Highlighting Women Makers: The Remarkable Women Who Reignited The House of Boivin
Maison Boivin, Paris, was a mini incubator of early to mid-20th century jewelry genius, owned and led for decades by women. The women of Boivin designed a respectable portion of the century’s rare and unusual avant-garde jewelry. Around the turn of the 19th century, women were just entering the workplace, and many opportunities arose in the professions and higher education as the result of the catastrophe of World War I, in which more than a million French men died; afterward, many veterans were diverted to work in reconstruction of war-ravaged areas. This tragic situation flung open doors to women, and jewelry design was one of many areas in which they excelled. In the jewelry field, Cartier, Dusausoy, and Van Cleef & Arpels all benefited from the work of women collaborators, but Boivin stands out as an exceptional women-owned and run collective dedicated to artistic jewelry.
The founder of the Maison, René Boivin, was a brilliant and energetic Parisian who gave up his dream of becoming a medical doctor in order to help in the family jewelry business. After buying up and uniting several workshops in 1890, René settled down and married his love and life partner Jeanne Poiret in the parish of Le Marais, an ancient, densely-populated, and hardworking neighborhood little touched by the grand Second Empire gentrification of Paris. The Boivins set up in a home across the street from their workshops in 25 rue Sainte-Anastase. Their partnership was close and productive for a number of reasons. Jeanne was skillful and practical, running the accounts for the growing business. More importantly, she was one of the five dynamic Poiret siblings, all of them gifted, artistic and entrepreneurial, accomplished in fields ranging from couture to art to interior design. Her little brother Paul, credited with liberating women from the corset, was fast becoming one of the great couturiers of the era. On a smaller scale, the synergies of the Boivin-Poiret couture and art jewelry studios mirrored the Cartier marital and business alliance with the House of Worth that supercharged Cartier’s success. Jeanne also contributed to René’s early achievements with her own creativity and fearlessness, characteristics she amply displayed when leading Maison Boivin to ever greater artistic prominence after her husband’s sudden death in 1917.
Jeanne and Paul Poiret (circa 1885)
By WWI, the couple had three older children, among them a son of military age. They had moved their thriving business again, from 38 rue de Turbigo in the working district of Le Marais to an elegant address with several reception rooms for private clients at 27 rue des Pyramides in the 1st arrondissement, a very short walk from the Louvre. The pre-war Boivin style was highly idiosyncratic, aligned with the rich, color-loving exoticism and historicism of Paul Poiret’s acclaimed couture. The Boivins ignored the reigning Art Nouveau or Belle Epoque styles in which René Lalique and Cartier achieved international success. In contrast with these storied firms, the early style of the house of Boivin must be evoked in words, because few examples of the work survive. Searches for these early jewels yield just few photographs and design drawings—a neo-Egyptian style ring, a pair of opulent pearl and amethyst pendants, Assyrian winged beasts in modeled gold, a “barbaric” gold double spiral ring based on Bronze Age models. Like the Poirets, the Boivins drew inspiration freely from both early European and non-European cultures, ancient and living, including the artifacts of Iron Age peoples, archaeological finds from Mesopotamia, the court society of Merovingian kings, and Indian and African art. The Boivins favored the charm and vibrant colors of “unpretentious” semi-precious stones, mounted in heavy gold wire or set in eternity bands. Always unconventional, they often cut diamonds calibré, which was both difficult, given their hardness, and sumptuous, considering the stones could not be reused. They may have been the original firm to use wood as a mounting for gems. In the Parisian jewelry community, René was a celebrated goldsmith, particularly known for his skill in chasing and engraving. The gold work of early cultures fit with René’s talents and inclinations, while its artistic, global feel and bold sculptural forms complemented Paul Poiret’s daring couture and appealed to his elite and cosmopolitan clientele. Poiret’s couture and Boivin’s jewels artfully enhanced each other.
René Boivin's Gold Spiral Ring (designed circa 1912) in Vogue Paris
Along with Paul and Jeanne’s other siblings, the Boivins helped the family circle create a salon culture that catered to the Haute Boheme and stylish intelligentsia. Poiret had achieved international fame, and the Boivin-Poiret salon clients included intellectuals such as Peggy Guggenheim, Sigmund Freud, Edgar Degas, Erik Satie, Francis Poulenc, Marie Laurencin, a painter close to Picasso, and the Comtesse de Noailles, a writer in the circle of Marcel Proust. In the early stages of the growth of their business, the Boivins both worked hard all day and socialized avidly in the evenings. Surviving photos of the affectionate couple dressed for Paul’s extravagant costume fêtes attest to their congeniality and high spirits. It appears, too, that during this time Jeanne may have learned from her brother’s mistakes and applied these lessons to her own business conduct.
Jeanne’s brother Paul Poiret’s downfall was as precipitous as his rise had been meteoric, partly due to his failure to observe class distinctions with sufficient rigor. Though highly successful, regarded as a genius, he forgot that his aristocratic clients did not see him as an equal. Despite the political fall of the aristocracy after World War I, where wealth remained, class distinctions were maintained. Francesca Cartier Brickell records that, even in the 1920s, Louis Cartier was excluded from high society, despite his wealth, success, and the noble connections he had formed by marriage. On one occasion he was even denied admittance to a ball when the host realized he had sent an invitation to the wrong Cartier; Cartier’s demand for satisfaction via duel was laughed off, as he was considered a mere tradesman. On one famous occasion, Poiret himself overstepped the bounds of class. When visitors to his salon arrived drunken and ill-behaved, he expelled them; their friend, the contemporary influencer Baronne de Rothschild, was galled at Poiret’s self-importance and over-familiarity, as she saw it. From that moment, she diverted her substantial patronage to Coco Chanel, and directed her friends to do the same. By the time Paul returned from serving in World War I, his business had sharply declined, never to recover. Jeanne would have witnessed this with dismay, and it may be part of the reason she socialized modestly after the war, and seems to have sought a cautious balance of intimate service and formal distance in her client relationships.
Suzanne Belperron's House of Boivin Diamond "Slice" Bracelet (designed circa 1928) with Sketch
The post World War I period found Madame Jeanne in a difficult situation. Her son was killed at the front in 1917, and René died after, at age 53 (though, some sources report that René died serving in the army). Jeanne’s two daughters still lived at home. To maintain her dignity and freedom, she made the decision to continue in the business—perhaps it did not seem like a choice - becoming the only woman in Paris to lead an important jewelry house, a fact she cautiously avoided publicizing. She could not draw herself, but she had an eye for talent, and a gift for conveying ideas clearly, both to her artisans and clients. Throughout her career, Madame Jeanne collaborated intensely with the two young women designers she hired and mentored—women who stayed with her for years doing remarkable work. One of these designers was the celebrated Suzanne Belperron, Madame’s “little Suzanne,” as she called her. Both women were put off by what they saw as the rigid two-dimensionality of the early Art Deco, and Jeanne deemed the bijoux-moteur “too barren” and “too rugged.” Bringing her own remarkably well-formed, modern ideas to the job, and guided by Jeanne, Suzanne designed many of Boivin’s most astonishing avant-garde creations throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. Along with her talented protégée, Madame Jeanne was an essential factor in this explosion of creativity. For example, the “Slice” bracelet, celebrated by the French press, was a monumental form in platinum, pavé-set with diversely-sized diamonds seemingly placed at random. This unusually difficult setting was meant to reference the irregularly nubbled skin of the melon Jeanne was eating when her brain wave occurred. Madame Jeanne was the one who commanded a workshop of twenty artisans, including a lapidary, driving the excellence of production in every minute detail. She often worked late.
In 1933, “little Suzanne” left to design for Bernard Herz, in a bid for artistic recognition and freedom that led to the production of an important body of beloved art jewelry, which we have previously explored in greater depth here. Suzanne had mastered everything that Jeanne had to teach her. In addition to her drafting skills, Suzanne had learned to supervise and motivate artisans to achieve what they often protested could not be done. Modeled on Jeanne’s approach, Suzanne had proven her ability to handle clients with the proper degree of formality, supplying them with a service that nonetheless felt intimate, as she carefully designed jewels to suit their qualities and physical proportions. For her part, Jeanne emerged from this temporary crisis having discovered another brilliant talent, a young woman artist, this time a loyal “lifer,” who would stay until Jeanne’s retirement in 1954 and beyond.
The highly-educated, gifted Juliette Moutard was born to the west of Paris, in a commune known as Maisons-Lafitte, an area comprising both affluent western suburbs and rural landscapes. She maintained a country house there until the end of her life. Though her parents’ names are known, she never married, and no one appears to have claimed her as a relative on public genealogical resources. She received degrees from two Parisian art schools, the internationally prestigious École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, one of the public grands écoles, and the École de la Bijouterie de la rue du Louvre. The latter school had been established in 1864, and was strongly supported by both Frederic Boucheron and Maison Vever, who held that all craftsmen benefited from artistic studies in modeling and design. The school was successful: the students won a gold medal and a grand prix at the 1889 and 1900 World Expositions. After graduating in the 1920s, Juliette began a ten year career at Verger Frères, and thus she is often described as having been a clockmaker. However, in addition to manufacturing the famous mystery clocks for Cartier, Verger Frères was known as “the jeweler’s jeweler,” producing designs as an outside workshop for major houses. These included Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Mauboussin, who required work of utmost quality. In addition, Verger also conceived and manufactured their own jewelry designs for retail by these firms. Judging by the critical role she was hired to fill at Boivin, Juliette was likely part of that effort at Verger.
Juliette Moutard's House of Boivin Diamond and Emerald Leaf Brooch (designed circa 1938)
When archivist and scholar Francoise Cailles began writing her important book on the House of Boivin, she interviewed Juliette at the old people’s home to which she had retired after selling her house in Maisons-Laffitte. About her personal life, Juliette preferred to remain enigmatic, offering that her colleagues at her Boivin nicknamed her Raphaël, but declining to say why. Perhaps the teasing nickname was recognition that, although she was not, like her namesake, the finest draughtsman in the history of Western art, her skills were absolutely top rate, displaying something of his harmonious clarity of form. Perhaps it was in recognition that, like Raphaël, she was a pleasant colleague. Or that, like the Renaissance master, she was left-handed. Juliette chose not to say.
Juliette Moutard's House of Boivin Starfish Brooch, Designed for Claudette Colbert, now residing at the MFA Boston (designed circa 1936/7)
What is certain, as Cailles notes, is that “Boivin and Moutard complemented one another perfectly; one gave shape and substance to the ideas of the other, who then minutely supervised the manufacture of the finished article down to the very last detail.” In the early period from 1933 to 1935, the new partnership took a little while to distinguish its designs from the work of Jeanne’s prior collaborator, Suzanne Belperron. It was as though Jeanne and Suzanne were still in each other’s minds for the first few years after the younger woman left. Some of Jeanne and Juliette’s first work was to update Suzanne’s "Cambodian bracelet” and “Tibia ring,” while designs Suzanne had left behind were also manufactured. By the mid to late 1930s, however, Juliette’s originality and art came to the fore with work of genius in the bold, colorful Boivin style—the astonishing starfish created for Claudette Colbert (the most highly paid actress in the world at the time), the emerald and ruby chameleon brooch, transformable from red to green at the touch of a hidden button, and the glowing sapphire pigeon’s wing she designed for Daisy Fellowes. Independently brilliant, but working smoothly together, the two women created a select group of jewels characterized by artful glamour and originality.
Juliette Moutard's House of Boivin "Chameleon" Brooch
In the late 1930s, Jeanne’s daughter, Germaine, joined the business. Germaine was the Boivins’ youngest child, a talented musician, sculptor, and colorist. By 1930, she had already been married twice, had learned to fly an airplane, and had a daughter being raised by Madame Jeanne, all while actively pursuing her own calling in work and art. She was trained by her Uncle Paul in the twilight years of his couture business, and became a connoisseur of fabrics, creating stylish, effortless and comfortable garments. She favored “light, carefree colors,” ignoring the severe palette of the Art Deco. When Poiret closed, she opened a boutique for linen clothing, mysteriously named “Les Vêtements Eric,” but this folded, so she formally joined her mother and Juliette as a designer in 1938. According to Cailles, Germaine’s sculptural talent was invaluable in judging how jewelry sketches would translate into volume, and her very detailed daily workbooks preserve in-depth information on the business and its clientele. Overall, Germaine contributed vital new ideas for figural jewels inspired by dreams, fantasy, and mythology—seasoned by a sense of the surreal.
Germaine Boivin, wearing René Boivin's Amethyst and Pearl Tassel (designed circa 1911)
Now the three women with their different styles worked productively together, creating “a harmonious blend,” according to Cailles. Jeanne and their salon manager, Louis Girard, would take client orders. Meanwhile, Juliette “drew for the three of them.” The workrooms would typically prepare a nickel silver model that the women would critique, voicing their “objections,” which did not always streamline the manufacturing process for complex designs. According to Germaine’s daughter, they once reduced one of the master jewelers to tears by insisting upon the third remaking of a ring which would have been considered perfect at any other top firm. Clients rarely received estimates of cost or delivery date for jewels they had commissioned, but accepted this unorthodox treatment as part of the price of an original Boivin jewel. The women consented to use customer stones or ideas only where the clients were influential tastemakers, like Fellowes, the Duchess of Windsor, and Millicent Rogers, whose requests were too important to refuse. The aristocratic poet Louise de Vilmorin brought them a Belle Époque necklace to be remodeled; she was not only an influential fashion legend who could devastate another woman’s ensemble with a dry “Où est la mode?” but she also wielded a dangerous pen. They entertained Millicent Rogers’ request for a heart-form jewel, outdoing her famous Verbum Carum by Paul Flato by creating an impossibly inflated blue enamel heart encircled by floating, stardust ribbons of diamonds, contoured with an absurdist flair (the jewel later entered the select and fabulous collection of Andy Warhol). The Boivin women had the satisfaction of dismantling a Cartier 1920s "Tutti Frutti" bracelet for a wealthy American to create a surrealist elephant brooch, with a fragmentary remnant of "Tutti Frutti" vine growing out of its back. Using customer stones caused complications and decreased profit margins, so, they otherwise avoided the practice where possible. Juliette typically designed jewels based on the colors and proportions of handfuls of gems that she chose from the firm’s inventory, or from dealers whom she trusted.
Much is made of Jeanne Boivin’s insistence that her style was so distinctive that an engraved house signature was unnecessary, and her protégée Suzanne Belperron, felt the same. Supposedly, Belperron used to explain “my style is my signature,” while Jeanne’s attitude was that her jewelry was so distinct from that of other houses that to sign her work would be “mere affectation.” There is some “affectation” in this attitude itself: until the 20th century, no great Parisian jewelers spelled out their house names on their work. Universally, a small “poinçon,” or stamped, distinctive maker’s mark, clearly identified the house of manufacture. Maison Boivin and Suzanne Belperron were no different—Boivin’s poinçon were the letters RB, flanking a serpent, and Belperron was known to work exclusively with Groene & Darde, marked with a GD. Therefore, anyone armed with a loupe with reasonable knowledge of the designer and manufacturer relationships in the field could confirm the origin of a jewel. They were not completely “unsigned”—though it is true that, beginning in the 20th century, Cartier, Boucheron, and Mauboussin, among others, added a script signature to their work where possible, in addition to their poinçons or that of their manufacturing workshops. Later, from the early 1970s, when knowledge about the community of elite Parisian jewelers and designers was temporarily forgotten, Belperron and to a lesser extent Boivin really did sink into obscurity, at least in the wider market. When the women’s work was “rediscovered” in the 1980s, dealers would sometimes add an engraved, spelled out signature as identification, which led to a Catch-22 of doubt: sophisticated collectors knew that Boivin did not engrave their name on their jewels. The certification services provided by both the House of Boivin, managed by Francoise Cailles (and in recent years in partnership with Jean Norbert-Salit), as well as the two archives devoted to her protégée Suzanne Belperron, have alleviated the complex problem of dating and attribution. With these reliable scholarly resources, aficionados can collect these remarkable women’s jewels with confidence.
Madame Jeanne Boivin in the Office on Avenue de l’Opéra in Paris
Madame Jeanne retired in 1954, and the firm remained in family hands until 1976, when Germaine and her sister at last sold their interest to their long time manager Jacques Bernard. Thanks to the dedication of jewelry historians and sophisticated collectors, appreciation of Boivin’s work was fully restored, and precious elements of the women’s life stories have been rediscovered. Boivin’s jewels are works of beauty, chromatically and sculpturally opulent, technically superb. Thinking women of taste and style will always love them.