After the splendour and purity of Russia’s snow-covered vast expanses in Promenades Impériales and the lightness and grace of springtime Japan in Chant du Printemps, the majesty of the earth under an eternal African sun is embraced in the third and final stop of Chaumet’s high jewellery collection, Les Mondes de Chaumet, which attests to the Parisian Maison’s openness to diverse cultures and spirit of adventure.
Thanks to an encounter with Kenyan artist Evans Mbugua, whose cheerful, vivid and colourful dot paintings on Plexiglas reflect the energy and vitality of African contemporary art, Chaumet began to look more closely at Sub-Saharan Africa, after having been inspired by Maghreb and Egypt in the past. It was also captivated by a continent where the art of finery has achieved an incredible level of sophistication, daring and creativity and one that has influenced Picasso, Apollinaire, Derain and Braque as well as some of the world’s greatest artistic movements from fauvism and cubism to surrealism. These eventually led Chaumet to finding numerous links between its own jewellery and African parures in the 71-piece Chaumet Trésors d’Afrique collection.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, jewellery marks various stages of life, superstitions and beliefs, and reflects one’s wealth and social status. It is more than an accessory, and customary to be worn during important occasions. It is a talisman, and an emblem of seduction or power, which speaks of births, marriages, deaths and tribal identity. Nothing is superfluous and every composition of multicoloured jewels holds meaning. For instance, each row of beads worn by the groom on his wedding day symbolises the amount of cattle he owns.
In Rwanda, the Tutsis specialise in the art of sculpting their hair, and Queen Dowager Rosalie Gicanda wore hers piled high, sometimes ornamented with headbands as a symbol of her rank. Recalling the magnificent Nile kingdoms of the Sudan, Ghana and Benin, the Chaumet Trésors d’Afrique collection evokes the peoples of Africa, their materials and colours, the talent of their goldsmiths and the brilliance and opulence of their jewellery. Alternating between honouring rich tradition and celebrating new contemporary creation, it represents a journey into the heart of Africa, both real and imagined.
Working with light, transparency and colour in his art to radiate joy and whimsy, Mbugua designed the humorous and lively Espiègleries (French for “mischievousness”) series of six brooches celebrating African creatures in unlikely situations. A lazy monkey crosses the savannah on the back of a zebra with green and black enamel and pink sapphire stripes; a lion with a mane of flexible fine yellow gold strands and a body of blue, yellow and pink sapphires and diamonds stretches after a nap; a giraffe in grand feu enamel sticks its head above rock crystal clouds; an elephant in pink opal bears a bouquet in its trunk; and two flamingos decorated with champagne diamonds, pink sapphires, onyx, pink opal and white agate have their necks looped in a lovers’ embrace. On a brooch that converts into earrings, yellow gold ants push balls of fruit covered in lapis lazuli, sapphires and red spinels.
Four watches round off the Espiègleries menagerie. Two Creative Complication jumping hour timepieces in white gold with diamond-set bezels feature hand-engraving and miniature painting. The first depicts giraffes and baobab trees set against a starry night sky, with a yellow sapphire star to indicate the hour and a white gold bird wing pointing to the minutes. The second is adorned with crocodiles and leaves, where indexes shaped like bamboo indicate the hour while a white gold fish fin displays the minutes. The final two flying tourbillon watches in white gold with miniature-painted dials portray a frog atop a serpent of tsavorite garnets, yellow sapphires and enamel, and a parrot riding a bicycle against blue and yellow sapphires and red spinels.
Jewellery in the Terres d’Or ensemble serve as a portal to the golden desert sands and ochre earth of Africa with its magnificent interplay of golds and reds to bring to mind the motifs of Kente fabrics from Ghana and Kasai velvets from the Congo. Like a snake slithering on the ground with its twists and curves, the Terres d’Or necklace in white and yellow gold sets the deep red of nine cabochon-cut rubies against the powerful brilliance of round yellow sapphires, lacquer and brilliant-cut diamonds. The multilayered design continues on a bracelet adorned with two oval-cut Ceylon yellow sapphires each of 10.42ct and 9.58ct, numerous round yellow sapphires, lacquer and brilliant-cut diamonds. A secret watch, long earrings and five rings — including one with pear-shaped Mozambique pigeon’s blood rubies and brilliant-cut diamonds — complete the set.
Reinventing the pearl ornaments of the Dinka people from Sudan or the Maasai and vibrant Nilotic parures, the Ronde de Pierres plastron necklace in white gold resembles a ribbon that intersects in a knot surrounded by a circular motif. Showcasing a central 10.14-ct, cushion-cut Ceylon blue sapphire on polychromatic strands of red spinel, emerald, sapphire and mandarin garnet beads, it is contoured by round black spinels on black rhodium-plated gold and brilliant-cut diamonds. It comes with a matching bracelet, rings and earrings, including a round pair that encircles both sides of the earlobe.
Showing off generous volumes and contrasting shades, the Talismania sculpted cuffs and rings combine wood with hard stones like lapis lazuli, rubellite, peridot, mandarin garnet, malachite, turquoise, chrysoprase and blue chalcedony. Sugarloaf cabochons are emphasised via the weaving of different-coloured golds that recall Agaseke wickerwork from Rwanda. Highlights include an oversized cuff in pink gold and ebony set with an 8-ct sugarloaf rubellite; a symmetrical, vibrant bracelet in yellow gold set with three sugarloaf mandarin garnets of 24cts, lapis lazuli and round yellow sapphires, and a chunky ring contrasting green malachite and black onyx.
Taking the shape of African adornments while adopting the jeweller’s signature fil-couteau technique — it makes the settings virtually vanish before one’s eyes in order to sublimate the stones connected by precious metal wires — to give the piece airiness and fluidity, the Cascades Royales set is redolent of the cascading parures that frame women’s faces in many African cultures, such as the graphic headdresses of Rwandan queens or the jewellery of Samburu brides in Kenya. An interplay of black and white, set off by the intense green of Colombian Muzo emeralds, carved onyx and marquise-cut and brilliant-cut diamonds, lends an arresting structure to the ensemble, which features two pairs of earrings, four rings — one of which sports a 6.81-ct emerald-cut emerald — and a transformable necklace in white and yellow gold set with a stunning 7.15-ct Colombian emerald.
Through the precious and abundant creations that have resulted from this eye-opening voyage into the cultural diversity of Africa, Chaumet’s round-the-world expedition in 2018 comes to a rousing close, even as its dialogue with varied civilisations remains just as dynamic as ever.