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Chanel Vintage Bijouterie: How to Date Jewelry

There are many signs that can help to determine the year and, sometimes, the season of Chanel jewelry item. Do you know any of them?

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Gabrielle Chanel started making so-called costume jewelry (or ‘bijou’, from bijouterie’) in the 1920’s. She was far from being the first of the couturiers to do so but as with most things that Chanel would embark upon, her work would prove bright and unique compared to the work of others, and so the legend of her superiority emerged. The term costume jewelry was coined because pieces were made to supplement to a specific ‘costume’, or outfit in today’s parlance, rather than as individual pieces. In the beginning of the 1920’s when Chanel had only just started displaying this fancy jewelry, the pieces were made for her by Etienne de Beaumont, an aristocrat and dandy with immaculate taste; a secular activist and organizer of the greatest balls and parties in Paris in the 1920’s. The bijouterie that Chanel presented together with garments in her salon during the showing of a new season collection did not carry the Chanel name and could only be purchased by Chanel’s loyal clients.

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It should be noted that Chanel, being of humble origin, had a passion for aristocrats. Her affairs with the Grand Prince Dmitry Pavlovich and the Duke of Westminster testify to this. At the same time in the 1920’s she made friends with the Sicilian Duke Fulco di Verdura at a party in Venice thrown by Linda and Cole Porter in 1925. Thanks to his acquaintance with Chanel, Verdura, who was in need of an income, discovered what would prove to be his life’s work. In 1927, Chanel invited him to work as a textile designer in her fashion house, before asking him to make a few sketches of jewelry, and it was here that his true talent was revealed. Their cooperation continued until 1934 when the Duke moved to America. It was Fulco di Verdura who designed the famous Chanel silver cuff bracelets, covered with milky and black enamel and decorated with a Maltese cross made from different coloured stones. Fulco drew inspiration for this from the famous Ravenna mosaic. During his work for Chanel, he was inspired by the ornamental style of byzantine, early Christian mosaics that he saw in the basilicas of his home Sicily; renaissance portraits, especially those by Rafael, and the luxurious baroque décor in the famous cathedrals of Palermo and Naples. 

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Coco Chanel and Serge Lifar

Another important name connected to Chanel bijou of the 1920-1930s is that of François Hugo, the great grandson of Victor Hugo. He also dealt with fabrics and managed a plant in Anieres prior to his work designing jewelry. He became an excellent designer, he was in great demand and sketched designs for jewelry not only for Chanel, but also for Elsa Schiaparelli.

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Practically all jewelry of that age was not marked with a signature or brand right until the house of Chanel was closed down after Paris was occupied in 1940 by the German Wehrmacht. This means that the authenticity of these pieces can be difficult to determine, yet in most cases they were catalogued, cost a lot of money, are held in collections and are sold at auction and by respectable antique dealers. 
In the 1940’s and in early 1950’s, while Chanel was living in Switzerland and her fashion house was closed, jewelry carrying the Chanel trademark was not produced. You may occasionally see enamel brooches dated 1941 and marked as Chanel in vintage jewelry markets, but this jewelry was manufactured by the American Chanel Novelty Company; which a lawsuit filed by Chanel forced them to change their name to the Reinad Novelty Company. 

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Coco Chanel creating new jewelry in her Parisian studio, 1957

Chanel returned to Paris in 1954, opening a store on Rue Cambon and showing couture collections. As before, the demonstration of each garment in the store or on the catwalk featured costume bijouterie. This was the time when, in addition to gold, enamels, pearls and massive crosses; famous sautoirs, earrings, and camellia brooches first appeared. Preparing her first collection, Chanel contacted François Degorce and he introduced her to Robert Goussen who would later become the chief designer of Chanel jewelry not only prior to Chanel’s death but even afterwards; and in 2005 Chanel acquired his company. Goussen, now 86 years old, shared Chanel’s love for bright ornamental decoration. He also loved styles of Byzantium, Malta, and the Renaissance; and his favorite stones were rock crystal and multicolored quartz. He studied Etruscan and Celtic decorations and dishes, where he found his gryphons and horses. The decorations that Goussen made for Mademoiselle Chanel were often constructed from gold and real diamonds, which were then replicated as bijouterie in her collections. In the 1960’s Goussen and Chanel created necklaces with beads, pearls and flowers. In the 1950’s and 1960s, these decorations bore the CHANEL label in the form of a simple signature in large letters directly on the item itself. This label remained with minimal changes until Gabrielle Chanel’s death in 1971. There is sometime three stars below the signature, with jewelry marked as such dating from the 1960’s or early 1970’s. 

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Chanel brooch, 1960s

On 1974, control over the company passed over to Alain Wertheimer, who together with his brother Gérard is still the owner today. Since that time, Chanel jewelry has been marked with a copyright sign and a registered trademark on a round plate at the back. This consists of the CHANEL inscription and copyright mark on both sides complimented with the overlapping CC and MADE IN FRANCE. By the 1980’s this had become the standard marking for Chanel jewelry. By 1985, MADE IN FRANCE was replaced by the date, the plate itself became oval and the copyright sign appears next to the CC logo. 

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Chanel Necklace, 1970s

In 1983, Karl Lagerfeld joined Chanel. A year later the very young Victoire de Castellane appears in his studio, whose uncle, Gilles Dufour, for many years was the right-hand man of Lagerfeld first at Fendi; and then at Chanel. At first she was just an assistant and a model, but fairly soon she and her eccentric and bright style became Lagerfeld’s favourite; and his muse. Lagerfeld offered her the chance to be chief designer of jewelry for Chanel. Victoire de Castellane went on to work for Chanel for 14 years until 1998, when she (like so many others) was lured away by Bernard Arnault to head the jewelry division at Dior. 

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Chanel necklace with Gripoix crystals, marking 1981

At this time, some changes to the way Chanel jewelry was marked were introduced. From 1986 to 1992, CHANEL on an oval plate was again accompanied by the copyright sign on each side; with MADE IN FRANCE at the bottom of the plate, and the overlapping CC logo in a circle (like copyright) in the centre; with the number 2 on the left and another number on the right. These numbers stand for seasons: for instance, 3 on the right means season 23; 5 means season 25; and so on from 23 to 29. What this numeration of seasons stands for and the principles of encoding them in double-digit figures has, of course, never revealed by the company. Just as with the marking of Chanel perfumes, the job of decoding is left to collectors and fans of the brand. If the oval plates cannot be attached to the jewelry itself, they appear on chain-bracelet like pendants attached to it. 

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Chanel brooch, marking 1994

An important change occurred in the marking of Chanel bijouterie around 1993: a double-digit figure denoting the year appears to the left of the logo; and the letter ‘P’ (‘printemps’ for spring) or ‘A’ (‘automne’ for autumn) to the right. For instance, if you see ‘98’ on the left, and ‘A’ on the right, it means the Autumn-Winter collection of 1998. This type of marking is still used today; the only difference being that MADE IN FRANCE is more often than not replaced by MADE IN ITALY; and the marking itself is made on the jewel itself rather than a plate. Recently, the letter ‘C’ has been added on the right, standing for ‘croisière’, i.e. the cruise collection. Instead of pendant oval plates, marking on bracelets, necklaces and brooches is now performed on the lock. Since the 1990’s, Chanel has begun making earrings as well as clip-ons, as well as more and more rings. Because of the very small surface area, markings on these are often very small and hard to find.

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Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington wearing Chanel dresses and jewelry, 1990s

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Author: Elena Stafyeva

04.11.2016

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Chanel Vintage Bijouterie: How to Date Jewelry

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