BEIJING — A groundbreaking Chaumet exhibition in Beijing’s Forbidden City aims to share Parisian design ideals with the brand’s most receptive public, chief executive officer Jean-Marc Mansvelt said.
Four years in the making, the spectacular exhibition is titled “Imperial Splendors,” a reference to a classical Chinese poem, and opens Tuesday; it runs until July 2. Creating an occasion to gather the largest collection of Chaumet pieces for public display, it is intended to furnish a mass audience with an understanding of the house’s history and creativity as China’s upwardly mobile increasingly buy its jewelry.
Known as the Palace Museum to Mandarin-speakers, the Forbidden City has become anything but forbidden. Now it is the most visited museum in the world, with guest numbers recently capped at 80,000 per day. Securing the Palace Museum as the venue for the 300-plus piece retrospective was critical in collating such a large collection — the reputation of the museum helped to encourage 17 institutions, including the Louvre and Victoria & Albert Museum, to loan artifacts.
For Mansvelt, the Palace Museum was the only option. “We’re a bit audacious,” he said. “For the first time in our history, we can really give to the public, and China, the best of Chaumet and bring those pieces, especially the pieces from the key museums.”
This exhibit meant certain items left France for the first time. “Typically, the sword of Napoleon would not have been part of the exhibition if it were not held here,” said Mansvelt.
The sword boasts the 140-carat Le Regent diamond inlaid in the hilt, designed by Marie-Etienne Nitot, who went on to found what became Chaumet. The revered object belongs to the French nation and cannot be sold.
Mansvelt said that the Chinese public, and Asia at large, has been particularly receptive to knowing more about Chaumet’s history. The house has 20 stores in mainland China plus five in Hong Kong. He is reluctant to discuss store performance, instead simply mentioning that the buzz and feedback to the brand has been positive. “Across China, Chaumet has a very nice ‘echo’ from the public,” he said.
There are no plans to join the frenetic e-commerce arena in China through platforms such as WeChat. The brand is instead harnessing social media as a way to deliver more information to shoppers. For example, people can scan QR codes on the exhibit descriptions for more context.
A notable absence in the descriptions is any mention that some of the pieces were worn by megastar Chinese model and actress Angelababy at her 2015 wedding to actor Huang Xiaoming, which helped a great deal in catapulting the brand into the Chinese mainstream awareness. In a lavish and closely documented affair, Angelababy wore a $1.5 million five-carat diamond Joséphine Aigrette Impériale ring from Chaumet, and also borrowed a choker, tiara and brooch from the company.
These days, Chaumet is seeing a considerable number of requests for tiaras. “In our workshop [in Paris] we regularly do bespoke orders for tiaras for weddings, for China in particular,” Mansvelt said.
The concluding piece in the exhibition is the “Vertiges” tiara, the winning design of a competition held at Central Saint Martins art school in London, now fully realized in precious stones. Its designer Scott Armstrong said: “I think the Asian market still looks towards Europe, Paris and London, so we’ll just work on what we do and hope they appreciate it.”
And while Chaumet hosted a cocktail at the Rosewood Hotel on Monday, attended by presidents of the lending museums, true to French form, the exhibition is kept as a mostly egalitarian affair. It will be open to all Palace Museum visitors with no need to buy an extra, separate ticket. “It’s sharing so it would not have been logical [to make it ticketed],” said Mansvelt.