Diamond Portraits: Frédéric Boucheron

Not much is known about Frédéric Boucheron’s childhood or about his growing up. He was born on December 17, 1830 in Paris, France to a family in the textile business. According to some reports, the family was involved in garment making, according to other accounts they were drape makers. Be it one or the other, Frédéric did not want to work with fabrics, despite having a lifelong appreciation of them and their being a source of inspiration for his career of choice: a jeweler.

As soon as he could, Boucheron started making jewelry. He quickly developed a unique style partially inspired by the textiles of his youth. His designs are flowing, with long lines, generous use of material, and “supple”, as someone has described them. Combined with exceptional technical skill that was going to differentiate his creations for years to come and an eye for gems, it did not take long before he found his first jewelry clients.

Boucheron founded his eponymous jewelry company in 1858, opening his first jewelry store in the Galerie de Valois, at Palais-Royal with 100,000 francs he borrowed from friends and family. Success soon followed. The 28 year-old’s designs and flare proved to be a great draw and his store was frequented by Paris elite. Within eight years, Boucheron paid off the loans he took to start the business and still had plenty left in his pocket - 365,000 francs, according to one historian.

In 1861, the Louvre had acquired the collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman jewelry that had a profound impact on Boucheron as well as on many women that visited the museum. In response, Boucheron did two things: he redesigned his store, inspired by ancient Rome architecture, which caused the traffic to the store to increase, proving to be a smart marketing decision. The second and far more important decision was a shift in the jewelry he designed. The new style went contrary to the prevailing jewelry designs of refined lines and nature inspired themes. Instead, Boucheron created bold architectural designs, edgy by the day’s standards. This attracted a well-defined jewelry clientele, young, forward-looking, independent women of means with cutting edge tastes that were in many ways trendsetters.

Frédéric Boucheron’s reputation grew and he was awarded the gold medal for the innovative spirit of his jewelry at the Exposition Universelle (the Universal Exhibition, or world fair) in Paris in 1867. Boucheron developed a liking for these large international exhibitions and over the years he exhibited at many international expositions including the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial, the 1889 and 1900 Expositions Universelles in Paris, the 1893 World's Colombian Exposition in Chicago and the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

One of the foundations of his business was the creation of repeat clientele. Most consumer goods involve a need in repeat purchase. This is true for clothing, food, and more. Many companies, especially today, build their business around their ability to attract repeat customers. That is the power of a successful brand. However, with high-end jewelry, where the need is not frequent and cost often hinders purchase, succeeding in generating repeat business was and still is very hard. Yet Boucheron was able to do so. One insight that brought him this kind of demand was the understanding that the beauty of a jewel item must highlight the woman’s beauty.

One example is that of Marie-Louise Mackay, a wealthy American whose special orders appear in the company’s special order books 102 times between 1876 and 1902. Many of her orders were among the impressive ever made at Boucheron. Her first order was non-specific, simply asking the jeweler for an extraordinary stone. At the time, Boucheron was already known for his use of sapphires in his designs. Mackay’s husband asked that she will get an exceptional blue sapphire to match the color of her deep blue eyes. Boucheron presented the couple with a necklace set with a 159-carat blue sapphire from Kashmir.

Other repeat customers included the Duke of Windsor, later King Edward III. Between 1918 and 1927 he frequently ordered jewelry from Boucheron, mainly women’s jewelry for his secret lover, Freda Dudley Ward. From then until 1935, the frequency of the orders declined, apparently as the married Mrs. Ward became more of a close confidant, and the Duke fell in love with American divorcee Wallis Simpson. All in all, the Duke made 75 orders from the jewelry Maison, the last one for a ruby and diamond clip.

Having such a high profile client did not hurt business. In fact, The Duke’s niece, Queen Elizabeth II owns several jewelry items made by Boucheron, as did her mother. Other repeat customers include Russian, Arab, and Asian royalty. As Boucheron’s name reached further in those circles, his list of clients grew and his business expanded. And with that expansion, his talents have been continually acknowledged, not just by clients, but also by his peers. In 1878, Boucheron was awarded First Prize for its creations at the Universal Exhibition in Paris. Among the noted creations is the sapphire necklace created for Marie-Louise MacKay.

It was during this period that Boucheron made the first snake jewelry designs, later to become a staple of the Maison Boucheron that still can be found in the jewelry they create today.

Boucheron made a great leap forward in 1887, when the diamonds of the French crown were auctioned. The auction was held at the Louvre, and dubbed at the time as “the sale of the century”. Boucheron was the only French buyer among the prospective buyers, many of them the world’s leading jewelers. He succeeded in buying 31 diamonds, among them the 19-carat Grand Mazarin diamond sourced from the famed Golconda mines in India. The diamond, a type IIa light pink, VS2 clarity beauty, attracted a lot of attention at the auction and the bidding war pushed up its price.

After Boucheron won the diamond, competing jewelers started wondering about the identity of the client for whom he purchased the diamond. However, Boucheron did not buy it for a client, but for his wife Gabrielle. This may have puzzled his competitors.

In 1893, Boucheron was the first jeweler to open a high-end store in a location which today is one of the most prestigious for jewelers in Europe. Place Vendôme 26, a corner location, was picked so the light that enters the store through the windows would compliment the jewelry on display. With a growing number of orders coming from the Russian royal family, Boucheron opened a store in Moscow as well. At this point it became clear: Maison Boucheron was an established, leading high-end jewelry designer and jewelry maker. His willingness to design creations that were not the norm proved right, his high skills and exceptional eye brought to the world a distinct style and repeat business.

Frédéric Boucheron died on August 20, 1902, age 71. His son Louis followed in his footsteps and expanded to London and New York.

In May 2000, Boucheron was acquired by the Gucci Group and continues to be a leading jewelry house.