In July, a new Louis Vuitton boutique opened on the Place Vendôme in Paris, arguably on one of the most desirable retail corners in the world. However, the 1,600-square-foot store does not contain a single monogram handbag, logo belt or embellished coat.
Instead, the Peter Marino-designed space is entirely devoted to sparkling jewellery covered in diamonds and other precious stones. Currently on display: a ring, bracelet and necklace set that boasts a diamond grid pattern and a central yellow diamond outline that, on closer inspection, traces the shape of the Place Vendôme. In another vitrine, a Peter Pan collar is composed of hundreds of Vuitton's signature quatrefoil flowers. That same motif reappears on a ring, a pendant necklace and earrings, rendering each piece unmistakably Louis Vuitton.
This store (and its workshop upstairs) is situated just a few blocks away from Louis Vuitton's first atelier and its neighbours include Van Cleef & Arpels, Boucheron, Chaumet and Jaeger-LeCoultre – luxury jewellers and watchmakers that have built reputations on their rich history and considerable expertise.
Piece together all these elements and the message is crystal clear: Vuitton wants everyone to know it can hold its own in the world of haute joaillerie (literally, "high jewellery") – and it isn't alone. Chanel and Hermès have also jumped aboard the growing trend of couture bijoux, devoting more and more resources to this ornate, highly specialized niche.
Chanel, as it happens, also opened a workshop on the Place Vendôme last month, three years after establishing a creation and design studio devoted to haute joaillerie. The initiative coincided with a spectacular showing of 80 new pieces that commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Bijoux de Diamants collection designed by Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel in 1932. The workshop will present its first pieces early next year.
Hermès, too, is asserting its presence in the world of high jewellery. In 2010, it launched an Haute Bijouterie line designed by Pierre Hardy, who translated the house's signature look using the finest materials: from a platinum necklace covered in 3,369 diamonds that evokes a braided whip, for example, to Centaure rings in rose gold and black jade that resemble horse hooves.
Despite the rarefied nature of these collections, the Hermès pieces – and the same is true of the Vuitton jewellery line currently designed by Lorenz Baumer – are designed to be wearable.
"It's important to be unique," explains Hamdi Chatti, Louis Vuitton's director of watches and jewellery, "but, at the same time, at the very high end, it's important that you can use [a piece] often. If you have beautiful high jewellery that you can only wear to a wedding, it's sort of boring."
But who, exactly, is doing the wearing?
Maria Doulton, founder of the website TheJewelleryEditor.com, explains that the market for haute joaillerie has opened up beyond a certain blueblood archetype.
"Before, you'd have a clutch of millionaires who would stroll up to the Place Vendôme or Bond Street," she says. "Now it's a global audience – they're not necessarily speaking the same language as the original buyers. But it's a new world out there and it makes sense."
It certainly makes sense from a positioning standpoint; as other high-end brands branch off into more accessible categories, these houses can point to high jewellery as proof that they value craftsmanship and savoir faire.
What's more, opening on the Place Vendôme "elevates the brand and sets it apart from other luxury houses that don't have jewellery," says Bernadette Morra, who helmed a website for jewellery enthusiasts before becoming editor-in-chief of FASHION magazine.
She points out that in an economic climate that still feels far from stable, haute joaillerie can actually be easier to rationalize than other luxury purchases in the fashion category because it is made of precious materials. "There are people who will spend a lot of money on watches and fine jewellery who will not spend on clothes."
Moreover, there remains untapped opportunity in emerging markets in which customers have an insatiable appetite for branded items that signify wealth instantaneously.
"Perhaps people in China don't know all about Van Cleef's history or Chaumet's, but they certainly know Vuitton, so there's the assurance of a known brand," Doulton suggests. "And the aura trickles down."