A true revolutionary, Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973) changed fashion forever. With Miriam Haskell and Coco Chanel – her great rival – she proved that exceptionally designed costume jewellery could be as spectacular as the precious kind. Her clients included the Duchess of Windsor Wallis Simpson, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford and the pilot Amy Johnson.
Schiaparelli was born into an aristocratic family in Rome. She fled to London to escape an arranged marriage. There she met and married a Franco-Swiss-Polish refugee but by 1920 was divorced and living in Paris with her baby daughter. She began designing clothes to support herself, opening her Maison de Couture in 1927.
Schiaparelli befriended and worked with some of the greatest names of the Surrealist movement. Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau and Man Ray were among the artists who designed accessories for her and helped to make her name as a truly avant garde designer.
She even created a colour – “shocking” pink – which she used to market her perfume of the same name.
She began making costume jewellery in 1931 and used gilt, glass, plastic, leather and other unusual materials to make themed collections. The circus and flowers were among the subjects she chose; more traditional pieces were based on Victorian originals. This jewellery was imported to the US and distributed there by the David Lisner Company.
Schiaparelli also worked with costume jewellery designers such as Henkel & Grosse in Pforzheim, Germany, and Coppola e Toppo in Milan, Italy. Jean Schlumberger designed buttons for her.
In 1940, she fled war-torn Europe for New York where she worked until her return to Paris in 1945. She was there for just four years before returning to the US to concentrate on her bijoux de couture line, leaving behind her two assistants – Hubert de Givenchy and Pierre Cardin. Her couture clothes were produced in Paris until 1955.
In New York, she sold the license to produce her jewellery to an American company. They carried a label which read “Designed in Paris – Created in America”. The extravagant, prong-set pieces were set with moulded, art glass stones. The dramatic, unusual pastes were like nothing seen in nature. The range was discontinued in around 1955.
Schiaparelli’s early, Paris jewellery is exceptionally rare and unmarked. The pieces made in New York are usually signed with her name in script. Fakes, and 1980s reproductions, are known.