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Pierre Sterlé

Pierre Sterlé (1905 – 1978) It is the rare artist who adamantly refuses to operate a location where prospective clients cannot easily admire their work. Pierre Sterlé is among the most notable of these.

After he opened a successful workshop in 1934 from which some of Paris’s finest jewelers sought his services (including Boucheron, Chaumet, and Ostertag), Sterlé began to produce pieces exclusively for individuals. By 1939, he had increasingly wealthy and fashionable clients and in 1945 was able to move to 43 Avenue de l’Opera near the Place Vendôme. Sterlé felt this location was convenient for his clients but still far enough away to maintain his elitism.

He had no interest in running a ground floor boutique with windows where he could display his jewels to anyone who happened to be passing by. Like Boivin, Sterlé considered himself a highly exclusive designer – distinct from the large jewelry brands – who actively developed an air of exclusivity and prestige for his creations. Consequently, Sterlé did not occupy a ground-level location that would require him to display his jewels in windows open to public view. Instead, he occupied the third floor where his pieces were produced for, and seen by, a select few.

Pierre Sterlé (1905 – 1978) was a French jeweler born into a family of respected bureaucrats and financiers. He was only ten years old when his father was reported missing and presumed killed in World War I. This tragedy brought him into the care of an uncle, Maynier-Pincon, who was a jeweler on the rue de Castiglione in Paris. Over time Pincon became Sterlé’s tutor and mentor training him in all aspects of the jewelry trade.

However, one of the things Sterlé did not do was draw designs. Instead, he employed, young, highly talented graphic artists – many just out of art school – who translated his inspirations into technical designs for crafts people to follow. Sterlé’s style reflects his vow to make jewels that were more than mere financial assets.

Jewelry historians, Sterlé’s clients, and his contemporaries in the jewelry trade considered him “a revolutionary figure” because of his work’s originality and technical expertise. The element he added to his models was an amazing sense of movement. He coaxed metals into forms previously unseen, inventing the process of chain mail and using several different textures and colors of gold within one piece.

Sterlé was primarily inspired by nature and its many shapes and forms and refused to be constrained by the formal rigidity of metal and gemstones. He created innovative jewels using rich tones of yellow gold paired with gemstones. He employed them using their color for artistic effect and painting his pieces with vibrant tones of coral, lapis, turquoise, sapphire, and peridot, among others.

He also utilized white metal and diamonds, often contrasting the lively sparkle of brilliant cut diamonds with the clean geometry of baguette cuts in the same piece. Characterized by graceful elegance and fluid design, even in pieces with no physical movement, his diamond jewels earned him the prestigious DeBeers Diamond Award three times in consecutive years beginning in 1953.

Sterlé’s favorite motifs included birds, wings, feathers, animals, and flowers. His designs were executed in a baroque, asymmetrical style and were typically embellished with a combination of precious and semi-precious gemstones.

Sterlé was renowned among his peers for technical expertise especially when he treated gold as if it were fabric: twisting, knotting and plaiting it to create texture and movement. In 1957 he invented a new way of working with gold called ‘fil d’ange’ or ‘angel wire’ that was knit into fine ropes which he used to create fringes. These became a distinctive element of his jewels especially in his bird brooches imbued with life and vitality. His friend and client, the French author Colette, made reference to both Sterlé and his jewelry in her work.

By 1945, he had attracted a substantial clientele for his personal, vivacious and dynamic designs. It is said that while working for one of the great French couturiers, he plucked a petal from a vase of roses and used a simple straight pin to attach it to the shoulder of a dress. He was so pleased with the effect that he had it made in platinum and diamonds; one of his first jewels.

When he chose to work with diamonds, Sterlé’s jewels reflected a restrained grace and elegance that is uniquely his. Ribbons of round and baguette diamonds in white gold or platinum mountings swirl around each other or form wing or leaf shapes. Tassels of diamonds flutter from necklaces and bracelets. Sterlé’s jewels often feel like an exercise in dis-symmetry which was another clever way to give even a greater sense of movement to a piece.

Birds on branches, with bodies of pearl, coral or colored hard-stone perched on a branch became among his most iconic pieces. The range and originality of Sterlé’s designs are overwhelming.

One of Sterlé’s most notable creations was a citrine and diamond suite made around 1950. Rarely is citrine featured so prominently in a piece of jewelry and even more seldom is it so beautifully accomplished.

The suite epitomizes Sterlé’s elegant style and innovative jewelry. A demi-parure comprising a necklace and bracelet, the graduated necklace is designed as a wreath of leaves set with pear-shaped citrines and the spines set with single-cut and round diamonds. The bracelet with its similar design is enhanced by a gold link tassel accented with round diamonds at the terminals. It is mounted in 18-karat yellow gold, with French assay marks. The round diamonds weigh approximately 11 carats.

The necklace is numbered 2444 and the bracelet signed ‘Sterlé Paris’ and numbered 2445. The necklace measures fifteen 15 inches and the bracelet’s circumference is 6 1/4 inches.

According to Siegelson, recognized by museum curators, magazine editors, and jewelry houses as a leading source of and authority on rare jewelry, gemstones, and objects of art, “The beauty of these pieces is seen in the representation of nature as Sterlé imagined it. Both the necklace and bracelet come to life and express the dynamic movement of nature with the twisting and bending of the leaves like they have fallen to rest in this arrangement.”

Sterlé’s non-figurative designs are radiant or elongated and going into the 1960’s they become even more exuberant. He often used row upon row of fine, twisted wire to build high and dramatic rings. Flowers of mother-of-pearl or coral were carved with exquisite realism. Birds on branches, with bodies of pearl, coral or colored hard-stone perched on a branch became among his most iconic pieces.

Among Sterlé’s most notable clients were Egypt’s King Farouk, President El Khoury of Libya, President Vargus of Brazil, and the wife of the Maharaja of Baroda.

It was in 1955 that Sterlé began to have his first financial difficulties. This included the opening of his first boutique and a failed attempt to diversify into perfume. The launch of his two perfumes, Huit-huit and 2 Diam, the only ones he personally created, were a financial disaster. He refused to take into account the cost of manufacture and was forced to sell the product for far below the cost price. To balance his books, he was required to separate his collection of paintings, and property north of Paris.

By 1961 he was designing under his name as well as for Chaumet. In 1966 he was the first jeweler invited to the Antique Dealers Biennale in Paris. There, he presented a life-sized Temple of Love, supported by pearl-encrusted dolphins. An exposed glass pyramid displayed on trays of white coral, offered a collection of jewelry inspired by nature – birds, flowers, and marine life – that were extremely well received.

Following this success, Sterlé opened his first shop, a move he had avoided for years. However, despite the increase in stock and presence, the move proved disastrous and Pierre Sterlé was forced to liquidate his company in 1976.

After a few more tentative efforts to open a retail shop, Sterlé decided to become a technical advisor to Chaumet. Consequently, some of Sterlé’s jewelry from this period is signed by Chaumet, although the designs are distinctly Sterlé.

Experts suggest some caution for collectors: At some point, Sterlé or Chaumet gave the rights to the Sterlé name to a jeweler in New Orleans. As a result, there are pieces of jewelry on the market that are signed Sterlé but do not have the French marks and were neither made nor designed by him.

Chaumet bought the remaining stock and signed anything that was not already signed. This resulted in pieces appearing as early as 1962 having a Chaumet signature. Sterlé also sold some designs to New York jeweler, Montreaux.

Sterlé stayed with Chaumet as a technical consultant where he charmed a new generation, not least of whom was the young designer Beatrice de Plinval, and with her he forged a creative bond. During his last years, 1976 and 1977, they worked closely together on the famous Lotus parure.

Pierre Sterlé worked for Chaumet until his death in 1978.

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