For jewelry collectors and enthusiasts, few places offer more to see and enjoy than Paris. With countless museums, flea markets and high-end stores, Paris is the place to learn about and shop for jewelry of all kinds, and no one knows these destinations better than Rachel Kaplan. A Paris-based expat and owner of French Links Tours, Rachel was a recent guest on the Jewelry Journey podcast, where she shared her advice for exploring the jewelry scene while visiting Paris. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, I’m pleased to welcome Rachel Kaplan, owner of Paris-based French Links Tours, speaking to us from Paris. French Links Tours offers customized tours of Paris, including jewelry tours, which I have taken several times with Rachel. She has an event planning company and puts on big bashes all over France. Today, she’ll give us some tips for those on the hunt for jewelry of all kinds: antique, vintage and art jewelry in the City of Light. Rachel, thanks so much for being here.
Rachel: My pleasure. I’m delighted. By the way, because of the time change, it’s already night in Paris.
Sharon: Thank you so much for waiting around and working with our time change.
Rachel: Not a problem, with pleasure. This is my very first broadcast, so it’s already made my day.
Sharon: Tell us about your jewelry journey. When did you move to Paris, and what prompted the move? Was it jewelry that prompted the move?
Rachel: I moved to Paris in April 1994. I was invited to put on an event celebrating all kinds of luxurious goodies, including costume jewelry, in November. It was the first Christmas preparation event, but it was an excuse to get over to Paris and leave New York City. I’m an ardent Francophile and I’ve been speaking French since I was eight years old. I went to the Lycée Français New York and I kept up my French at Northwestern, and I was able to use it in my career as a journalist and as a marketing consultant. When I came over, I have to say I didn’t know Paris very well despite all the times I had visited. That actually was the best news because I had everything to learn, everything to discover. The incredible thing is that 25 years later, I still have a great deal of wonder about Paris. I think it’s wonderful that the most visited capital on the planet still has secrets to reveal, including jewelry secrets.
I didn’t come over here specifically for jewelry, but I did learn a great deal very quickly. I came with a project to write about little-known museums in and around Paris, and I discovered wonderful jewelry in the museums as I was researching the book. That was one of the big surprises, but it’s not that unusual because one has to remember this: Paris is the number one jewelry capital of the world, whether it’s costume jewelry, vintage jewelry or precious jewelry. We have an area called Place Vendôme that has the greatest jewelers in the world, which have been planted there for generations, including Chaumet, Van Cleef & Arpels, Chanel High Jewelry, Breguet watches and, of course, Cartier nearby.
Sharon: It sounds like you’ve done so much exploring, but tell us about your guide business for people who don’t have the familiarity with Paris that you do. If somebody comes and wants to see jewelry or clothing, tell us about your business.
Rachel: I created the business more than 20 years ago on the net, on the World Wide Web, and that was unusual for the time. I discovered that it was my clients that helped develop my business because in addition to visiting the museums and the monuments in and outside of Paris, we also do regional tours in the Loire Valley on the French Riviera and Provence and Normandy and so forth. I discovered that people wanted to shop, and they wanted to shop for things they couldn’t find back home. That is why vintage jewelry at the Paris Flea Market is so important and is one of the things I came to research in great depth, but it wasn’t only that. People wanted to get bags. 25 years ago, nobody was talking about the Birkin bag or the Kelly bag. That all came 15 years ago. Before that, the savvy traveler was collecting and even doing custom orders, but it wasn’t like the magnets you see today. In Paris also, I saw a change in terms of shopping because, for instance, the leading luxury goods companies, like Louis Vuitton and Hennessy, decided to hire outsiders to give some spark and ingenuity and creativity to their line. That includes Louis Vuitton, who hired Marc Jacobs, and Christian Dior, who hired John Galliano. They also came up with unusual accessories, which became very sought after and became collectibles.
Sharon: I want to interrupt you for a minute because people listening will know a lot about jewelry, but they may not know about the Birkin bag and the Kelly bag. Aren’t those Hermès bags?
Rachel: Those are Hermès bags. The first bag was the Kelly bag, which was named after Grace Kelly. She wore it on her honeymoon and they say that she wore it to hide the stomach that already had a baby, and that’s why it was a rather large bag. It was named after Grace Kelly, which is kind of funny that this celebrated French bag was named after an American movie star who worked for Alfred Hitchcock and starred in movies with Cary Grant. That’s the humor and the wit. One thing I would have to say—and this is interesting for all the listeners of this podcast—there’s a huge American-French connection in both jewelry and accessory design and fashion design. That has existed even before World War II with the flappers and so forth. There’s always been a closeness and a synergy, and I think that would surprise people. For instance, at the end of World War II, a lot of the GIs wore white T-shirts. White T-shirts then became a fashion item, where models like Inès de La Fressange were wearing a white T-shirt under a Chanel jacket. There’s an edgy American style that was shaping shopping and fashion design and jewelry design in Paris. I did want to make that note because a lot of Americans are surprised to hear that.
Sharon: Yes, that really is interesting, especially about the white T-shirt. I’m sorry I interrupted you, but the aside was very interesting. When it comes to jewelry, can you give us the big picture of what the lay of the land is in Paris? Of course, there’s Place Vendôme, which is great to wander through, but I’m not going to be buying there.
Rachel: Neither am I, but it’s important that those places exist because they do educate the eye. I discovered that a lot of fine costume jewelry, since as early as the French CIRO’s, they use the same techniques that are used in Chaumet and Cartier. Today, with so much theft and issues of security, a lot of people get their very fine pieces from Cartier or Chaumet copied at CIRO’s and wear those to the opera or theatre. It’s interesting as a duality, because Coco Chanel, who set the trend for rich people to wear costume jewelry, really started something that was significant and revolutionary.
Getting back to the thing about Paris, I think a good way to learn about jewelry is to go to the Museum of Decorative Arts. They have a wonderful jewelry gallery and two vast rooms with examples of jewelry that go back to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and go all the way up through the Art Nouveau period. They feature modernist and even contemporary jewelry design using all kinds of materials that you would not expect, including stainless steel, rubber, plastic, Lucite, bone. Many of these pieces have been done by some of the world’s leading artists, such as Giacometti, Picasso, Braque, and those are also collectibles. In fact, last year, there was a major show on that.
Sharon: The Museum of Decorative Arts is an incredible museum. You could spend days there. Forget the Louvre—it’s part of the Louvre, but forget that. It’s such a spectacular museum.
Rachel: One thing I did want to say is that a lot of the fine jewelry designers, they go to the rooms at the Louvre featuring ancient Greek and Etruscan and Roman jewelry, and you would be amazed at how much they’re able to extrapolate from those ancient classical designs. They’re often in the shop windows of Paris and it is very surprising. They’re done in gold. They’re done in gold plate. They’re done in silver and silver plate. You’ll be astonished by that. It’s not just in the museum shop of the Louvre—I’ve actually bought some nice pieces of semiprecious stones in the Louvre museum shop, which was surprising. They have very ancient stones like carnelian, which was used by the Romans in their field, and even their cameos, but there’s a wealth of information with the jewelry designers of Paris. I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s such an exciting market.
Sharon: That makes a lot of sense. Go ahead.
Rachel: The other thing I’ve been able to arrange for the right clientele—it’s an experience. It’s not for everybody, but sometimes I’ve been able to open the doors of other jewelry museums. Sometimes, I find out about exhibitions that are open to the general public. Van Cleef & Arpels, from November until the beginning of next year, is hosting a wonderful exhibition open to the general public in their showroom behind the Place Vendôme that is dedicated to a jeweler called Lacloche. I’d be happy to send the link to you later. People like me will go and study and admire it because these are pieces you won’t see in standard collections. It’s a way to educate the eye. Lacloche, I didn’t even know that jewelry existed, and it’s one of the finest jewelers; it goes back over a hundred years. I say that being open-minded and curious is what influenced and continues to influence my jewelry journey.
I have to tell you something funny. I went to Paris for the first time in 1967. I visited Place Vendôme with my mother, who didn’t even wear a wedding ring and was opposed to all kinds of jewelry and never gave me any jewelry. Meanwhile, I could open a jewelry store in my home, and my husband and I laugh at that. I’m exaggerating to say a store, but when I first met my husband, I was a chip off my mother’s block. I had one small jewelry roll, and this was 18 years ago. Now, I have a few moving boxes just for necklaces from different designers. I collect certain designers, which was unthinkable to me more than 18 years ago. It shows how you can evolve in a jewelry journey from practically nothing. I remember seeing a beautiful gold bracelet watch that had a tiny link you could open up and you would see the watch inside. I saw that when I was 12 years old, and I was mesmerized by the delicacy of it and the design in the window of Van Cleef & Arpels. My mother looked at me appalled. She said, “Where did I get a child like you? How could you be interested in something like that?” She was the kind of person who refused to have Vogue magazine in the house; it was only The New Yorker. Anybody who was interested in jewelry or makeup or anything like that was a real sellout. It shows how far style has come.
Sharon: Wow! How our tastes change.
Sharon: Tell us about my favorite part, the Flea Market at Clignancourt, and explain the different—when somebody says the Paris Flea Market, there are several flea markets.
Rachel: That’s actually changed. They’ve changed. I do want to put in a good word because I was just there in October. The next time you’re in Paris or your listeners are in Paris, I will be happy to take you early in the morning, at 8 a.m., to the Porte de Vanves Flea Market. It’s in the western part of Paris, right on the Metro line by Clignancourt, just a different line.
Sharon: And how do you spell that?
Rachel: P-o-r-t-e de V-a-n-v-e-s.
Sharon: OK, go ahead.
Rachel: That market is not to be sneered at because they have a lot of interesting silver and marcasite and resin pieces, and they do have very fine jewelry specialists there. It’s not expensive. That’s why people go there, but you would be amazed how many Italian women you’ll see from Milan and Florence at the Porte de Vanves as well as many Asian women, particularly Japanese and South Korean. Those two groups are real tastemakers and it had me revisit the Porte de Vanves. I’ve had people buy things that are quite lovely for under 100 euros. I’ve bought a couple of pieces there, silver and marcasite. I even have a lapis brooch surrounded with silkwood from the 30s, real sterling silver with a stamp on it, which I got for 35 euros. It’s not something to be sneered at. They also have wonderful art deco bowls and champagne buckets from the 20s and 30s. I hope the next time you are in Paris I will be able to take you there, even for just two or three hours. They’re there every Saturday morning and early afternoon and every Sunday morning and Sunday afternoon, and they are passionate about their collection. I did want to share that with you.
Now, Clignancourt is definitely the world’s greatest flea market, with over 1,900 stalls today and 1,900 vendors. When I came 25 years ago, most of the market was dedicated to antique furniture and accessories and it was very conservative. This was still a time—and I hope people still shop for this—when Louis XVI and Louis XV reproductions of original furniture, French country furniture, was popular. The art deco movement hadn’t come into its own yet. Never mind the Jean Prouvé and Charlotte Perriand and midcentury that weren’t even on the radar. They broke ground a few years later at the Antique Bernals, when they started to show contemporary design from the 50s, 60s and 70s. Before that, it was de novo; it was industrial. It wasn’t custom-made, but mainly it was a trade for furniture and accessories. I used to furnish mansions in the United States and go around with a client and the decorators to Park Avenue apartments, and that’s what the flea market was known for. Of course, the editors of Architectural Digest knew it well. Then, things began to change. First of all, a lot of Americans were intimidated by shipping all this stuff back home and they worried if they were ever going to get it, how much it was going to cost. They didn’t know that it wasn’t by weight, but by cubic feet. It seemed like they couldn’t visualize the beautiful things they were seeing at the flea market in their own homes. They were worried they would end up in a junk antique shop.
Then, people wanted wearables. They started with the more popular costume jewelry wearables, which is Chanel. This was the Chanel that was coveted by a lot of magazine editors, who also set the trend for shopping at the flea market because they wanted to have things you wouldn’t find in the department stores. That’s when they started going to the flea markets, and then they found out there weren’t just wonderful Chanel pieces. The more enterprising people were also collecting jewelers like Joseff of Hollywood and Miriam Haskell. All of a sudden, bit by bit, now 20 to 30 percent of the flea market’s wares is costume jewelry, vintage fine jewelry and, as we recently discovered, design jewelry—things that came out of the Bauhaus and were influenced by the change in aeronautical engineering and automobiles and wanted to reflect the world that was speeding up in the 20th century. It was a gradual process, but that’s what happened.
Sharon: Every time I’m there, I always think of my friend who’s a decorator: “Oh my gosh, why isn’t she here scooping things up, opening her own warehouse somewhere and holding them until the right client comes along?” Rachel, thank you so much. I could talk to you for hours about this. This is so interesting. Thank you so much for staying up after hours on your end and for taking the time.
Rachel: It’s a pleasure.
Sharon: I look forward to seeing you again. Anybody who’s listening, you can always do it yourself, but I am a big believer in efficiency and having a guide, especially somebody who really knows or does the research in advance when you tell them what you’re looking for. It can save you so much time and effort. Rachel, thank you so much. We hope to have you back on again. To everybody listening, we’ll also have Rachel’s contact information in the show notes and the information to French Links Tours. You can find it all at TheJewelryJourney.com. That wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and you’d like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please review 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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