A one-of-a-kind piece of wearable art from Naila de Monbrison's jewelry gallery offers a lifetime of stand-out style.
Since it she opened her doors in 1987, Naila de Monbrison's jewelry gallery has been the elite meeting spot for those who prefer to wear their art on their sleeves.
Once upon a time a women's jewels were considered bedazzling accoutrements to a nearly-perfect ensemble. The cherry on top of the icing on the cake. Over the last two decades, the tides have shifted; fashion has become an unassuming canvas upon which to display artistic jewels from some of the most pioneering talents of our time.
The wind beneath the wings of this stylistic shift is Egyptian-born, Paris-based gallery owner, Naila de Monbrison. In 1987, she opened one of the world's first jewelry galleries to herald a new vision of adornment, where, like art, "the material is considered less important that the creation itself." An avid collector of ethnic jewels and contemporary art jewelry, she put the two under the same roof to show "that something can be beautiful even when made out of the poorest of materials." An avatar of the avant-garde, she has brought names like Line Vautrin, Marcial Berro and Taher Chemirik to the fore. Following and nurturing her artists evolution through group and solo shows, since her first sold-out exhibition, her bijou of a space has been the elite meeting spot for Paris' cultural cognoscenti.
Here the mother or wearable art discusses the "initial shock" of her first show devoted to the East-meets-West vision of Tina Chow, why contemporary jewels often wilt in the presence of primitive design, and which new designers have caught her eye.
What is your definition of luxury?
That extra something that allows one to live better.
If luxury were a person who would it be?
Maria Callas, I absolutely adore the power of her voice.
A diamond because it's the most exceptional stone that exists.
A fantastic ball.
The house of my friend Colombe in Portrugal, because it's sheer beauty.
What is the difference between art jewelry and traditional fine jewelry?
The two can come together at times, however with art jewelry, an artist follows a personal inspiration without taking into account the preciousness of the materials he is using. In fine jewelry, preciousness goes before everything—the goal is pure luxury. A piece of art jewelry is not necessary a luxurious object. It's more like a work of art. That's the essential difference. All is found in the personal vision of the artist who creates the bijou. That doesn't prevent the artist from using precious materials if he feels so inclined.
How does the boutique/gallery operate?
I organize exhibitions to present the work of artists as their expression evolves. From time to time I discover young talent. I have the same objective as a gallery: to discover, promote and follow the work of artists over time by showing their personal work in solo and group exhibitions.
What inspired you to combine ethnic jewels with contemporary jewels?
In 1984, several years before I started my gallery, I saw an exhibition at the MoMA in New York called 'Primitivism in 20th Century Art.' In that show William Rubin, the exhibition curator, put primitive art on a parallel plane with contemporary art to reveal the affinities between the two. Seeing the two together was incredibly beautiful and I discovered then how well primitive art and contemporary art go together. I said to myself "Why not do the same thing with jewelry?"
Ethnographic jewelry and contemporary art jewelry seem like two very different modes of expression. How do the two fit together?
It's very hard to say. I just find that they two go well together. It's true that within sculpture there is strong connection between primitive sculpture and modern sculpture. There is a common spirit. It's always an excellent test to place the two side by side in order to see whether the contemporary piece stands up to the power of the ethnic works, because they are incredibly strong designs.
An artist's work is often a reflection of their cultural background and influences. Ethnic jewelry is directly linked to the cultural of a society. I've found that same expression in many of the contemporary artists' jewels. For example in the necklaces of Taher Cheminik, one finds references to traditional jewelry from Northern Africa. In the work of Italian artist Giorgio Vigna, one can sense the strong cultural influences of Baroque as well as the heritage of Italian glass craftsmanship. With the French, you find designs that are a lot more rigorous and influenced by the spirit of Art Deco, because it's part of their culture.
What triggered the idea to organize exhibitions?
In the beginning I had a certain number of artists whose work I liked and I opened by presenting them, and I've continued to work with around three quarters of them. But it wasn't until I met the extraordinary American artist Tina Chow that I decided to do an exhibition. I didn't know who she was but she came in the day I opened, showed her work, and I immediately decided to do a solo exhibition. It was six months after the gallery opened. It's incredibly success is what launched the gallery.
You search for designs that are true expressions of the creator's imagination. How can you identify quality beyond just the language of aesthetics?
I impose no commercial restrictions on my artists. They can do whatever they want—out of fashion, against fashion, anything they like. They are totally free to express themselves. If I don't like it, that's another story. Of course the work needs to be beautiful—I work with aesthetics. If it's ugly, it's not possible. Experimentation is not enough; there needs to be true research into the expression of beauty.
What drives your belief that stones have individual souls?
I'm Egyptian, you know, I believe that certain stones are made for certain people. Perhaps the word 'soul' is a little strong. I believe that stones have certain vibrations. For example, in antiquity and in primitive cultures stones represented specific things, they tell stories, and are said to carry good luck or bad, bring health and prosperity, etc.
Are your customers the same as those who frequent the big name brands on the Place Vendôme?
Don't get me wrong, I love diamonds— love to buy and love to receive. It happens from time to time that the clientele is the same, but in general they're different. Most of our clients are strong women with strong personalities who are incredibly sophisticated, cultivated and often buy for themselves.
You have said that between a woman and a bijou, there is always a story of love? What drives that attraction?
Throughout history women have always loved jewelry because it enhances their beauty. More and more, however, women are buying artist jewelry because they love the object in itself. What's interesting about artist jewelry is that it's very personal. We're not talking about merely beautifully set precious stones. Artist jewelry needs to correspond to the client's personality because it's a true reflection of an artist's vision; it's very distinctive.
Throughout your career you have fostered exceptional talent. Which creators have meant the most to you over time?
Are you kidding? Even if I had a preference I wouldn't tell you. Each one of my artists is more jealous than the other. They'd kill me. That said, though he's not with the gallery now, there is an artist with whom I've collaborated greatly since the beginning at that's Marcial Berro. Another since the beginning is Dominique Biard. Three artists, who have had tremendous success as well, are Taher Cheminik, Giorgio Vigna, and Gilles Jonemann. I have done several solo exhibitions with each of them.
How do you source new artists?
It's not very difficult. We're not that many in this field. They know the gallery and come here to present their work.
Who are some of your more recent recruits?
I've recently begun working with two extremely talented young French artists: Lara Koulajian, a young Lebanese woman who was trained in the Unites States; and Violaine Febvret.
You also organize solo gallery shows. What have been the most successful shows of your career?
Tina Chow and Line Vautrin launched the gallery.