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Chanel celebrates Depression collection that kept diamonds fashionable

The "1932" collection of 80 one-off pieces will tour the world to mark Coco Chanel's 80th anniversary.

Coco Chanel was never very far from controversy, whether she was liberating women from their corseted bondage or championing bobbed hair and sunbathing.

That was nothing, however, compared to the furore she created in the Place Vendôme in Paris when in 1932 she launched a collection of fine jewellery.

The venerable old jewellery houses in the Place were apoplectic that a couturier imagined she could design jewellery, a skill they had spent years mastering and furiously protecting.

No fashion designer had ever created a precious jewellery collection before, but some diamond merchants, worried about the effect of the Depression on sales, wanted Chanel's help to make diamonds fashionable again. It was an inspired idea and it worked.

To mark that extraordinary one-off collection, Chanel is celebrating its 80th anniversary. The "1932" collection comprises 80 items, "the most impressive collection in terms of value and number of pieces" ever produced by Chanel, says Benjamin Comar, its international director of fine jewellery.

The collection will tour the world for the rest of the year after it is presented at the prestigious Paris Biennale des Antiquaires from September 14 to 23.

Times have changed considerably since the 1930s. Coco Chanel loved a challenge and, bearing in mind that hers was the first fashion house to launch a fragrance, why couldn't she turn her creative instinct to diamonds?

On a November evening in 1932, she invited the cream of Parisian society to her home on Faubourg St Honoré and displayed her dazzling collection on wax mannequins against a backdrop of Coromandel screens.

The display "was very original at a time when pieces were traditionally presented in a jewellery box or on velvet cushions", notes Comar. It allowed a client to envisage what it would be like to wear them.

There were €2 million (Dh9.2m) worth of bright white and yellow diamonds on display, set in platinum designs.

Her audience was entranced but could not buy the pieces, because the diamond merchants had agreed to dismantle all the jewellery after the exhibition to placate the jewellers.

Only one piece is known to have survived: the Comete brooch, which is now one of the couture house's most treasured possessions.

From this brooch a whole new generation of fine jewellery was created in 1993 when Chanel reintroduced high jewellery.

Coco Chanel said of her collection that she found inspiration simply by looking up at the Parisian night sky, streaked with stars and the moon in its first lunar phase: "I wanted to cover women in constellations," she said. "Stars! Stars of all sizes to sparkle in their hair, fringes, moon crescents."

The new "1932" collection ranges from the dramatic Comete necklace, which features a comet on a question mark-shaped necklace with a sublime 15-carat white diamond - inspired by the original brooch and necklace (which did not survive) - selling for €4.7m, and a delicate Étoile filante necklace in a similar shape with filaments of diamonds for €3.9m.

Coco Chanel was a known innovator, and these supple necklaces, with no clasps, meant a new, free way of wearing such jewellery.

The Étoile filante headpiece, meanwhile, is the first headpiece the house has designed since Chanel's original fringed design. Comar says it is a nod to the Art Deco style of the 1930s.

The jewellers of that decade may have regarded Coco Chanel as an interloper in their closed world of fine jewels, but today, a few haute couture houses and luxury brands are creating magnificent jewellery collections.

Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton and Chanel join their Place Vendôme neighbours, the established houses of Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Chaumet, Piaget and Boucheron, in showing at the Paris Biennale at the Grand Palais.

It is a sign of acceptance at last.

"High jewellery and haute couture share the same core values such as creativity, craftsmanship and excellence," says Comar. "High jewellery goes very well with Chanel's philosophy of ultimate luxury."

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