Last month's couture shows were, as always, about showcasing the most exquisite fabrics, embroideries and tailoring in the world. The level of artistry applied is quite extraordinary, but there is one aspect of the luxury market that puts mere frocks into the shade: high jewellery. We're not talking about the admittedly lovely pieces that are to be found in Boucheron, Bulgari, Chopard or Dior's fine jewellery collections the world over. High jewellery refers to the sort of unique, one-off creations wrought by hand by master jewellers using one-of-a-kind diamonds and gems, sometimes taking years to complete as they are delicately engineered into tiny sculptures or as the jewellers search for a perfectly matching stone or pearl. If you have to ask the price you can't afford them, but these are pieces that sell fast and retain their secondary value, whatever the economic climate.
Among the new developments in high jewellery revealed in July, to coincide with the couture shows, is one for which the term "astronomical" refers to more than the price tag: Boucheron's "Julia" necklace, conceived by the industrial designer Marc Newson, looks like a swirling galaxy, with apparently random clusters of diamonds and sapphires suspended on barely-there white gold. This is a perfect example of the sort of astounding attention to detail and innovation that is to be found in the world of high jewellery. Based on the mathematical concept of the Julia Set fractal (an irregular geometric shape that can infinitely be divided into smaller versions of the original shape, named after the mathematician Gaston Julia), the complex, three-dimensional creation took around 1,500 hours to construct using 2,000 pavéd stones chosen to accurately replicate the size and colour gradations in the Julia fractal. It is simply extraordinary.
Among the other jewellers showing their finest wares last month were Bulgari, Van Cleef & Arpels, Chanel and Dior, while Fabergé revealed a small preview of the new collection that will mark the relaunch of its high jewellery line in September, as it attempts to spruce up a reputation that has been somewhat devalued while under the ownership of Unilever. The Russian jewellery company, best known for its enamel eggs, showed nature-inspired pieces that included the Nymphéa bracelet, which took four years to make.
Nature was an inspiration for Van Cleef & Arpels too, in its Oiseaux de Paradis collection, in which the curlicues and swirls of feathers were created using painstakingly matched gems in rich colours that blend together to gorgeous effect. The company's California Reverie collection went down a more contemporary route but remained nature-focused, inspired by the great outdoors of California to combine colourful gems with neat diamonds in a series of bold cocktail rings and clips. The highlight: the Paysage D'Opale clip, which uses an Ethiopian opal weighing an extraordinary 100.11 carats to represent the setting sun, set in a sapphire ocean with diamond palm trees front and back, and a line of yellow sapphires on the reverse.
In a slightly more sinister take on nature, Bulgari's Serpenti collection offers a stylised take on its iconic snake motif, with intricately articulated gold parts pavéd in diamonds and onyx. It's an almost art-deco approach with references to the symbolism of the ancient cultures of Egypt and the Aztecs, in which the snake held mystical significance - a sense of otherworldliness that leads nicely into Dior's deliciously macabre high jewellery offering.
The ever more creative Victoire de Castellane, who has been designing Dior's jewellery for the last 10 years, is known for her exquisite and often outlandish designs: rainbow-coloured, nature-inspired, surreal and childishly imaginative. This season, she has focused on a recurring skull motif for her Kings & Queens collection, carving tiny skulls out of whole pieces of jade, opal, quartz and obsidian and dressing them in diamond feather headdresses, crowns, collars and ruffs. They are extraordinary.
For more classic tastes, Chanel delivered as reliably as ever, with deceptively simple takes on the bows, camellias, pearls and chain links that are emblematic of the label. The talk of the collection, though, was the fact that it was displayed on a miniature replica of the Place Vendôme painstakingly constructed in crystal-clear Lego. No expense spared: a phrase that applies to the whole high jewellery season.