French jeweler Marc Auclert finds inspiration in ancient beads, stones and historical objects to create thoroughly modern jewelry. He spoke about his design process and what he finds beautiful to host Sharon Berman on the latest episode of the Jewelry Journey podcast.
Sharon: Hello everyone, welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today I’m pleased to be talking with Marc Auclert of Maison Auclert in the Vendôme area of Paris. After a notable career with some of the world’s most prestigious jewelry houses, Marc now takes his love of historical objets d’art and transforms them into modern jewels. He will tell us all about this unique work and what he sees in the world of fine jewelry. Marc, thanks so much for being here.
Marc: Good morning, thank you for inviting me.
Sharon: You’ve covered a lot of ground and worked for some of the highest-end jewelry houses on your jewelry journey. The word that comes to mind is awesome; one is full of awe when you look at it, so can you tell us about your path and what led you to found Maison Auclert?
Marc: I’ve been fortunate to have met some lovely people in great companies. Basically, after my general business school studies in Paris, I went to the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) in New York, where I studied gemology, which was my passion. Then I started working at Chaumet as a seller’s assistant, which included a mission in New York at Saks Fifth Avenue to open a shop. Then, I was fortunate enough to be called by Chanel Fine Jewelry to launch their new jewelry business, and that was a great experience. It lasted 15 years, and then I went to work at Sotheby’s, including their venture into retailing modern jewelry. Then I went to work for De Beers in Asia, and I was based in Tokyo, in Japan. I decided it was high time for me to launch my own company and apply all the little things I’d learned and all the recipes I wanted to put into practice.
Sharon: How was it that you developed this love of gems and gemology? Was that something you had when you were young?
Marc: Yes, it was when I was young. I’m a spontaneous generation. I do not come from a jeweler’s family. There were no jewelers in the friends of the family. At best, I come from an antique dealer’s family, so maybe the sense of aesthetics comes from there. I don’t really know where it comes from, but I know that I’ve always been passionate about jewelry and gems, and in my career, it started with gems. I was always interested in crystals and gems, not really jewelry. As I grew older, I started loving jewelry more and more, and today I’m more interested in jewelry as decorative art than in gems. Crystals and cut stones are not my favorites today. What is my favorite is jewelry as a piece of decorative art.
Sharon: How did you decide to start taking ancient pieces or antique pieces and setting them?
Marc: That’s part of the same path, as you grow in time. The more you go and investigate jewelry, the more you look into it, the more you look into arid, dry, not-so-easy material – and antique jewelry is exactly that. Antique jewelry is antique gold, and often it’s oxidized. You look at broken pieces, but you see the beauty that it really is, and you forget the fashion jewelry and start looking at the workmanship, at the fact that this piece is 4,000 or 2,000 years old, and suddenly it takes on another type of dimension. It’s the same for stones. You start with, as I said, diamonds and precious stones, and with time you start looking at agates and jaspers that are being cut and engraved in beautiful intaglio cameos, and that’s where I think the beauty is. At my age, it’s what I call an acquired taste, that’s what I really, really enjoy.
Sharon: You’ve said that ancient and antique jewelry has a soul. Is that what you’re talking about?
Marc: Absolutely, there is something about these ancient artifacts that really speaks to me. The fact that they were manufactured by a fabulous artisan who had tools that are not comparable to today—no electricity in order to see, no light, no machine, no mechanism—everything was handmade—no loupes, no glasses, no microscopes— none of these things that help us make very thin, fine jewelry. They did the fine and beautiful jewelry at the time, but without all these useful tools, and that is a real testimony to how wonderful humankind can be. The second aspect is that these pieces are being handled, worn, loved and cherished, or hated or passed on or stolen. They have a whole story, once again, of humankind that makes them unsurpassed. Putting it in your hand makes you belong to a chain of humans that dates back to ancient times and that I find extremely moving.
Sharon: Moving is a good word. It’s really so hard to fathom when you’re in a museum and looking at things, one asks oneself how did they do it? But you’re going much deeper in terms of no light, no electricity, no loupe.
Marc: Absolutely. We live in a world where everything is easy. You arrive in a laboratory. You arrive in a workshop. You just switch on the lights and then suddenly everything is easy. You can see everything. Imagine yourself in ancient Rome. It’s 7:00 in the evening and everything is dark. An oil lamp helps you see what you’re going to cook, but you can’t even read, so you definitely can’t make any jewelry. We have to put ourselves back in that position and try to understand what the environment was and, therefore, how these artifacts are just wonderful in terms of creation.
Sharon: Wow, that really does make you stop and think. So, how do you decide which particular pieces to mount as jewels? Are they calling to you?
Marc: There are two different dimensions. The first one is the aesthetic dimension. You look at a piece and you go, “Oh wow, this is so lovely. This totally corresponds to my taste. It speaks to me. I know exactly what I’m going to do with this.” That is the emotional link on the aesthetic side of things. Now there is a technical side that is very, very important, and that’s what will make it a good piece of jewelry. That means several things. The first thing is, is it durable? Is it hard enough? If it is not fragile, would I be able to make jewelry that can last another fifty years? Or, is it too fragile because of the material, and because of the fragility I can see that’s not going to work?
Durability is very, very important and so is the beauty of it, the perceived beauty by everyone. If the stone is a color that is not very appealing, I might find it lovely as an antique dealer, but it’s not going to make a lovely piece of jewelry, so you have to take that into account. The beauty, of course, is the color, the shape, the luster, the design, etc. These technical aspects have to be taken into account to make a piece of jewelry, in addition to the fact that the piece speaks to you.
Sharon: When you see a piece that calls to you, do you envision it immediately? Do you look at it and say, “Oh, this would look great with emeralds surrounding it,” or does that come with time?
Marc: It’s twofold. It’s either or. Most of the time, the way my creation process works in my little head is I know immediately if I like the piece and what I am going to do with it. So, you can show me five pieces at an auction house or in a collection in Paris or London or New York and the first two ones I’ll think, “Oh my god, those are absolutely for me, and I know exactly what I’m going to do with them.” It all comes at the same time. It’s quite funny, actually. I’m very lazy and it’s great because everything comes at once. It’s my mind that works, instead of me. But there are some instances where I buy a piece because it’s beautiful, and then I need to let it sink in and think about it to see exactly what I’m going to do with it. Am I going to put emeralds around it? Am I just going to add gold? Will I put 22-carat gold or silver? I don’t know, but sometimes I do have to think, and it doesn’t come immediately to me. It’s quite rare. Usually it’s quick, and as I said, I’m quite lazy, so I like that process. It suits me perfectly.
Sharon: Your pieces are so unusual. How often are you adding to your inventory?
Marc: I have a small collection. The gallery in Paris is well-located but small, and we’ve got eight window cases plus two big ones, so that’s 10. Therefore, the collection is around 80 pieces. Basically, I add up to 10 pieces a month, and that’s really linked to sales. As soon as we make sales, we launch new pieces, because the design’s already in my head or on the draft book, and that’s how it works. Replacement is linked to sales. I don’t want to have too many pieces and I shouldn’t be too short on the collection, so that’s how it’s managed, more or less.
Sharon: Do people bring you old pieces and say, “What can you do with this”? How are they coming to you?
Marc: I tend to avoid that type of special order for different reasons. The first one is that there is a bit of breakage in my business—I have to be honest—and when you break your own, it’s one thing. When you break other people’s stuff, it’s very embarrassing. If you bring me a cameo that belongs to your grandmother and I break it, I have to resolve the problem and it’s embarrassing. It’s beyond a question of money. I cannot replace your grandmother’s cameo. So, I will only do it with clients I know very, very well, and I will pose this caveat by saying, “These are fragile. These are old. We take most precautions, but they can break, in which case you have to accept the fact.” That’s the first thing, and the second thing is it is difficult to design around some things you don’t normally work with, and it’s very difficult to fix some pieces. I’m not going to work around that. It’s rude, so basically I can only say, “No, we don’t do special orders, sorry.” This being said, I’ve got some lovely clients and they bring me special orders and yes, I do it with pleasure. I did a lovely piece for an American client who brought me the most fabulous glass intaglio, Roman period, very fine, museum quality. We took extra precautions in mounting it, and we did the whole system where we were very, very careful. It was like little claws were screwed. We did a lovely tendon in black silver with diamonds and emeralds.
Sharon: Sounds beautiful.
Marc: It was. It was a lovely piece and the clients were lovely, so it was easy. Lovely clients, lovely piece, it’s easy to make a lovely piece of jewelry.
Sharon: Are these people who like ancient things, and collect them just like you do, and then they say, “Oh, that would be interesting to put in a piece of jewelry”?
Marc: They are actually very interesting clients in the sense that they don’t like jewelry. They like antique jewelry, medieval Renaissance antique jewelry, Roman and Greek jewelry, and they’re more like high-brow academic Americans than jewelry lovers. I mean, she’s not wearing a big diamond on her finger; on the other hand, she probably has one of the finest jewelry collections I know in the world.
Marc: What I do is what I call cultural, historical, probably cerebral or intellectual types of jewelry. Therefore, I understand it doesn’t suit everyone, that it doesn’t appeal to everybody. I certainly understand that. On the other hand, when you like it, when you get it, when you understand this is a unique piece based on a historical artifact, then you’re among us. So yes, I agree, it’s very niche, but once you’re with your group, we’re all on the same page.
Sharon: When you’re with your people, yes. As you said, you have a beautiful spot, but you’re in the middle of the world’s blingiest jewelry. Your store, as you said, is really a gallery; it’s not a jewelry store. So, what happens when people happen to stop in and say, “What’s this?”
Marc: First of all, people don’t walk into my store. It’s quite funny, because there are enough pieces outside so you can understand what I’m doing, and if you like it, then please walk in. This being said, there are two different reactions that people have. Some will walk in and discover they like it, and then you have other people who walk in, and I can see on their faces they’re thinking, “Oh my god, what the hell is all this?” They’re looking at an antique bead necklace, and all they can see are ugly rocks, where I’m seeing beautiful, lustrous, orangey-brown beads that were fashioned 4,000 years ago and it’s really cultural. I’m going to be naughty, but it’s like nouveau riche. They walk in. They don’t get it. They don’t understand. There’s this huge question mark in their head. But being in the middle of all this, in the right shopping area in Paris, does help me find some great clients. When I launched the business, half of the clients were from my network that I’ve built over the years. Today, I would say that 70% of my current clients are new clients, people who’ve discovered the collection of things in the store.
Sharon: Interesting. It takes a certain kind of person, but I’m sure they’re thrilled to find it. It’s a beautiful store, but it’s very different from everything surrounding it.
Marc: I do tend to think that in a classic cottage industry, where the offer is so wide, there’s so much going on that in order to exist, you need to carve your niche. When I launched my business, I knew I didn’t have the clients to have an international business, so I was pushed towards a niche and in order to do that, I had to be very, very different. I remember when I had my project on paper, I went to see some people to do a market study and I went to see my ex-boss from Chanel, and the advice was always the same from my old group of great people. They said, “Marc, whatever you do, be very special. This is a very cultured world; therefore, please be very special.” So, what you’re saying to me about the gallery and the collection is actually music to my ears. Great, I’m special. I know I can’t appeal to everyone; I certainly agree, but at least what I do will appeal to some special people.
Sharon: Definitely, it is special. What you do is very different. What trends, then, are you seeing in fine jewelry?
Marc: This is a very important question, and I tend to think this is the core question that jewelry companies should ask themselves. Not only where are the trends today, but what will the trends be tomorrow? What will the 25-year-old girl of today—and boy for that matter—wear in 10 years’ time or 15 years’ time, when they start having purchasing power? I think that lots of companies are now asking that question. At my little level, what I’m seeing is a shift in direction. We’re moving from precious jewelry. We’re moving from branded jewelry towards what I would qualify as more unique pieces, less flashy, easier to wear from morning to night—what I call travel jewelry. But that piece of jewelry also needs to be very elegant and say everything about the wearer. The wearer is urban, modern, wants to be elegant, but at the same time wants to be comfortable in her or his jewelry, and that I think is the new trend. It’s not the material. It’s the way it’s designed, and also the perceived value of it is quite important. I think younger people love their jewelry, which is good news. On the other hand, they want a very easy-to-wear piece of jewelry.
Sharon: When you say that your jewelry is going to appeal to the millennial who’s going to be middle-aged in 25 years, meaning it will be around a long time?
Marc: As far as my collection is concerned, is that what you’re saying?
Marc: Well, I’m a mature gentleman. What am I? 53? Sorry, I have to think about it. I’m 53 years old, and obviously I design for my generation. The lady I have in mind as I design jewelry is my age. My client base is 40 up to 70 plus, but I’m surprised because I do get some younger clients, like 25 or 30, and it’s always interesting to hear what they have to say. When I say to them, “It’s my thing that I design classic jewelry, but you’re saying that it’s not classic. Why?” they say, “Well no, it’s not classic because that vintage-y approach is extremely modern.” I think the chasm that’s crept between those words works in a very interesting way. For them, it might be antique, but the way it’s mounted is very modern. The fact that it’s unique is very modern. The fact that it has no diamond is very modern. That’s something that I’m hearing, which I find extremely interesting coming from the younger audience.
Sharon: That is interesting. Antique jewelry has become so popular because it’s antique and there’s no modern aspect, except that we’re wearing it today.
Marc: I’m very careful to design modern jewelry. I do not want to design antique-looking jewelry. I don’t want to retail antique jewelry. That for me is very, very clear. If you want to buy antique jewelry, go to the flea market, go to the auction. There are tons of beautiful pieces. I can appreciate that. On the other hand, I want to make sure it’s modern, because I think in order to be elegant today, you have to have that modern dimension.
Sharon: Marc, thank you so much. This has been truly food for thought.
Marc: Thank you, Sharon, this was great. Even your questions make me think. I have to do some thinking tonight to continue this.
Sharon: Well, after you’ve thought more, we’d love to have you back and hear more about it. For everybody listening, we’ll have Marc’s contact information in our show notes at TheJewelryJourney.com. That wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and would like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us their professional take on the world of jewelry. Thank you so much for listening.
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