Victoire de Castellane, the creative director of fine jewellery at Dior since 1998, and designer of her own eponymous line, first started playing make-believe with her mother’s jewellery in infancy and has never stopped since. A shy little girl, whose aristocratic parents’ divorce cast a sad shadow over her childhood, she learnt early on that her dream life was infinitely more exciting than the lonely interior of the playroom. “I was obsessed with having my own universe,” says the designer. “So I decided very, very early on to jump into the world of my own imagination.”
Today, de Castellane is in her studio, a pale grey apartment near Dior’s headquarters on avenue Montaigne in her home town of Paris. She is surrounded by shelves of art books, boards of references and pots of felt pens. The pens are a familiar feature of her artist kit: the tools she uses to depict herself – a long black silhouette with heavy blonde fringe – alongside Monsieur Dior, in sparkly animations in which the two voyage time and space on bejewelled adventures.
De Castellane’s jewels are an especially pretty study in escapism, and she puts play before all other preparation when it comes to work. Her design owes much to the rich screen world she fell in love with, in particular the lush Technicolor of musicals like An American in Paris and Mary Poppins. “I was obsessed with Hollywood, all the Gene Kelly movies, Liza Minnelli, Marilyn Monroe,” she says of her cinematic inspirations.
One of her early heroines was Mary Blair, the artist who rose to prominence at Disney during the 1940s and created the concept work for Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella and Peter Pan. “I’m crazy about her work,” says de Castellane. “She really created the atmospheres and worlds in which these characters would become immersed. I still want to enter her worlds.”
De Castellane still adores a fairytale, but now prefers to tell her stories with gemstones and precious metals. And while she takes inspirations from diverse subjects – a dancer’s ribbons, an artwork, the line of a chair leg – her ultra-feminine designs are guided by the same primal emotions she got from her cinematic favourites.
“I take the energy of the good things – the shapes of nature, colours, a painting – as my inspirations,” she says. “It’s not calculated. It’s very spontaneous. I always have a shock when I see a Matisse, for example, because the colours have such a powerful effect on me. They make me feel so happy. Animals make me happy too. I love monkeys. And I love lions, tigers, leopards – all the big cats. And dogs. They make me understand why it’s so good to be alive. For me, it’s very important to find this joie de vivre in my work, and to try and give it.”
Even today, all these years later, this image takes my breath away. The glamour of it, the fragility, the hint of a secret waiting to be uncovered…
F Scott Fitzgerald was certainly not the first author to use pearls to cast a trembling light on a mysterious muse. In his epic Iliad, believed to have been written in the mid-8th century BC, Homer draws the reader’s eyes to the Goddess Juno’s face with a shimmering image: “In three bright drops, her glittering gem suspends from her ears.” Over 2,000 years later, Max Beerbohm’s eponymous heroine Zuleika Dobson winks at her reader with her choice of jewels. “From her right ear drooped heavily a black pearl, from her left a pink; and their difference gave an odd, bewildering witchery to the little face between.”
More than any other gem, the pearl has historically been imbued with the power to tell a story. In the main, this is bound up with its own origins. For a pearl, like the best stories – like truth itself (or pearls of wisdom, indeed) – cannot be found without looking. As John Dryden observed in his 17th century poem, All for Love, “He who would search for pearls must dive below.”
A hazardous endeavour, that for centuries involved ropes, stone weights and a great deal of trust between a diver and his mate in the boat above, pearl diving was seen, by early Islamic pearl hunters in the Arabian Gulf, as a test from God; the pearl a reward for the true believer. Century after century, across culture after culture, pearls have fascinated humanity, not least because of the mystery surrounding their creation. Early Hindu mythology held that pearls were made from dewdrops that the molluscs absorbed when they rose to the surface of the sea at night to breathe. Ancient Greeks considered them the result of lightning strikes. To the Romans, they were the frozen tears of gods.
The truth, as is sadly so often the case, is much more prosaic. When a foreign body is caught inside the shell of a mollusc (not just oysters – Who knew? – but also clams and mussels), the tender flesh is irritated into secreting a protective substance. Over time, this substance solidifies into layers of nacre. If a genuine pearl is cut in half, it can be seen to be made up of rings, just like the trunk of a tree. The more layers a pearl has, the more capable it is of refracting the light and basking its wearer in that wonderful iridescent glow.
But forget its excretal origins. It is the rarity of a perfect pearl that is the secret of its allure. While only one in every 2,000 oysters produces a pearl, only one in every 10,000 of those is deemed round enough, flawless enough, to be used as a jewel.
And herein lies the true power of the pearl. Because the pearl, over and above all else, is a flawlessly formed paradox, a priceless piece of perfection borne of a routine physical function. Simple and mysterious, the pearl has, over time, also added layer after layer to its own story, becoming a tiny emblem of a much bigger picture.
Take a walk through the annals of history, and you will find the simple pearl reigning supreme. A marker of luxury until the Medieval period (as a sign of her wealth and power Cleopatra famously dissolved a priceless pearl earring in a glass of wine and drank it), it then began to be viewed as a Christian symbol of purity and chastity. Here, after all, was a gem that Matthew deployed in his New Testament book to signify the great value of the Kingdom of Heaven (“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls”, Matthew 13:45).
As time passed, the gems’ own capacity for miraculous conception saw them naturally associated with the Virgin Mary, a link which was then exploited by the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I. A passionate pearl enthusiast, Gloriana – whose own father Henry VIII had used pearls (most notably in Hans Holbein’s famous 1536 portrait of the king, codpiece and all) to advertise his virility – had pearls painstakingly sewn into all of her clothes to emphasise her purity. Customarily, she also wore seven or more ropes of large, fine pearls, the longest of which extended to her knees. Less than half a century later, in 1649, Charles I deployed the pearl as a signaller of his own innocence and purity when he went to his execution wearing a single pearl earring.
Influence and chastity, power and purity; the pearl’s real secret weapon is its ambivalence. Because, with ambivalence, comes power; the power for the wearer to be exactly who or what they want to be. Thus a debutante can be a beautiful innocent, quivering at the beginning of her adult life, and Rihanna can be a knowing minx; Margaret Thatcher can be a woman in charge and Marilyn Monroe (who wore the same simple string of Mikimoto pearls that her one true love, Joe DiMaggio, gave her on their honeymoon to their divorce hearing just nine months later) can be a woman on the edge.
And staring boldly but trepidatiously out of the canvas of Johannes Vermeer’s celebrated 17th century oil painting, The Girl with the Pearl Earring can be all of these things, and yet none of them.
Fashion, that cultural magpie, has enjoyed an enduring love affair with the pearl; a tryst that was cemented, and democratised, by Coco Chanel, a woman with her own mysterious origins. As Christian Dior once mused, not without a whiff of resentment, “With a black pullover and ten rows of pearls, she revolutionised fashion.” Despite being presented with a yard of real pearls by her lover the Duke of Westminster every birthday and Christmas, Chanel was more than happy to play with the fake variety. In the decades since, as climate change and overfishing have made the uncultivated pearl a rarer and rarer find, the fake pearl has continued to reign supreme on catwalks and red carpets the world over.
With none of the hardened snobbery of the diamond, the pearl will shine its light on anyone who will have it, be it the Duchess of Cambridge or Dita Von Teese. It is just as happy to wink and flirt, as it is to curtsey and nod. But what it will always do, however it’s worn, is allude, and speak of something beyond itself I read Tender is the Night in a single sitting; a whole, blissful day lost to literature. Underneath Nicole Diver’s beautiful brown back, set off by a string of creamy pearls, was indeed a heart full of secrets and suffering; layers of life hidden beneath the stillness, drawing me deeper and deeper in, until there was no turning back.