Lab-grown diamonds 'like cloning', Dior jewellery chief says

In the 20 years since Victoire de Castellane joined the house of Dior to establish its high jewellery arm, Dior Joaillerie, in 1999, the brand has gone through at least five creative directors for its women's ready-to-wear line.

In a fickle industry such as luxury, de Castellane's longevity is an exception, but she's quick to point out that the rarefied milieu of jewellery is a far cry from the fast-paced world of fashion.

"Jewellery is not like fashion; it's a different rhythm. It takes me two years to create a collection, and fashion is every two months, so it's very important for Dior to have somebody who embodies the spirit of the jewellery," she says when we meet during the autumn/winter couture shows in Paris at the launch of Gem Dior, the brand's latest high-jewellery range.

For those who have followed de Castellane's tenure at Dior, and have kept an eye on the work of other jewellery maisons, her work has always been a breath of fresh air. In the staid world of high jewellery centred around Place Vendôme, the heart of jewellery making in Paris, her exuberant creations have always stood out next to the often matronly offerings of others.

"Just because something is very expensive, it doesn't have to look mumsy," says de Castellane. "When I arrived, jewellery was very classic and conformist. Jewellery houses weren't creating for women but for investment, and didn't ask themselves if the jewellery should be more challenging; it was meant for men buying for women."

In the past two decades, the world of fine jewellery has seen the rise of several new designers, most of them women; they have followed in de Castellane's footsteps, creating pieces that, for all their intrinsic value, don't look or feel too precious.

From Charlotte Dauphin de La Rochefoucauld, founder of Dauphin, to Gaia Repossi, who has injected a dose of cool into her family company, Repossi, not to mention younger names such as Charlotte Chesnais and Anna Hu, de Castellane has paved the way for a new generation of jewellers.

"Before I started, they all wanted to be fashion designers," she says. "But now they all want to do jewellery and I love it."

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To celebrate her 20th anniversary at Dior, de Castellane wanted to go back to the roots of jewellery making: the stones. "It's almost like I zoomed in and pixelated all the jewellery collections I have made and all you see are the stones. It was like putting all the collections in a shaker," she says.

"When I saw this collection and the colours of the stone, it felt like a gift of nature, because I thought that one day we may not have all this. It was unbelievable to see these beautiful stones."

The scarcity of stones, which has led to the recent rise of lab-grown diamonds, is a serious issue for jewellery brands, which source diamonds and coloured gems from countries as varied as Myanmar, Colombia and Botswana.

"Precious gems will get terribly expensive and maybe we'll find something different and start using other materials," she says. "But I'm conflicted about lab-grown diamonds, because if you can make a lot of them, how is it going to be precious? Maybe you'll lose the magic. It's strange, but maybe that's the future. For me it's like cloning animals."

It's no surprise that de Castellane still believes in the power of real stones. She points out that most of her pieces are one-of-a-kind. "Once they're bought, I don't see them any more," she says wistfully.

Some of her most supportive clients are Chinese. "They are very loyal collectors and have a love story with jewellery and love to wear it," she says. "I do a lot of special orders for them. They have a very spontaneous relationship with the jewellery."

The designer feels that women's relationship with jewellery can be fraught, no matter how pretty or beautiful a piece is. "There's a lot of symbolic moments [associated] with jewellery," she says, "like death, robbery, divorce. So there's always passion surrounding jewellery; it's very emotional, and I'm very fascinated by women who wear jewellery and to see their gestures, the noises.

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"I can look at a woman smoking and wearing lots of rings or charms for hours."

One of these women is long-time client and friend Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele, who happens to join the Paris event as we are about to bid goodbye to de Castellane.

An influential stylist and taste maker, Cerf de Dudzeele is known for her extravagant style and love of bold jewellery, more often than not designed by de Castellane.

"I think that Victoire is the only one who has great talent in jewellery, since when she was at Chanel," says the stylist. "She made the best costume jewellery back then and I still wear it. She's not thinking too much about ideas, like everybody else; it all comes from her guts.

"I have so many pieces that she made and it's always like a heart attack when I see them."

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.