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Suzanne Belperron

Suzanne Belperron (1900 – 1983) Because she never signed her work and is known to have said, “My style is my signature,” Madeleine Suzanne Marie Claire Vuillerme, (who used the name Belperron after she married Jean Belperron, an engineer) is not nearly as well-known some of her more famous jewelry design contemporaries.

Despite occasional bursts of publicity about her work and life. Belperron mostly remains a figure of mystery. A beauty who always wore black, she received her clients, by appointment only, in her apartment so she could assess the client’s character, looks, skin, eyes and hair when designing for them. Belperron also took precise finger, wrist or neck measurements and, when needed, had several ‘fittings’ before delivering the ‘made-to-measure’ ring so she could insure that each creation suited the client perfectly.

In one famous example, she chose blue chalcedony for one of the Duchess of Windsor’s most famous jewelry ensembles to match Wallace Simpson’s eye color.

As Suzanne grew up, her mother encouraged her daughter’s talents and eventually enrolled her in the École des Beaux-Arts in Besançon, France where Suzanne studied drawing and jewelry. In 1918, as Suzanne Vuillerme, she won first prize in the “Decorative Art” annual competition for her pendant-watch. The prize came about after years of study in “Watch-making and Jewelry Decoration”.

In 1919, soon after her move to Paris, Suzanne Vuillerme was hired as a modelist-designer by Jeanne Boivin, widow of the famous French designer, René Boivin. In he established the French jewelry house Boivin and ran it until his death in 1917.

Jeanne Boivin, who considered Suzanne “a bit like her own child” soon realized that Suzanne could play a major role in the artistic life of Maison René Boivin. Suzanne who rigorously applied herself to this stroke of good fortune advanced the creative work and international reputation of the House. By 1924, Suzanne had become co-director of Boivin.

As early as 1920 the Maison’s collections featured many jewels inspired by Suzanne’s sketches that had been created when she was still a student. Trained during the height of the Deco movement (in which she quickly lost interest), Suzanne’s large curvaceous jewels went against the Deco style, with its refined, geometric and structured jewels. At Boivin, Belperron’s designs set precious stones in semi-precious materials like chalcedony, rock crystal, and smoky quartz.

She pioneered the technique of setting precious stones in semiprecious materials and adapting these motifs in unique ways. She also opted for 22 karat gold, a softer karat level than commonly used, purely for its color.

According to the current Belperron website, “Recognizing [Suzanne’s] burgeoning talent, Bernard Herz, a Parisian stone dealer, hired [her] away in 1932 to design exclusively under his company name, B. Herz. With this newfound artistic freedom, she left the rigid lines of Art Deco behind and carved stones into organic shapes that invoked the delicacy of wings, petals, and fruit, and decorated them with gemstones. She drew on motifs from a range of cultures—African, Cambodian, Celtic, Egyptian, Indian, Mayan—and created a daring new look hailed as both “brilliant” and “barbaric.” Photographed in 1933 for Paris Vogue wearing Belperron’s creations, Elsa Schiaparelli declared them to be, “the new theme in jewels.”

Based in her private salon in Paris, Belperron secured the services of stonecutter Adrien Louart and appointed Groëné et Darde as her exclusive manufacturer.

During the 1930s, the originality of Belperron’s works brought increasing international acclaim to Maison Bernard Herz. Belperron’s fame also grew and she became a major artistic figure in both France and abroad.

Almost every month, her creations appeared alongside those of Cartier, Boucheron or Van Cleef & Arpels in luxury fashion magazines ads in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. A close friend, Diana Vreeland, a major figure in the history of twentieth-century fashion, loved Belperron’s style.

Suzanne was convinced that the originality of her jewelry made it easily identifiable and, as such, there was no need for her to sign it. This principle from which she never wavered and does not make the tasks of jewelry experts easy: it is often difficult to attribute a piece to a designer solely on “characteristic style.”

The Nazi occupation of France during World War II saw Belperron’s partner, Bernard Herz, a Jew, interned and later murdered in a concentration camp. Because of the discriminatory “Statute on Jews” laws copied from the Nazis and passed in October 1940 by the French Vichy Regime, Belperron took full control of Maison Bernard Herz in November 1940 to enable the company to survive. As requested by Bernard Herz following his first arrest in 1941, Belperron established a new limited company called, Suzanne Belperron SARL and traded under this name throughout the war years. She had one associate, Henri Guiberteau.

Belperron knew the future of the business had become her responsibility and never stopped working during the war despite difficulties she encountered obtaining materials she needed to create her jewelry.

On November 2, 1942, Belperron was arrested based on a letter of denunciation indicating that “the Belperron house dissimulates a Jewish business.” During her transfer to the Gestapo headquarters in Paris, Belperron swallowed all the pages of Herz’s address book, one by one.

On the same day, Bernard Herz was arrested at his home, underwent interrogation by the Gestapo, and was then driven to the Drancy internment camp where he stayed until the beginning of September 1943. He was then deported to Auschwitz where he did not survive. Shortly thereafter, Belperron joined the Resistance.

In a last letter, from 1943, sent from the Drancy internment camp, Bernard Herz entrusted his affairs to Belperron. In his will, he asks her to protect the interests of his children, Aline and Jean. In December, 1946, Jean returned to Paris after a period of captivity as war prisoner. Fulfilling his father’s last wishes, Jean took on half-ownership of a new company called, Jean Herz-Suzanne Belperron SARL.

When Belperron partnered with Jean, they revived the name Herz-Belperron. Jean and Suzanne worked successfully together for the next 30 years and the partnership remained in place until Suzanne’s retirement in 1974.

While Belperron received at least thirteen offers to escape France during the war years, she chose to remain in occupied Paris. In 1978, for her courage during the war, she received the Legion of Honor for efforts on behalf of the Resistance.

Belperron’s clientele included most of Europe’s royalty and also attracted clients from the worlds of arts and show business including Colette, Josephine Baker, Merle Oberon, Charles Boyer, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, and Gary Cooper. Her friends and clients from the world of fashion included Elsa Schiaparelli, Diana Vreeland, Nina Ricci, Christian Dior and Jeanne Lanvin.

Herz-Belperron flourished until Madame Belperron retired in 1974. In 1975, Belperron and Jean Herz agreed to amicably dissolve their company. This decision, however, did not end Belperron’s professional work. Whether in France or abroad, loyal clients continued to call on her services where, among other things, she valued their jewels for inheritance and/or insurance purposes or for gifts to museums. She continued to refuse all proposals for collaboration including those of Tiffany & Co.

Belperron died in a tragic accident in her bath in 1983 at the age of eighty-two. Childless, she bequeathed her property to a close friend.

Despite the popularity of Belperron designs during her lifetime, her name was nearly forgotten until a 1987 auction by Sotheby’s of the Duchess of Windsor’s jewels and precious objects. Included in the auction were several of Belperron’s designs that led to a rediscovery her work.

Having long admired Belperron’s creations, Ward Landrigan, former head of Sotheby’s Jewelry and owner of Verdura, purchased Belperron’s design archive. Today, Nico Landrigan, Ward’s son and President of Verdura, is largely responsible for the revival of Madame Belperron’s work.

Suzanne’s most important pieces include the Clip Brooch worn either as a double or single and other brooches with large floral motifs composed of individual gemstones arranged to depict the flowers and used variations in color to bring the pieces to life.

Belperron’s output also includes double ring bracelets designed with two bands across the top and joined in the back by a bar spanning the gap between the bands; necklaces with gemstones of varying sizes and sometimes color in mosaic-like patterns; and rings carved from chalcedony, rock crystal, wood and other materials that feature gemstones or pearls nestled into the top of the carvings. Large rings with mosaic clusters of varied-colored gemstones or rows of diamonds in geometric shapes were another recurrent theme.

Belperron’s earring designs were created for hairstyles that swept away from the ears and precipitated an era of fabulous earrings. As large clip-on earrings were the style of the day, Belperron created interesting shapes and designs set with her signature carved gems. Spiral shells, leaves, fans and other textural shapes were among her favorite designs.

These large, gem laden ear clips could be heavy and uncomfortable for the wearer. In order to counteract this problem, Belperron invented a system that clipped the earring to the lobe while a second clip circled behind the ear taking some of the weight off the lobe.

The name and copyright to the archives of Suzanne Belperron, whose work was also known under the names B. Herz and Herz-Belperron, are owned by the privately held corporation, Belperron, LLC.. A selection of Belperron’s original pieces are available for sale at New York’s flagship Verdura store where Belperron’s archive of over 6,000 designs and inventory books reside.

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