What are the qualities that make us — that is, the human species — what we are? One of the most common answers is how we use tools to achieve results. Which is a fine answer — but we would like to add another one, more subtle, to this: our ancestral need to adorn ourselves with objects of beauty. Below is a thorough history of the world’s most luxurious jewelry brands we know today.
Jewelry as we know it — that is, adorning ourselves with precious objects — is as old as man itself. Historical findings have found several adornments that our ancient progenitors used to wear to distinguish themselves — like animal teeth and fangs with a hole carved in them, which were hung around the neck on a leather thong.
The first examples of jewelry date back to Ancient Egypt, around 4,000 BC, and developed fairly quickly after that, so to reach amazing displays of taste and technical prowess. Along with the development of metalsmithing, artisans around the world used precious metals and gemstones to create the most magnificent art pieces, so to inspire admiration in their viewers.
A very long development that takes us to our modern days, with the development of the current top luxury brands of jewelry — the ones we admire today in all of their beauty.
So, we at Luxury Bazaar wanted to make a rapid excursus about the origins of the most important designer jewelry brands, so to honor them in all of their glory and achievements. Starting from the oldest, so to present you a few among the best of the best.
1780 — Chaumet, the oldest jeweler still in operation
The oldest top jewelry brand which is still in business, even if it does not belong anymore to its founding family since 1987, is Chaumet — now part of the LVMH luxury group.
The maison Chaumet was founded by Marie-Étienne Nitot in 1780.
Nitot was an apprentice of the famous Aubert, then jeweler to Queen Marie-Antoinette, who dominated the market until the French Revolution came, destroyed the old power system, and left a new dynasty in place: the one of Napoleon Bonaparte.
And through his craftsmanship skills, Nitot was noted by the new regime and became the official jeweler of Napoleon I in 1802. He designed all the official jewelry of the Emperor, including his crown.
Through the years, even after the demise of Napoleon, the Chaumet company grew, and expanded through the world, opening a shop in London and becoming one of the official purveyors of the English Crown — between its clients numbering also Queen Victoria.
The name became Chaumet in 1885 with the marriage between Joseph Chaumet and the last heir of the then-owners, the Morel family.
The iconic seat of the company in 12, Place Vendome, was established in 1907.
From then onwards, the maison expanded its activities, becoming involved in watchmaking in 1970, when they relaunched the historic Breguet brand. Today, Chaumet is one of the most recognized luxury jewelry brands of the world, and continues to create its signature jewelry motifs, like the Liens, the Bee my love and the Josephine, for buyers around the globe.
Under the helm of the LVMH group, it has expanded worldwide, especially in the Far East, and right now over 25% of its business happens in China.
1790 — The House of Bolin, the oldest founding family-owned jeweler in operation
If not the first, one of the first luxury jewelry brands in existence, which still is in the hands of its founding family, is The House of Bolin, also known as W.A. Bolin.
The company was established in one of the main metropolises of Europe at that time, St. Petersburg. It was founded by the German-born jeweler Andreas Roempler in 1790, who was to be appointed Jeweler of the Russian Imperial Court by 1796.
The company continued to prosper for one century, eventually opening other shops and changing name after Carl Edvard Bolin came to work for the business in 1833 and married one of Roempler’s daughters, until its dominance was put at a stake by the influx of other famous foreign jewelers, between whom Boucheron and the famous Fabergé, who were vying to get into the very lucrative business of the Russian Crown entourage.
We all know that the Bolshevik revolution canceled everything that was linked to the old Tsars, but the Bolin heirs were lucky. Their ancestors were of Swedish nationality and had conserved their citizenship.
So, before the Red October came, they eventually moved first to Germany and then to Stockholm with their enterprise, becoming appointed jewelers to the Swedish Crown.
The modern House of Bolin is a most exclusive top jewelry brand and continues to ply its trade even today. Some years ago, the maison climbed up to fame for creating the engagement ring which worn by Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden before her wedding with Prince Daniel in 2010.
1837 — The symbol of the New World’s top jewelry brands: Tiffany’s
Tiffany & Co., known colloquially as Tiffany, is nowadays a high-end jewelry brand that was founded in 1837 by Charles Lewis Tiffany and John B. Young in Connecticut, as a “stationery and fancy goods emporium”.
In 1838 it relocated to at 259 Broadway, in Lower Manhattan, and in 1853, when Charles Tiffany took the helm of the company, he focused the business on jewelry, introducing some “revolutionary” terms in the business.
First, the company clearly marked the prices of its goods, to avoid haggling over prices. Second, Tiffany only accepted cash payments.
The “Blue Book,” the first Tiffany mail order catalog, was published in 1845. Curiously, the company back then also supplied weapons to the US Army (with the Model 1840 Cavalry Saber), flags and surgical implements.
Since then, the company grew in notoriety through the USA and abroad. In 1867 it became the first U.S. company to win an award for excellence in silverware at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, and in 1878, it won the gold medal for jewelry.
In 1887, Tiffany bought the French Crown Jewels, a feat that attracted publicity worldwide and further launched the name of the company as one of the best jewelry brands in the world. From then onwards, the company widened its reach, selling different lines of luxury products, and opened shops throughout the globe (more than 300 as to this day), and was celebrated also in movies, like the iconic “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” with Audrey Hepburn.
Between the most famous jewelry lines of Tiffany, we find Bean, Diamonds by the Yard, Open Heart, Sevillana, Teardrop, Loving Heart and Sugar Stacks, the last two designed by Paloma Picasso.
1847 — The jeweler of the Kings, Cartier
Louis-François Cartier founded the maison Cartier, one of the most famous designer jewelry rands, in Paris in 1847 when he took over his former master’s workshop. His son, Alfred, carried on the production, but it was only with his three sons that the Cartier name became recognized worldwide.
Louis Cartier was possibly the most forward-thinking of the three.
He was the mind behind some of Cartier’s most celebrated designs, like the “mystery clocks”, with their hidden movements and his support to the back-then fashionable Art Deco designs, like the “Tutti Frutti” collection.
In 1909, he was also the creator of one of the first wristwatches, for his friend Alberto de Santos-Dumont — the “Santos” wristwatch still being manufactured today.
Whereas Louis was a creative, his brother Pierre was a commercial mastermind, expanding the reach of the company by opening the USA market. Also in 1909, he established the first Cartier “boutique” in New York. The other brother, Jacques, took care of the expansion in the UK, opening a shop in New Bond Street in London, where it still is. Jacques was also responsible for the expansion of the company in the East, touching areas such as the Middle East and India, where Cartier eventually sold one of its most famous creations, the spectacular necklace commissioned by the Maharaja of Patiala, which mounted almost 1,000 carats of the purest diamonds.
Pierre was famed for his buying, and selling to the eccentric, high-profile American socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean, the famous “Hope” diamond — a 45 ct, deep blue diamond that was notorious for bringing bad luck (previous owners were said to have died beheaded, or eaten alive by wild dogs!). And this fact gave the French maison unprecedented publicity in the USA.
1919 was the year of the debut of the Cartier Tank, another wristwatch designed by Louis Cartier in homage of the modern tanks that were used in WWI. Other famous designs followed through the years, rendering the maison world-famous.
In 1972, the heirs of the Cartier family sold the business, and after a series of ownerships, the company finally ended in 2012 in the Richemont group, where it resides today.
The panther is the best-known Cartier creation: a symbol of excellence and exquisite inspiration that has made the maison one of the most admired luxury jewelry brands of the world.
A reputation that made none other than King Edward VII of England to proffer the famous quote: “The Jeweler of Kings, the King of Jewelers”, referring to Cartier.
1858 — Boucheron, the inventor of Place Vendome
One of the most iconic top jewelry brands, the House of Boucheron was founded by Frederic Boucheron in 1858, with the opening of his first shop in the Galerie de Valois.
In 1866 he created a design atelier, and in 1867 he won the Gold Medal during the Exposition Universelle de Paris. Several other awards followed during the years, making the maison one of the most notable worldwide. At the 1878 World’s Fair, the maison wins the Grand Prix for one of its works of art: an amazing sapphire necklace made for a wealthy American customer, Marie Louise MacKay, featuring a huge 159-carat sapphire as its centerpiece.
In 1879, Boucheron presents a revolutionary design: a necklace without a clasp, which got to the maison another Grand Prix for outstanding jewelry innovation.
Frédéric Boucheron became the first Parisian jeweler to move to Place Vendôme, in 1893. The legend says that he chose the spot to open up his boutique — the 26 Place Vendôme, where the shop remains today — because it was the sunniest of the square so that the diamonds in the shop windows would sparkle more brilliantly.
One of the maison’s most notable customers — and we would say today, ambassadors — was the famed Countess of Castiglione.
An enigmatic beauty, the Countess, whose name was Virginia Oldoini, was known as “the Divine One”; reputed to be the most beautiful woman of the century, she was the perfect art director of herself.
All of her photographic portraits were painstakingly constructed, with her deciding the angles, lights, everything, to maximize the account of her beauty. Jewelry by Boucheron included.
The introduction of the company in the “jet-set” of the time was instrumental, and the company became very famous worldwide, as it opened shops internationally in Moscow and then St. Petersburg, New York, and London.
The family sold the company at the end of the 1900s, and nowadays Boucheron is part of the Kering group, and one of the most iconic high-end jewelry brands worldwide.
Between the most notable Boucheron collections, we find the Architecture, the A Collection of Animals, the Quatre, the Serpent Boheme, the Nature Triomphante and the Jack de Boucheron lines.
1874 — from watches to jewelry: Piaget
The maison Piaget, a high-end jewelry brand active in several areas of the luxury business, was born in a small village in the Swiss Jura called La Côte-aux-Fées. This was the place where, at the age of nineteen, Georges-Édouard Piaget set up his first workshop, where he specialized in high-end precision watch movements. His passion and meticulous dedication soon began to get known around, and Piaget began to supply components and movements to the most prestigious watch brands in Switzerland.
In the Twenties, Timothée Piaget, who was Georges-Édouard’s son, shifted the production from simple components and movements to complete watches bearing Piaget’s name. All the while, he catered for the high-end of the business. His watches were not just precise but amazingly decorated using the best traditional techniques applied by a crew of masterful jewelry artisans.
Under the guidance of Timothee’s sons Gerald and Valentin, this trend continued until 1954, when Piaget, which was already renowned for its ultra-thin watches, presented its first jewelry collection in 1959, with the opening of the first “Salon Piaget” in Geneva.
The boutique was thought to become a sort of club, where Piaget’s customers could be engaged by the creativity of the maison’s designers and the savoir-faire of its artisans.
From that moment onwards, Piaget set up its ateliers specializing in goldsmithing and gem-setting, thereby allowing it to master the entirety of its production.
The creativity of Piaget was spurred by Valentin, whose chief directive was “Do what has never been done before”. And his designers responded, launching in 1963 the first collection of watches with the dial made in semi-precious stones and the cufflink watches and pendant watches of the “21st Century Collection”.
The style that resulted was so vibrant, playful and elegant that Piaget’s creations attracted the favor of the most famous personalities of the time, including Jackie Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor, and Sophia Loren.
The maison’s creations reached a level of innovation that it began to cooperate with famous artists, between whom we can cite Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol.
The company was acquired by the Richemont group in 1988. However, it continued to develop on the lines traced by Georges Eduard Piaget himself, “Always do more than what is necessary”, and setting new records in horology for its ultra-thin movements.
But also as a luxury jewelry brand, Piaget did not sit on its laurels. The company continues to launch new collections to fulfill the requests of its clients worldwide. Between the others, we can cite the Possession, the Rose, the Heart, the Extremely and the Sunlight.
1881 — Bvlgari, il Re di Roma
The high-end jewelry brand Bulgari, known also as Bvlgari, using the Latin way of writing the “U”, comes from the genius of his founder, Sotirios Voulgaris, an immigrant to Italy coming from Greece. He was born in the Epirus Village of Paramythia, the most important silversmithing town of the Balkans, but his family hailed from Bulgaria — hence their surname.
Sotirios was a fine silversmith. In 1884, he opened his first shop, and in 1909, as he was already quite successful, he moved it in the current location, Via Condotti.
His designs borrowed elements from Byzantine and Islamic art, combining them with floral motifs as it was customary with the Art Deco style.
Sotirios’ two sons, Giorgio and Costantino, continued the house tradition, introducing one of the most famous Bulgari motifs, the “Serpenti” collection in 1940. The “Dolce Vita” of the Fifties saw the Bulgari franchise being propelled into stardom. Its clients were the best-known movie stars of the era, like Elizabeth Taylor, Anna Magnani, Ingrid Bergman, and Gina Lollobrigida, which gave Bulgari huge visibility.
The company expanded, opening new boutiques worldwide, and entered into other areas of luxury, mainly watchmaking, fragrances, and leather goods, as it bought other companies active in those fields. In 2011, the Bulgari family sold their majority stake in Bulgari to the LVMH group, while getting a minority share of LVMH in return.
With the power of LVMH, Bulgari had the strength to become even more ambitious as a high-end jewelry brand, expanding its network of boutiques and entering into the hospitality sector in partnership with the Marriott group.
Between the current Bulgari most famed collections, apart from the Serpenti, we find the Bulgari Bulgari, the Forever, the BZero1 and a line created in partnership with the NGO Save the Children.
1896 — Van Cleef & Arpels, the other side of Place Vendome
If there is a place that offers an exquisite balance of beauty and luxury, this is Place Vendome in Paris. And on the other side of Chaumet, just opposite the entrance of the Ritz, there is the seat of another primary actor of the absolute luxury field: Van Cleef & Arpels.
Now one of the most renowned top luxury brands of the world, the company started in 1896, after Estelle Arpels, the daughter of a dealer in precious stones, met Alfred Van Cleef, the son of a stonecutter, and married in 1895. It was a marriage of love and skill, which had important consequences in the rarefied world of luxury jewelry.
In 1906, the two families opened up a shop in Place Vendome. And it was a very wise decision since the company gained an immediate following from the influx of affluent travelers who sojourned at the Ritz. Propelled by their success, they followed the trend related to tourism, opening up shops in the most famous holiday locations, like Deauville, Vichy, and Montecarlo.
The company grew, both in notoriety and technical skill. Its Chapeau Chinois design, introduced in the Twenties, honored the culture of the Far East and became an instant classic. The Mystery Set, a complex technique of jewel setting patented in 1933 by Van Cleef & Arpels and still used today, so that the precious stones were encased firmly in the frame of the jewelry while no prong was visible. This permitted the maison to create pieces of almost unattainable stylistic purity.
Princess Grace of Monaco was especially fond of the maison’s creations, as were Jackie Onassis, the Duchess of Windsor, Elizabeth Taylor, and members of the royalty and nobility worldwide.
The Van Cleef & Arpels of today, while continuing to make its artistic creations in jewelry, has expanded in other fields as well like watchmaking and fragrances, and is among the best known top luxury brands, an important part of the Richemont group, which acquired it in 1999.
Between the most famous creations of Van Cleef & Arpels, apart from the Chapeau Chinois, we find the Alhambra line, with its distinctive lobed cross design signifying luck, love, fortune, and good health.
1919 — Buccellati. From the tradition of silversmithing in Milan
One of the most iconic luxury jewelry brands, the current Buccellati company was founded by Mario Buccellati in 1919, but he took advantage of the family tradition of his grandfather, Contardo Buccellati, who worked as a goldsmith in the mid-1800s.
Mario made his apprenticeship in 1903 at the prestigious Beltrami & Besnati. His talent was noticed, and he became quite famous in his ever-growing niche of clients, who helped spread his notoriety internationally.
One of his most famous clients and fans was the famous Gabriele D’Annunzio, who referred to him as “The Prince of Jewelers” and “Mastro Paragon Coppella” — that is, Peerless Master of Goldsmiths.
With the active support of such a sponsor, the growth of the company was very quick, and it opened several shops in the most prestigious locations, like Milan, Rome, Florence, New York, and Palm Beach
After the death of the founder, his sons continued to grow the company, one of whom founding a brand of his own, Gianmaria Buccellati, but eventually returned to the family business.
The style of the maison’s designs is pretty unique. Buccellati draws its inspiration from the classical and renaissance world, mixing it with the application of innovative techniques, favoring the use of textured surfaces and engraving to create a style that makes its pieces distinctive.
Its intricately designed jewelry pieces, worked by hand by a network of master craftsmen, are seemingly ethereal and impossibly intricate, making the Maisons’ jewelry seem even more rare and precious.
The Buccellati jewelry is made to look and feel like being made of natural materials: silk, lace, damask, tulle or linen.
The Buccellati family sold the majority stake of the company to the Chinese fund Gansu Gangtai in 2016. As of today, the firm operates in 14 countries and continues in its mission among the high-end jewelry brands worldwide to spread the timeless beauty of its creations.
Its most noteworthy collections are the Étoilée, the Ghirlanda, the Opera, the Tulle, the Ramage, and the Rombi.