For Women’s History Month, the story that’s been resonating with me the most is that of Suzanne Belperron. She was a French jewelry designer who lived through World War II.
I think her story and her creativity are definitely worthy of a blog post, so let’s get right to it!
A chunky bracelet by Suzanne Belperron
Our story begins in France
Suzanne was born in France in 1900 to a community known for cutting gemstones. She was lucky enough to come of age during a time when women believed they could achieve anything! The suffrage movement was going strong, and Suzanne had great female mentors. Her mom noticed her artistic talent, and she was sent to a special school to get more training. After years of studying watch-making and decorative arts, she won an award at just 18 years old for a beautiful pendant watch she created.
During her studies, she became friends with the Boivin family. Specifically, the famous jewelry designer René Boivin, his wife Jeanne, and their daughter Germaine. Jeanne continued René’s work after he passed away and thought of Suzanne as her own daughter. This led to Suzanne joining the jewelry design house of Boivin in Paris at only 23 years old. She flourished working with other women at Boivin. And was influenced by similar things, like floral motifs and other cultures.
The floral motifs from Suzanne Belperron
Paris at this time must have been a thrilling place for a young designer. World War I was behind them, people were prosperous, and fabulous, outlandish art was everywhere.
A new design direction
After a decade with Boivin, Suzanne left to be part of a new company. She joined Bernard Herz, who had been one of Boivin’s suppliers. Bernard offered her complete freedom with her designs, and she was excited about that opportunity.
Suzanne created designs unlike what people had seen before. She mixed precious and semi-precious stones, used a ton of color, and everything was very curvy and bold. Keep in mind she did this work in the Art Deco era. And remember that Art Deco was very geometric, and very white (since diamonds were prominent). She also used 22K gold, something that no one else was doing.
Suzanne really pushed the boundaries of jewelry-making techniques. She ignored craftsmen who said it would be impossible to create what she had sketched. Her response was “débrouillez-vous — find a way.”
Some examples in rock crystal, note the distinctive curves she uses.
She was known for being independent, innovative, and opinionated! The fashion press in 1934 described her designs as “barbaric.” She was unconcerned. Suzanne found inspiration in nature. And in other cultures, including Chinese, Japanese, Mayan, Celtic, and African. She was unafraid to go her own way.
Suzanne knew how original her designs were For this reason, she never signed any of her pieces. What a shame!
“My style is my signature.” – Suzanne Belperron
Suzanne’s unique style gave her unique customers. Like Elsa Schiapparelli, famous fashion designer, who showed up in a 1933 issue of Vogue wearing her jewelry. And fashion editor for Harper’s Bazaar, Diana Vreeland. And style icon extraordinaire – the Duchess of Windsor.
She worked with all the famous and stylish celebrities of the day, including Fred Astaire and Frank Sinatra. Colette and New York society figure Dorothy Paley. Daisy Fellowes, Countess Mona von Bismarck, pianist Marie Munn, Princess Aga Khan, and Josephine Baker.
They loved her bold designs.
Some examples of Suzanne’s creativity
“There’s no one else like her.” – Karl Lagerfeld
Suzanne & the Gestapo
All good things must come to an end, or at least pause. Suzanne worked in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. Her partner Bernard was Jewish, and in constant danger. For their safety, Suzanne switched the company to her name in 1940. Bernard was continually harassed and interrogated and in 1942, Suzanne was arrested and accused of concealing a Jewish business.
Desperate to protect them both, Suzanne tore their client notebook into small pieces and ate it. Although she was later released, poor Bernard was sent away to an internment camp. He died later at Auschwitz.
Smoky quartz, another common material in Suzanne’s designs
Bernard signed everything over to Suzanne, and asked that she try to protect his children. She kept their jewelry shop open throughout the war. Even though it was incredibly difficult to find materials and clients.
Sadly, only one of Bernard’s two children survived the war (his son, Jean). Suzanne was overjoyed, they became partners, and worked together harmoniously for the next 30 years.
Suzanne died in 1983.
Although Suzanne’s designs were incredibly popular during her lifetime, they were largely forgotten for several decades after her death. But then, in 1987, Sotheby’s auctioned off a TON of jewelry from the Duchess of Windsor. And lo and behold, there were some fabulous pieces from Suzanne. Although only five pieces were attributed to her, there were actually 16 pieces from her in the collection. (This is where Suzanne’s habit of not signing her work hurt her.)
Blue chalcedony, with accents from sapphires and diamonds, owned by the Duchess of Windsor
Today, Suzanne Belperron jewelry is incredibly collectible. It sells very well at auction. A bracelet of hers sold for over $300,000 in 2011.
The revival of Suzanne
One of the most exciting things about Suzanne is that her original drawings and jewelry molds are still around! They were purchased in 1999 by Ward Landrigan. Ward had come across Suzanne’s jewelry during the years he worked at auction house Sotheby’s. On his own, he built up a collection of around 80 original pieces. (Sadly, they are not for sale.)
Ward also obtained the exclusive rights to reproduce Suzanne’s work. Along with his son Nico, they have re-started the Belperron company. They release a limited number of new designs each year. The two are committed to her aesthetic. Devoted to upholding the incredible level of craftsmanship. Nothing will be mass-produced. Everything is made by hand.
New Belperron piece, with archived designs as inspiration
Want to see more designs from Suzanne Belperron? Check out my board on Pinterest.
Let me know what YOU think about Suzanne in the comments below. Are you as as enamored of her designs as I am?
This post has been updated and edited since it was originally published on March 28, 2019.