Le Paris Russe de Chanel is a high jewellery ode to a chapter in Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s life during which Russia inspired her, although never in her lifetime did she set foot in the country. A notable mention goes to Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, a cousin of Tsar Nicholas II, with whom Coco had an intense but short-lived affair with in 1921, and subsequently fell in love with all things Russian. The romance was well-documented because the dashing duke had a chequered past and was said to have been quite a ladies’ man. Having fled to Paris when the Russian Revolution broke out, Pavlovich and many others from the Imperial Court including aristocrats, artists, musicians and dancers congregated in arrondissements that became known as Le Paris Russe, or the Russian Paris.
The handsome duke embodied all the splendour of Imperial Russia for Coco; that he was penniless was immaterial. Through him, she soon formed close friendships with a number of newly stateless exiles from the former empire. She went on to have a scandalous affair with composer Igor Stravinsky, and designed costumes for dancers of the Ballets Russes at the behest of its founder, Sergei Diaghilev. Coco was deeply impressed by the country and its people. “The Russians fascinate me,” she remarked. “It’s the Russians who have taught women that it’s not dishonourable to work.’’
As was the case with every high jewellery collection since 2009, Le Paris Russe de Chanel was designed by Patrice Leguéreau, director of the house’s jewellery studio, Chanel Joaillerie. The collection is inspired by a “fantasy” vision of Imperial Russia that Coco could have imagined based on what her Russian lover and friends told her.
Le Paris Russe de Chanel loosely covers two decades of Coco’s life, from the 1920s through the ’30s, which were a particularly creative time for the designer. During this period, she liberated women from their corsets, launched her famous little black dress and introduced her now-legendary Chanel No. 5 perfume with the help of another Russian émigré, Ernest Beaux, perfumer to the tsar’s Court, who helped her with the formula.
Chanel fashion creations also took on a Russian aesthetic. Long tunics, fur-lined cloaks and large belted blouses soon appeared in her collections, which also incorporated Russian embroidery. The latter came by way of the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, the sister of Pavlovich, whom Coco had convinced to open an embroidery workshop named Kitmir exclusively for her fashion house.
Recognising the huge Russian influence in Coco’s life, the 69-piece Le Paris Russe de Chanel collection is presented in 11 sets that reflect the grandiose life of refined Russia and its folklore prints, cultural richness of colours, motifs and intricate embroideries. Many of the pieces are transformable, illustrating the jewellery house’s technical inventiveness that honours its founder’s intent for her jewellery to be worn by women how they choose.
To add cohesion, Leguéreau peppered the collection with signature Chanel motifs, such as sheaves of wheat (a Russian symbol of wealth) or the camellia, which appear in figurative and abstracted forms. The double-headed eagle, a historic Russian symbol signifying the empire, found on a baroque mirror in Chanel’s apartment on Rue Cambon, also features prominently in the insignia-style Aigle Cambon pieces.
The Sarafane suite, which is inspired by Russian needlework, includes a noteworthy headpiece that resembles a kokoshnik, a traditional Russian headdress that became popular as a style of tiara in Western Europe in the late 19th century. Camellia vines are set, lace-like, in white gold and adorned with diamonds and cultured pearls, and the headpiece can also be worn as a necklace.
The same gems feature in exquisite ornamental pieces in the Broderie Byzantine suite, which again showcases the camellia motif, while a modern-day reimagining of the kokoshnik is seen in multicolour, as diamonds, spinels, garnets and tourmalines take centre stage in the Blé Maria tiara, again playing on the wheat motif.
The Médaille Solaire set alludes to the sun and military orders with diamonds and pearls blazing, while the Motif Russe parure harks back to the glorious days of Russian nobility, with strings of sparkling diamonds in tassel-like formation from an ornamental pendant in a necklace, or in a row to form a bracelet.
In the Folklore set, the camellia is traced in diamonds against a deep red enamel base that is beset with gleaming pearls and precious stones of various hues. The remarkable Roubachka pieces, on the other hand, are a bejewelled tapestry that reflects the lines and embroidery of traditional rubakha tunics after which the set is named.
Never one to shy away from breaking the rules in her personal life and career, Coco Chanel was considered a revolutionary fashion designer, and a pioneer in the world of jewellery design as she dared to venture into the conservative milieu of Place Vendôme’s jewellers. Today, Le Paris Russe de Chanel recalls not only her legendary spirit but also irreverent aspects of her personality and lifestyle that continue to captivate today.