as Dalmatia, is a hollow stamped cross with trefoil ends called a croix Jeannette. These crosses are often made of gilt metal, rather than gold, as suited the modest means of their buyers, but there is nothing simple about either their appearance or manufacture. They are richly decorated in the centre and at the ends of the arms with symbolic motifs such as pansies or religious symbols, and can be up to 10cm in length. The decoration was stamped on the thin sheet metal by steel dies.

Although crosses are found in all Catholic countries, the way that they are worn in France is different. They are normally hung on a length of black velvet ribbon, accompanied by a slide called a coulant. The coulant, usually heart shaped, has a decorative front, with three holes, rings or bars on the back. The wearer threaded the ribbon through the holes, so that a loop of ribbon hung down at the front to support the cross. The ribbon was then fastened round the neck like a choker, with the ends tied at the back in a bow, and with the cross hanging down vertically at the front, separated by some centimetres from the coulant.

The largest and most decorative of French crosses come from Normandy, set with imitation diamonds of glass or local rock crystal. The rock crystals originally came from Alençon in lower Normandy, but by the 19th century the quarries were exhausted. Another Normandy cross, gold set with rock crystal, is the croix de Rouen.

In Brittany a pendant strip of black velvet ribbon was sewn to the centre of the velvet choker, and the cross was attached to its end. Because the width of the strip at the front was not restricted by being threaded through the coulant, it could be decorated with spangles and sequins, and these were also sprinkled along the front and ends of the ribbon. When the French commissioners of the International Exhibition held in London in 1872 were asked for examples of traditional French jewellery, necklaces such as these were among the pieces they provided. Afterwards they were put on display at the South Kensington Museum and for a period became fashionable in Britain.

The esclavage, a magnificent creation of gold chains and plaques, was the most important traditional necklace in France. It was primarily a marriage piece, as its name implies, and was an important part of the dowry. The constituent chains could cost up to 1,000 francs each in the 19th century – the price of two good cows – yet it had the great advantage that it could be enhanced over time, and extra chains were often added at the birth of a child, or with an increase in prosperity.

There are few other distinctive necklaces. The collier d’Yvetot, from Normandy, consisted of a narrow row of small units set with clear pastes, with a matching strip supporting a cross or Saint-Esprit hanging down at the front, but although this necklace was only worn in Normandy, most were made in Paris. Women in Provence would wear a rich necklace of diamonds set in gold, which matched the local cross.

As in other European countries, the only brooches worn with traditional costume were ring brooches. These were worn by men, mainly in western France, to fasten their shirts at the neck, or to hold a cravat neatly in place. Women used small pins with decorative faces, like stick pins or modern brooches, to fasten their shawls and caps. Some of the men’s brooches are plain circles, but most are heart shaped, often decorated with symbols such as hearts or arrows which may indicate that they were betrothal gifts, or emblems of their owner’s profession such as tools or cows. In the Vendée, where resistance to the French Revolution was strongest, a double heart was adopted as a patriotic symbol of adherence to the old regime, and it is still commonly worn today, although now more often as a tie pin or modern brooch with a spring fitting.

Bressan enamels
The town of Bourg-en-Bresse, in the southeast near Lyon, is famous for its enamels. These are made as tiny plaques, decorated with paillettes of gold and set with stones or glass pastes, which are then mounted in jewellery as if they were gems themselves. The origins of the industry are unknown. Although there are records of enamel workers at Bourg in the Middle Ages, the earliest surviving pieces of this kind of work are from around 1850, and the industry was at its peak in the second half of the 19th century. It is unlikely that there was ever any distinctive traditional jewellery based on these enamels, although the women of Bourg were happy to wear them with their traditional costume, and there are many prints from the late nineteenth century showing this fashion. However, Bressan enamels were also a chosen for the London International Exhibition of 1872, and helped to establish the image of natural French artistic taste among the British.

This Book Club was taken from the June issue of Professional Jeweller. To read the issue in full online, click here


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1 Comment

  1. Would love a simplified response of what types of French jewellery were most popular throughout the entire period of French jewellery. Specifically on the most recent 20th century. This information would be much appreciated and is from a budding Jeweller taking Jewellery making classes in Australia.

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