French jeweler Marie-Hélène de Taillac's discovery of the jewels of Jaipur ten years ago set her on a creative voyage that changed the face of modern jewelry
Celebrating her ten-year anniversary this year, Marie-Hélène de Taillac revolutionized the world of modern jewelry by injecting it with the colors and techniques of her adopted India.
Marie-Hélène de Taillac is celebrating not only ten years of her own jewelry company this year, but also ten years of being one of the most influential designers in the modern jewelry world. Quite possibly the worst-kept secret in jewelry, de Taillac's work has graced the necks, wrists, ears and fingers of a growing but ever-discerning clientele around the world since it first appeared, introducing a form of precious, but not overly recherché, jewelry to women who have never felt the need to worship at the altar of traditional haute joaillerie, women who were looking for something beautiful to wear with their wardrobe of modern fashion. De Taillac, with a long interest in jewelry, decided to become a jeweler when she visited Jaipur, the center of the Indian jewelry trade, in 1996, settling there for six months out of the year shortly afterwards, where she has her pick of stones, which are shaped into glorious gems by the skilled craftsmen of the renowned Gem Palace. What makes de Taillac's work so unique is her embrace of colored stones—long overlooked by the luxury jewelry world—faceting spinels, tourmalines, garnets, and topazes, and mixing them with emeralds, rubies, and diamonds similarly cut to sparkle softly with the understated elegance of jewelry that exists because it is beautiful, not because it's expensive. Her joyous color mixes and simple constructions, as well as her use of the traditional briolette, went on to influence the world's biggest houses, creating an about-face in modern jewelry design and initiating a whole new generation of women into the fold of jewelry wearers.
What is your definition of luxury?
Something that is rare. Luxury can be taken in many different ways. For me, luxury is sometimes having cold water when it's 45°C (113°F) in India and I need to have cold water so I can have a cold shower!
If luxury was:
Probably Cleopatra eating pearls. But that's if you think luxury is eating pearls!
I would keep it secret, otherwise it would not be a luxury.
It would have to be a stone. A really, really rare, incredible stone. A blue diamond. An old cut.
A moment with no modern life involved. No telephone.
How did you first become interested in jewelry?
I've always loved jewelry, it's a passion from childhood. And I've always looked at jewelry, checked out old antique jewelry, collected costume jewelry when I was a teenager. I was born in Libya, and we lived in Lebanon, so I remember going to all the excavation sites in Beirut and seeing all the old jewelry and old pieces of gold, and I think that stuck in my memory. I remember seeing the pictures of the Iranian crown jewels as my parents went to Iran when I was seven, and I can still remember every piece of jewelry!
So, when did you decide you wanted to be a jeweler?
I didn't decide, it happened! In 1996, on a trip to India, I went into the Gem Palace and I saw the quality of the craftsmanship and the quality of the stones and I asked them if I could design jewelry with them, design jewelry that they would manufacture for me. But it wasn't a conscious decision; I felt I was just in the right place at the right time.
When did you decide you were going to spend six months out of the year in Jaipur?
I didn't decide! I realized that for quality, jewelry is not like fashion—every piece is handmade, and every piece is different. And in my jewelry, what makes a difference is the stones. So I choose or oversee every stone that's used in my jewelry now. I realized that to have the quality I wanted and the choice, I had to be there to see it and to do it. I like being in India anyway, and doing the quality of work I do, I have to be there.
How hard was it to be taken seriously as a European woman working in the age-old, male-dominated gem trade in Jaipur?
I think it might be harder if I were an Indian woman. I'm a foreign woman, and the expectations they have of me are totally different than what they would have of an Indian woman.
How do you move from one culture to another? Have your whole outlook and way of living changed as a result?
I think I realize how privileged I am. I think it keeps you on your toes to be in India, because people's lives are so hard, and, you know, we are so spoiled. Even if I make a difference in one person's life, it makes me feel good. In Paris, nobody needs me. In India, I feel I can pass on a lot: I can pass on my knowledge, I can pass on my wealth. The average salary in India is something like 100€, so I'm very successful for them. I can help a lot of people, which is good.
Are there certain techniques you use that we wouldn't normally see in the West?
When I started doing briolettes (pendulous stones with a single link) when I started ten years ago, it was something that was only done for diamonds. It's something that's specific to India to drill the stones, and here, I love to set the stones free.
How would you describe your creative style?
I suppose what I also try to do, because my first love is stones, is to show the beauty of the stones. I suppose in French the word would be 'épuré,' because it's quite simple.
What is the most luxurious piece you've created?
I have a diamond necklace which we call Ladylike. It's made all with rose cuts, and there is no setting, so when you have it on it's like all the diamonds are floating on your neck. It's incredibly understated, and it's beautiful because the diamonds have been drilled and they're just held together with really, really tiny links. This is my favorite piece. But I've created other pieces that I love. I've done a kaleidoscope in gold with precious stones inside, because I thought it was a nice way to look at stones. I've created mobiles for the house in gold and precious stones, too. They're quite extravagant and would really be unique. I love the idea of jewels in the house.
If you had the opportunity to create one truly amazing piece without any price constraints, what might it look like?
I suppose I would make a bigger version of the necklace I was telling you about, with slightly bigger stones! Sometimes I find stones, diamonds, that are above my budget, and I wish I could buy them. I found a beautiful diamond that was like a pebble, and it was a slightly champagne color, and the faceting was beautiful, and it's the kind of thing I would have loved to have bought just to have it in my pocket. I wouldn't have to wear it; I would be happy just to carry it and hold it sometimes.
What is your biggest retail market?
I would say it's a balance between Japan and America, but what they buy is very different. I have a big following in Japan, and in America I have fewer clients who invest more in my pieces. The unique pieces, the collector pieces would go to America, and the smaller pieces would go to Japan.
You already have two stores that bear your name—in Paris and in Japan. Why did you feel the need to open your own stores?
It was an ambition I think was important, because jewelry is sold in a very traditional way. And my aesthetic is quite coherent, and I love contemporary design, so I wanted to show jewelry in a more contemporary way. The Paris store was designed by Tom Dixon, whom I love and who's been a friend for years and whose work I really admire. And the Tokyo store was designed by Marc Newson, who's also a friend and who also does fabulous work. I wanted to show jewelry, but in a setting that corresponds to our time. Everything else had evolved, except the jewelry stores, and my jewelry has never been selling in jewelry stores, it's been selling in fashion and design stores. Here, you can show your whole line, and you can also create pieces specially for the store, because if I find a stone I like, I'm not going to be able to use it as part of the collection, so I can't include it. I like something; I get it made; I send it to the store.
Are you planning to open more stores?
Well, I have three sisters who work with me. One takes care of the Paris store, the second takes care of the Tokyo store, and the third one is Victoire, who takes care of the press. So I would love to do a store in New York, but I haven't found the perfect person yet. If I can convince Victoire to move to New York, then I will do a store!
Family is clearly very important to you. Who comprises the new 'family' you've created around you through your work?
I had my younger brother, Pierre, who was helping for two years, which was great. I also have my cousin's wife. We're very much like a family; even the people who work for me. We're very close. My right-hand is a friend of my sister Victoire. We're always very close to the people we work with, and in that sense, it's really a family business. In India, they're very sentimental, so people like you, which is nice. If I really need something, the workers will really go out of their way. We've been working together for a long time, and they enjoy working with me.
Who is the MHT client?
When I started, I had a lot of clients who never wore real jewelry. I had a lot of artists' wives, so one of my first clients was Annabel Buffet, Buffet's wife. I had a lot of people in the art world who wore my jewelry. I suppose these are people who understand about understated luxury.
Does your jewelry sell in India?
No. I think it's difficult, because it's a market where they still look at jewelry for its intrinsic value. They would want to pay the gold weight and the stone weight. They don't think of design, so that makes it difficult. Secondly, they love things to show. You have to show your wealth, so if you've spent a lot of money on jewelry, you have to look like you've spent money on jewelry, which is exactly contrary to my philosophy. What I love is understated refinement, which you could use to describe my jewelry. And the other big issue I would have about selling in India is that already, I have a problem with people getting inspired by my work. Then if I showed my client collection in India, it means it would be sold and I would have no control over it.
Who are your jewelry heroes – both from the past and from today?
I love Suzanne Belperron, she's really fantastic, for having such a contemporary aesthetic. What she designed is still inspiring people now. I love JAR's work; I love the perfection of his work. I love the perfection of Cartier's work in the '20s, which I think was really fabulous. I love Buccellati also. I think the quality of the workmanship is unbelievable.
You know, I think for jewelry to be good, it really has to have someone behind it, to have a soul, which is something that can get lost when houses grow and they don't have someone leading who's as invested in it. It's really a reflection of someone's soul and mind and the love they put into it. I also think of Victoire de Castellane; she has her own world. She's great, and she's managed to create something and establish herself on the Place Vendôme. Dior jewelry didn't exist; it exists only because of her.
What do you feel you've accomplished in ten years, and where do you see yourself in ten years' time?
I am doing what I love, which is very important to me, and I'm always happy to be in my workshop and choosing the stones. For me, that's a great accomplishment for ten years: to be fulfilling my passion, and I hope it will be the same in the next ten years. I think that as long as I enjoy what I do, I will keep doing it. The day when there's too much pressure or the fun is no longer there, I would not do it anymore.