The Forgotten Masterpieces of Lacloche

This article is brought to you by L’ÉCOLE Asia Pacific

A slim Lacloche bracelet is a Japanese landscape in gems. Suiffé-cut rubies depict a rising sun, echoed by the magenta rooftop of a pagoda, a delicate bridge and the puffed-out sail of a skiff that carries the eye to the far corner of the composition. Rocks, clouds and swallows are picked out in sculpted obsidian, the dripping leaves of a willow in sapphire cabochons. The backdrop is pavé-set with calibrated and buff-cut diamonds, suggesting sky and water through the use of negative space. The maker’s mark of its designer, Magloire Chenu, in the form of a parrot’s head, appears discreetly on the platinum clasp.

Among the master works of Paris-based jeweller Lacloche on display at the Hong Kong headquarters of L’ÉCOLE Asia Pacific School of Jewelry Arts, the bracelet is accompanied by earrings that were meant to brush against the shoulders as well as a wristwatch in a similar style. They conjure an era when a wealthy avant-garde revolutionised style in the aftermath of the horrific first world war. 

Once among the most celebrated brands in Europe, Lacloche is relatively unknown today. The business closed more than 50 years ago, in 1967, but at its peak in the 1920s and 1930s, Lacloche Frères—named for brothers Leopold, Jules, Jacques and Fernand—sold its wares to European royalty, Indian maharajas and Wall Street tycoons. It was worn by queens and Hollywood stars, who borrowed Lacloche jewellery to wear on set. New forms of necklace appeared, like the long sautoir with pendants that could attach to timepieces or vanity cases and dangle front or back, matching the elegant, minimalistic profiles of modern women from Paris to Shanghai. Grace Kelly, the American actress, was given a sapphire and diamond brooch and ear clips by her fiancé, Prince Rainier III of Monaco, in one of the century’s most famous weddings in 1956, with the sapphires said to match Kelly’s deep blue eyes. 

But the exhibition is much more than an exercise in nostalgia or the lure of expensive baubles. It takes the viewer deep into a Parisian ecosystem that gave the French capital an enduring primacy in the savoir-faire of jewellery and fashion. Savoir-faire translates awkwardly into English as know-how. It can apply equally to technology, manners, and, in the case of Lacloche Frères, jewellery, as an approach to produce the highest standard of craftsmanship, in the zone where craft becomes indistinguishable from art. “Lacloche is all about the elegance of Paris at their time,” says L’ÉCOLE Asia Pacific’s managing director, Élise Gonnet-Pon. “Their work reflects both technical prowess and impeccable taste.”

A legacy nearly lost

“High” or fine jewellery, defined both by the level of craftsmanship and the use of precious stones and metals, has always had a precarious hold on permanence. Among the realities of the craft is that as taste changes, items with precious stones and metal are often disassembled and recombined, destroying the original objects. This explains why art history tends to gloss over jewellery in favour of more durable artefacts like painting, sculpture and ceramics. 

What is remarkable about the Lacloche exhibition is that it reconstructs the context in which it flourished. Lacloche was built around a unique cluster of design and fabrication workshops. Although there was some in-house design, most came from highly creative ateliers like Magloire Chenu, Frey, Girard, Langlois, Paillet, Picq, Strauss Allard Meyer, and Verger, which supplied materials and execution as well as design. The workshops might have up to 100 specialist artisans working in teams to produce an individual object, with goldsmiths, gem setters and lacquer artists contributing to the fabrication of the object. 

At Lacloche, Fernand was identified as the house designer, but most of the workshops produced their own designs which they would show to the retailers, and reproduce in their stock books. These are among the few records that art historians can use to piece together the output of individual workshops and their customers, the jewellery retailers. The exhibition at L’ÉCOLE stems from a stunning 320-page monograph on the French jeweller, Lacloche Joailliers, by journalist Laurence Mouillefarine and iconographer Véronique Ristelhueber, that provides a historical chronology of the house—the maison, in French—as well as profiles of the principal workshops that supplied it, together with their maker’s marks. This makes it an indispensable book for collectors and connoisseurs and provides an invaluable tool for researchers as much as amateur enthusiasts.

The showcase of France

The Lacloche brothers moved to Paris in 1892 just as a vibrant artisanal industry in high jewellery and metal luxury products was emerging along the rue de la Paix, a 230-metre stretch known for sumptuous retail outlets housed in the ground floors of grand townhouses. (It is the highest-priced location in the French version of Monopoly, and in popular culture its name is a byword for the pinnacle of success.) The concentration of talent in such a small footprint, compressed in an area between the Place Vendôme and the Paris Opera, formed an ecosystem that built on artisanal cultures going back to the Middle Ages, with a new market in an international moneyed class that visited Paris for fun and shopping. The Parisian retailers of high jewellery were the visible tip of a pyramid of workshops ranging from clock makers to goldsmiths and gem setters.  

“It was a small world where they were completely linked together,” says Mouillefarine, an expert on Art Deco jewellery. “The owners of the workshop would go regularly to all the retailers. Each one would react differently. For sure, [Lacloche] didn’t make the pieces. They would choose among the models for the workshop. The type of brand is a result of the taste of the owner. They would react to fashion. They all went into Egyptomania and influence from the Far East, although not all to modernism. It’s taste that makes the style of the maison.”

According to Mouillefarine, collectors can instantly recognise a Lacloche piece due to its “poetry” and perfection, but also because the brothers had a consistent eye that was passed through to the last generation, represented by the son of the senior Jacques, who was killed in a train accident. Once Jacques junior closed the retail jewellery business, he also sold the inventory and threw out most of the archives, keeping only a pair of albums that were assembled by his uncle Fernand for the 1925 exhibition in Paris that gave Art Deco its name, the International Exhibition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts. 

Lacloche was among 30 jewellery retailers and workshops that were invited to participate in the jewellery pavilion at the exhibition, and it gave the brothers an opportunity to define their brand, around the products for which they were known best: miniature jewelled timepieces, clocks, vanity cases, cigarette cases and high jewellery. The albums were intended as souvenirs, with gouaché drawings of the objects and handwritten inscriptions detailing their materials. But they also present empirical proof that the brothers had an aesthetic vision that lay behind their success and enduring appeal, as well as their impact on the emerging Art Deco style. The albums anchor the catalog and the exhibition, with beautiful hand-painted drawings that are as collectible as the objects they represent.

In 1976, while the albums were still in his possession, Jacques lent them to a retrospective of the 1925 Art Deco exhibition at the Musée des Arts décoratifs in Paris. Afterwards, in a spirit of decluttering after closing the jewellery business, he sold them at an auction in Saint-Moritz, Switzerland. Mouillefarine had begun research for the Lacloche exhibition when she stumbled across a reference to the albums in the catalog to the 1976 retrospective. She then proceeded to hunt them down, in a three-year search, following a trail that led her from Saint-Moritz to Geneva, New York, Beijing and Tokyo. Miraculously, the albums had not been broken up by the time she found them with a jewellery lover in the United States. One album shows 21 large and small clocks, made by the Verger workshop; the second is of 63 gouaché drawings of jewellery, beauty accessories and cigarette cases. These objects were not only Lacloche’s finest, but also helped establish its centrality to the Art Deco style, with its combination of exotic imagery, brilliant colors and fascination with the geometric design of the machine age.

A fascination with other cultures

Lacloche offers a window into a transitional era in which East and West were in the process of discovering each other, not always with understanding, but enthusiasm and respect. The Lacloche maison reflected the “fascination with other cultures” of Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, says Gonnet-Pon. “It was an incredible creative period,” drawing inspiration from sources as varied as the Ballet Russes and Diaghilev to the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 which set off a wave of Egyptomania to the Pagoda Paris built by the antiquities dealer CT Loo in 1925 in the Eighth Arrondissement, stimulating enthusiasm for all things Chinese. 

Among the most unusual of 40 masterpieces in the L’ÉCOLE exhibition are vanity cases, many of them lent by co-sponsor Liang Yi Museum, a major collector of Lacloche boxes. Compacts are typically made of plastic today, but in the 1920s they represented a feminist revolution when women became mobile. If they were wealthy, they might have nécessaires, or vanity cases made of precious metals by Lacloche. The Liang Yi Museum pieces include a gold, amber, onyx, enamel, amethyst, pearl and diamond vanity case decorated with a plum branch in an asymmetrical design against an amber background, that could be either Chinese or Japanese in inspiration, as well as other Japan-inspired boxes of wonderful delicacy. 

From the late 19th century onwards, European and American artists were engaged with the study of Japanese art, through translations and magazines such as Artistic Japan that published both scholarly articles and reproductions. Among the models for the Lacloche boxes might have been Japanese lacquer suzuribako, or inkstone boxes, decorated with gold makie (lacquer), pewter, coral, shell and other materials and signed by the artists who made them. The boxes in the L’ÉCOLE exhibition are decorated with scenes that seem straight from Japanese woodblock prints and paintings, but with the brilliant colours associated with Chinoiserie enamelware and late Qing and Republican ceramics, which were flooding into Europe by the 1920s. Many of the clocks, too, have an Asian inspiration, with pagoda forms and a liberal use of jade.

Remarkable though the boxes and clocks may be, the jewellery takes primacy at the exhibition, as it did when the Lacloche house was in business. Among collectors and experts, according to Mouillefarine, Lacloche is known for the delicacy of its works, the poetry of its imagery, finish of execution, love of nature, sense of humour and an audacious wit. The objects embody a perfectionism that is instantly recognisable, yet difficult to articulate. “They would push their craftsmen to the limit,” she says.

She recalls visiting L’ÉCOLE’s previous Lacloche exhibition in Paris in 2019 with a friend who was a contemporary jeweller. He was astonished by a diamond and platinum bracelet that imitates tapestry (it did not make it to the Hong Kong exhibition but is in the catalogue). He could not understand how it was constructed. “Without the savoir-faire, fine jewellery is dead,” she observes. Fortunately, the exhibition and monograph bring the style and beauty of Lacloche back to life.

Lacloche, Parisian Jewelers, 1892-1967 can be experienced in a 360-degree digital viewing starting on March 21. You can follow your visit with a live online quiz at 7pm on April 28 to win prizes ranging from a gift certificate for a jewellery class to a Parisian dining experience in Hong Kong.

 Visit L’ÉCOLE Asia Pacific’s website for the latest updates.

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