The design maven of minimalist homewares talks about her dark and impressively baroque jewelry line and the evolution of luxury today.
Striking Stygian jewelry contrasts with the pale shades of minimalist homewares as this French designer shows that style never runs a straight course.
Definition of luxury:
I think it's completely personal. It's an intimate notion. Everyone has their own idea. It's a question that can be answered infinitely.
If luxury was a:
Space, an empty beach. Certainly open space and natural beauty.
Something that evokes a marvelous memory. Maybe a little trinket one keeps with oneself.
Luxury is being with the person we want to be with. See, it's always something very personal.
Obviously it's the time we get to spend with that person.
Muriel Grateau is a woman of contrasts. She sells softly hued linens and sculpturally minimal tableware in an airy black-and-white gallery and has recently launched a collection of dark, weighty, baroque jewelry. She's dressed in black from head to toe but is anything but cold and cerebral. She speaks Italian as easily as her native French, but despite being able to read and edit English she can't speak a word of it.
"I like the idea of exercises in style, the idea of approaching things like an architect with constraints," she says. For a woman who enjoyed a hectically successful career as a fashion designer in Milan from 1975 to 1990 and who one day suddenly decided to quit and return to Paris to start her own business creating beautifully designed homewares and, more recently, black jewelry, her working life has been shaped by absolutes, personally formed with the sort of rigor that only an architect can muster.
"I don't want to do something architectural. I don't find architectural jewelry interesting," she says ironically, talking about her foray into jewelry, which took a bow in 2005. It's ironic, because the rest of her output is so focused on minimalist perfection. "I don't like jewelry that's too simple. I love very old jewels. German jewelry from the 17th and 18th centuries, which was very wrought, very elaborate."
No stranger to jewelry, having designed costume jewelry as part of accessory collections, this was her first time creating real jewelry using precious materials. "I'd never done real jewelry, as I always had a bit of a complex when it came to the knowledge of which stones it was necessary to have, and so on," she admits. "Then I came across some really lovely people who are really passionate about what they do, and who taught me a lot, because I really knew nothing, neither about the technique of setting, nor gemstone calibration."
A quick learner, Grateau worked with Parisian ateliers to produce Collections Precieuses, a small but perfectly conceived line of jewelry that carves molten onyx into knuckleduster rings replete with carved cameo figures, faceted onyx and smoked quartz cabochons, and pavé bands of brown and cognac-colored diamonds. She focused on black jewelry destined for women who, like her, dress exclusively in black. Molten onyx is the leitmotif, reappearing as a sculpted, black sapphire-studded bangle set in 18k blackened white gold, in large sculpted caryatid brooches, or as the Stygian base for a bulbous ring glowing with the warmth of an oval red coral cabochon. There's also an equally large selection of blackened gold laser-cut into lacy armlets and drop earrings.
Her desire to make the jewelry noticeable comes, she says, from fashion: "For me, a piece of jewelry shouldn't just be a technically fabulous thing, it has to be a real accessory." The huge presence exerted by some of the pieces makes one think of the Texas socialite Becca Cason Thrash's view of jewels: "My mother always said, 'Honey, it's not jewelry if you can't see it from across the street.'"
But then, Grateau is a woman designing jewelry for women. "I'm not entirely in favor of jewelry created by men, which is often technically very beautiful, but I don't find it very flattering," she says. "It's too small and precious." The problem for women is only compounded when men buy them jewelry, something that's changing as more and more women become the primary jewelry purchasers. "For example, when a man offers a ring, it's linked to something symbolic. A woman who buys herself a ring will buy something completely different."
That men and women react differently to jewels is no surprise; Grateau is used to the same thing producing different reactions. Take color, for instance. Since she opened her first store in Paris's Palais Royal in 1991, which in turn was replaced by her current gallery/store in a bright, large space on the rue de Beaune in the Left Bank antiques district, her main occupation has revolved around ethereally understated porcelain bisque tableware, Venetian glass and cloudy French crystal, deceptively-simple shopping bags in black calf and crocodile, and linen napkins and tablecloths that come in 100 different shades.
"Color is tied to the material it's used for. To try to copy a color is pointless," she notes. "If you take the pale rose used for the linen and apply it to porcelain, it's a disaster, totally vulgar." Despite the rainbow flow of linen shades, Grateau's lock on color is a rigid one: 100 shades, no more, no less. As it is, it's enough work guaranteeing that the dyers get the shades perfectly right each time, and she doesn't produce other colors to order.
For a woman whose life revolves around color to such a large extent, black is the necessary basis of her wardrobe. "When you work a lot with color, you have to block out the decor around you," she explains. "You have to be removed. If I fall for a colorful piece of clothing, it'll end up staying in my wardrobe unworn. It's very strange. I can look at something, it can give me great pleasure, I just won't put it on."
When she quit her Milanese career in 1990 – by which time she was designing a phenomenal 1500 looks every season – the schism was total. In fact, she didn't open a fashion magazine for five years after that, she says. As she's become more open to fashion again – having fashion designers among her clientele has been a factor – she's found herself vaguely nostalgic for certain aspects of her former life. "The difference is that in fashion, there's this 'event' element, an adrenaline rush every six months, which, with the way I live now, doesn't exist for me anymore. And it's something I miss deeply," she says unexpectedly.
She's not, however, planning a return to fashion. "I don't want to do clothes, because to sell clothes in a store isn't remotely interesting to me. Is it too big, is it too small, does it make me look fat?... The excitement is in designing, in creating a collection, in getting 2,000 people together, creating something that corresponds to a gesture or a need, that's what's interesting. Making clothes, putting them in a boutique and waiting for the clients to come certainly isn't."
And, besides, the consumer market for luxury has changed a lot in the meantime, and that's something she's been very aware of in her homewares milieu. "Twenty years ago, this sophistication was all about people of a certain age who gradually learned and attained a certain level of knowledge—those who did not instinctively have that sense of style, that is," she explains. "From the time where suddenly, we became inundated with an enormous amount of information, there was a quantity of information available to everyone. It's an education. People get straight away what's beautiful, what isn't beautiful, what's this and that."
As a result, the tables of power have turned. "The era of the so-called refined clientele is dead, it's finished," she says, definitively. "It's the young now who come educated, with an eye for selection, editing, with strong tastes, and a completely different lifestyle."
With a global clientele and a growing incidence of trunk show exposure, Grateau has never thought of her small enterprise as a luxury brand. "As someone who creates luxury objects, yes," she says. "But I guess things become a brand because there's some sort of recognizable signature. And I think people are becoming more and more receptive to a signature than a logo, because they're much more cultivated, they're looking much more for personality, they have the capacity to judge a product for themselves."