High jewellery is one of the last few redoubts of gouache painting, a traditional craft that’s as much design tool as art form.
Gouache: the word itself describes nothing more than a type of paint that’s water-based and opaque, used since the 18th century to create art and illustrations. But speak of gouache in a high-jewellery context and it becomes more than just a paint or a technique. Jewellery design dates back to the Renaissance, but the technique of gouache in the design of jewellery has thrived only since the late 19th century. In high jewellery, gouache is an art form that encompasses a designer’s dream, a craftsman’s blueprint and a collector’s treasure.
Adopted by jewellery designers as part of the design process, a gouache painting marks the point where art and design merge, where a creative vision is born and the jewellery-making process begins. A gouache painting is a rendering, an illustration of jewels at a scale of 1 to 1 to convey the vision of the designer to the craftsmen who create the actual jewellery piece.
Unlike watercolour, gouache is opaque and allows colours to be superimposed without the different layers coming through. Because of the paint’s opacity, white can be used as a colour too, which is essential in order to show the effect of light on stones, facets and diamonds. Thus, gouache has the unique ability to convey the different colours of gemstones, the textures of gold and all the precious details that constitute jewellery.
Marina Fulchiron, a jewellery designer and teacher at L’École School of Jewelry Arts who teaches several courses on the art of gouache, explains its history. “The gouache technique was initially used throughout the research process of the jewel in order to realise colour variants of a model with different materials by creating coloured sketches with gouache on tracing paper,” she explains.
“Today, when we speak of gouache we’re most often talking about the finalised gouache, which includes all the details of stones, colours, golds of the selected mode. This is an important and essential step in this profession, because it’s at the same time the final step of the creative process before the fabrication of the jewel to come. And yet the gouache is also the beginning of another stage of the realisation of the jewel in three dimensions when a model will be made in wax or metal. The full-scale gouache is therefore both a technical drawing and an artistic drawing that will be used by all the craftsmen and jewellers, gemmologists, lapidaries, setters, polishers who will make the model as well as the design, marketing and sales teams to prepare the collection.”
The gouacheur is a highly regarded profession within the jewellery world, an indispensable member of the creative team that handles this singular piece of paper that’s key to the envisioning, the making and the fulfilment of a high-jewellery project. Fulchiron studied to become a graphic designer and illustrator, but fell in love with gouache during an internship with a Place Vendôme jeweller. She went on to work for Boucheron for 17 years before freelancing for different companies and teaching at L’École to pass on her know-how to future generations.
Rather than a colour copy, clients often expect original gouaches that highlight the designs and show off the quality of the jewels better than any computer-drawn work. “This desire for collections presented annually and for the designed catalogues has created a profession for the jewel gouacheur, who will realise all the gouaches of the collection once the jewels are created,” says Fulchiron.
At Piaget, gouache painting is a crucial part of the design process. Product design director Stephanie Sivriere says, “Digital tools are a plus and they make the system more efficient but they’ll never replace gouache. Gouache painting is an art, it’s a know-how that remains unique and necessary in high jewellery.”
Gouache painting comes after the sketch, enhancing it to “make it more lively and realistic”, says Sivriere. “It’s still today mandatory to get a better idea of what the sketch could look like before it’s produced. Plus, it’s up to scale, which is needed for the workshops.”
Gouaches are used in all Piaget’s high-jewellery collections, often to tease and arouse the interest of clients before the actual pieces are shown. Piaget also uses gouache in its special orders for made-to-order creations. “It’s the most qualitative and realistic way to showcase our creations,” says Sivriere. “Also, our clients appreciate its creative resonance. It’s a unique painting of their unique jewellery.”
Both L’École School of Jewelry Arts and Piaget recognise the need to protect and perpetuate the craft of gouache. The school offers courses to both the public and aspiring students to learn about gouache from leading experts such as Fulchiron. At Piaget, each year the company enables new students to train in the artform through sponsorships the brand has with different Swiss schools, including The Piaget HEAD Young Talents Prize and the Piaget Prix Romand, which identify up-and-coming talented designers and jewellers.
At this point, you might find yourself asking, but what about computers? Wouldn’t digital tools – computer-aided design software and even artificial intelligence – have the capability to replace the need for hand-drawn renderings?
Fulchiron notes that while computers also have their place in the creative process, pencil sketches, for the most part, are still the starting point for most designers, and a trained eye can still easily distinguish between a hand-drawn or a computer-generated design. “The day this difference becomes less visible, designers will have the choice to use one or the other according to their preferred technique,” says Fulchiron. Still, in high jewellery, where every step of the process is done by hand, hand-drawn renderings with gouache will always retain an exclusive and special place within many maisons.
But all means have their advantages and at Boucheron, the oldest jewellery name on Place Vendôme and yet one of the most contemporary jewellers today, “remaining open on the possibilities at your disposal as long as it helps you express your dream” is important to creative director Claire Choisne.
“Gouache painting is a medium that allows our jewellers to understand what’s expected,” she says, adding that the drawing phase could last anywhere up to six months. “However, it’s not the only tool at our disposal. What inspires and fascinates me is the freedom of the means used to achieve our dream. Sometimes the dream can be achieved with simple techniques and, in this case, we won’t reinvent a technique. However, we allow ourselves the possibility to test and play with new tools never used in high jewellery, as long as they help us to express this creative dream, such as making a cotton model, wrapping flowers around our fingers, playing with a real ivy branch and so on.”
In the Nuage en Apesanteur necklace in Boucheron’s 2020 Contemplation high-jewellery collection, Choisne’s objective was to recreate a cloud so light it would levitate around a woman’s neck. To render this extreme delicateness and lightness, she turned to sculpting cotton directly on to a bust then scanning it, rather than using the more traditional gouache. Then, a programmer brought her vision to life by creating an algorithm of dot-composed clouds, assembling droplets of various sizes in different densities.
“Then, when giving life to our cloud, we replaced the dots composing it with over five thousand diamonds and small glass balls set on titanium threads, each of them as thin as hair,” Choisne concludes. “If we’d limited ourselves to draw the cloud on a gouache, we’d never have been able to create this necklace.”
Yet she concedes that gouache remains a living art in the industry that has unique abilities – “able to give the illusion of a 3D result on a 2D drawing,” she suggests by way of example – as well as playing an important role in any archive.
Gouache paintings serve as both a record of a jewellery’s creation, as well as a source of inspiration for the future. At Boucheron, Choisne says she’s lucky to have very archives filled with sketches and photos dating from the maison’s creation by Frédéric Boucheron. Her January collections, called Histoire de Style, often takes an archival piece of jewellery and reinterprets it for the modern day.
At Piaget, the sentiment is the same. “Gouache paintings remain in our patrimony and help us date a design afterwards,” Sivriere explains. “When we create new pieces, we’ll go there to find new inspiration so that we stick to the DNA of the maison.”
The result of a current vision, the beginnings of a new production, a blueprint for craftsmen, a sales tool, a promise of a treasured jewellery and, finally, a record of a past dream. Gouache painting in high jewellery is art worth protecting whatever the cost.