When we think of Boivin, we think of René Boivin, the founder of the eponymous jewelry design firm. But the true force behind the jewelry house for many years was actually his wife, Jeanne. Mr. Boivin was born in Paris in 1864. When he was 17 years old, he became an apprentice goldsmith. He also attended art school and began taking drawing classes, an area in which he exceled. By 1890 — fortified with a reputation for excellent jewelry-making skills — Mr. Boivin was ready to strike out on his own, so he purchased a workshop, the first of several that he would acquire. He started by creating jewelry for upscale jewelry firms that recognized the quality of his work.
Although the Art Nouveau and Edwardian movements were in full swing when Mr. Boivin started out, he had his own style. Mr. Boivin created large, bold, sculptural pieces exploding with color, often with naturalistic themes.
In 1893 René Boivin married Jeanne Poiret, who was the sister of the highly regarded Parisian couturier Paul Poiret. It was this connection that brought René Boivin to the attention of high society. Mr. Poiret held lavish, over-the-top parties for his clients so they could view his clothes. Eastern art, the Ballet Russes and neoclassicism all influenced Paul Poiret’s style. His clothes were theatrical and flamboyant. He made the caftan, kimono and harem pants stylish in the pre-World War I era. He invited his sister and her husband to his parties. The Boivins met the fashionistas of the time at these soirees and soon had a following of well-heeled clients thanks to attending the events. By 1905 Boivin had stopped making jewelry for other firms and instead focused on jewels for his own private customers.
In 1917, when he was just 53 years old, René Boivin passed away, leaving his wife with a choice: Shutter the business or carry on. In what was a very bold move for a woman at that time, Jeanne Boivin — who liked to be called Madame Boivin — chose to move forward and keep the company going. She knew how to run the business and she knew about the jewelry production process from working with her husband. Most importantly, she had an established clientele.
After her husband’s death, Madame Boivin became the designer for the firm while she continued to run the business end. At first, she followed her husband’s design vocabulary, but soon found her own design voice. Madame Boivin loved colorful, symmetrical, large-scale, textural jewelry, often created in yellow gold. She did not draw, so she relied on others to sketch the renderings of her ideas.
Madame Boivin had a strong sense of fashion and style. While her designs were more fashion-forward, Madame Boivin maintained the impeccable craftsmanship that set the firm apart from others. She didn’t produce many pieces of jewelry, but what was made was innovative and sought after by society glitterati in the know. Preferring to be more private, Boivin never had a storefront, there was instead, an upstairs salon on the Avenue de l’Opéra and clients were all by referral. Deciding that her work was recognizable for its design, Madame Boivin did not like to sign her jewelry, although some pieces were signed at a client’s request.
“She had an inherent understanding of color, line and volume. As Paul Poiret’s sister, she understood design and how it relates to jewelry,” says Diana Singer, jewelry dealer and President of the American Society of Jewelry Historians. “Madame Boivin used bold, simple shapes and there was tremendous movement to the pieces. She mixed precious and semi-precious stones together. Another important element in her work was bezel settings. The jewelry is deceptively simple in appearance, but very complex from a design and technical perspective.”
Madame Boivin liked hiring women to work for the company. In 1921, she hired a young woman, Suzanne Vuillerme — better known by her married name Suzanne Belperron — to handle sales. As many of you reading this blog will know, Suzanne Belperron was one of the most influential female designers of the early 20th century. Shortly after being hired, Belperron was promoted to designer. She is credited with incorporating rock crystal and chalcedony into jewelry design at Boivin. Madame Boivin and Suzanne Belperron worked very closely together, but in 1932 the designing duo split up when Belperron left to set up her own firm.
Soon after Belperron’s departure, Madame Boivin hired Juliette Moutard to design for the firm. Moutard was an avid bird lover and had a fondness for marine life. One of her most famous creations was the articulated starfish brooch comprised of amethyst and cabochon rubies, which was purchased in 1938 by actress Claudette Colbert. Moutard stayed at Boivin until her retirement in the 1970s.
Germaine Boivin, the daughter of René and Jeanne, entered the business in 1938 and worked as part of the design team. “These four amazing women created a visual sensibility that didn’t exist at the time. They used unusual materials like wood and ivory with gems,” notes Singer. “What I find so notable in their pieces is an extraordinary sense of volume. There was a roundness to the pieces. They were domed and not flat, like so much of the jewelry of that era. It made the jewelry very sensual.”
Madame Boivin retired in 1954 and passed away in 1959, leaving the firm to Germaine. In 1976, Jacques Bernard, a Boivin employee, bought the firm from Germaine and in 1991, he sold it to Asprey. It was after the sale to Asprey that production of Boivin jewelry stopped.
Today jewels from Boivin are some of the most collectible and admired from the 20th century. “There is a sense of playfulness to the jewelry that is very feminine. It is also a wink to the wearer to not be so serious,” concludes Singer. “Boivin is very collectible because there is not much available, which makes it more desirable. Also, the exceptional design transcends time. It is broad enough to reach out to the future, to where we are now.”