PARIS — James Taffin de Givenchy was born to a legacy of beauty. And he has made good on a family name synonymous with the glamour of French couture in the 20 years since he established Taffin, an independent house in New York.
“The little jewelry company that could,” he joked — and like the atelier of his uncle, the renowned couturier Hubert de Givenchy, it has found success in the harmony of Old World elegance and gutsy modernity.
Mr. Givenchy, 53, creates dazzling jewelry, but in person he was utterly casual when we met at a Paris cafe during his recent visit home. In jeans and a black zip-up pullover, he wore few personal pieces: a signet ring with the family crest, a sized-up gold baby bracelet and a steel and rose gold watch from the Taffin line.
Yet his extraordinary jewels are the subject of a new book, titled simply “Taffin” and published by Rizzoli in October. The volume contains photos of more than 250 examples of his uncommon approach to materials, color and design, chosen from among the 4,000 jewels that Mr. Givenchy estimates he has made in the past two decades.
“It’s a history of what my artisans and I have done, rather than a contemporary survey of our jewelry,” he explained. “It illustrates what I went through.” But he seemed a bit abashed that the book was about him.
Mr. Givenchy said he always unlocks his safe with the curiosity of a chef opening a refrigerator: “I look inside, and decide — what am I going to cook today?” His radiant colorscapes of stones reflect the influences of experimental early 20th century jewelers like Suzanne Belperron, Jean Schlumberger and Raymond Templier, but his compositions have a contemporary element they did not — ceramic.
Around 2000, new methods to bond ceramic and metal were introduced, expanding ceramic’s use in the jewelry and watch industries. Mr. Givenchy has become a master of manipulating the difficult material — building shapes with it, tinting it to the exact hue he desires and inventing new ways to use it in jewelry. It regularly provides the most surprising color element in his pieces: a Champagne-pink morganite is wrapped in crimson ceramic on a gold earring; a grass-green ceramic frame vivifies a large peridot bracelet.
“It brings my work closer to the styles of interior design,” he said, “and it’s important for me that it’s a medium of the present.” He works at a Martin Szekely-designed desk and takes inspiration from midcentury and contemporary furniture, treating precious stones as volumes of color and light to use in his work the way an architect might employ unusual building materials.
Mr. Givenchy’s use of all kinds of materials follows a very personal value system. He mingles gold and precious gemstones with pebbles, wood, plastic, rubber, marble and even copper with a patina of verdigris. Steel is often treated as a noble metal. “Gold is wonderful,” he said, “but you can’t forget that steel is at the foundation of our civilization.”
Terry de Gunzburg, founder of the ByTerry beauty line and an avid Taffin collector, called Mr. Givenchy’s designs the combination of “luxury, unexpected audacity, and traditional handcraft — sumptuous, elegant, but never bourgeois.”
Mr. Givenchy grew up in Beauvais, a small town north of Paris, but longed to escape France, where his illustrious last name — with its echo of haute couture and aristocratic roots — was seen as an undeserved privilege in the hard-line leftist years of the ‘70s and ‘80s. He left for New York, studied modern dance and dreamed of becoming a choreographer, tried graphic design, and was adrift in the city when he chanced upon a job at Christie’s.
He was hired to answer phones in the jewelry department, mostly on the merit of his French accent, and later trained as a jewelry specialist. But it was his uncle who opened his eyes to the beauty of the remarkable pieces that went on sale there.
The couturier seized upon a leaf brooch by Verdura at an auction preview, bypassing some of the more extravagant marvels on display for the graphic piece. “This is design,” Mr. Givenchy recalled his uncle saying. “This is the way you have to look at jewelry.” At that moment, he understood the artistic possibilities of form for the first time.
When he established his own jewelry house, he called it Taffin as the Givenchy name, along with the couture company, had been sold in 1988 to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. But the operating model mirrored that of Uncle Hubert’s: autonomy, experimentation and modern design for the most rarefied end of the market. Encouraged by the high jewelry example of JAR (Joel Rosenthal, a Paris-based American master of pavé designs), Mr. Givenchy said, he realized “you can make art and jewelry and you don’t have to be a big house.”
Caprice is perhaps the best advantage of independence. “Each piece is a sculpture,” he said. “I don’t come with a concept and say, I want to make a collection.” His jewels can be remarkably different from one another, influenced by what’s caught his eye recently, by the gemstones and by the client.
Almost all of his work is one-of-a-kind and custom-created. He laughed a bit sheepishly when asked, “Why bespoke?” The clatter of lunch plates rang out through the cafe, but Mr. Givenchy responded in a low voice. “I wanted to do choreography, and there is nothing less commercial than choreography,” he said. “I wanted to be true to art. I wanted to make jewelry that was art.”
Leaning back in the scarlet booth, with all of Café La Belle Férronnière reflected in the beveled mirrors behind him, he glanced about, recalling the layers of sentiment this corner bar holds for him. During frequent weekend visits to his uncle at the Givenchy couture atelier nearby, his family had many meals here; his architect brother, who died recently, redesigned the interior a few years back.
Mr. Givenchy is still close with his uncle, now on the verge of 90, whom he would dine with later that same day. The couturier penned his blessings (in French) for the new book’s introduction, declaring that his nephew had proven that he, too, could become a great designer: “Your success was immediate, because you understood that times had changed and that it was necessary to create jewelry that was more youthful, more straightforward, more contemporary.”
Having a master couturier in the family may have motivated Mr. Givenchy, but he has found equal inspiration from his break with the past, and from his adopted city in particular. His headquarters are on the 25th floor of a Madison Avenue building with views of Midtown Manhattan, and after three decades in the city, the French accent that launched his jewelry career is now barely perceptible in his even-toned American English. He considers himself a genuine transplant — a New Yorker.
He points to expatriate jewelers before him — Verdura from Italy and Schlumberger from France among them — who came to America and established ateliers with a European sensibility blended with a strong sense of design. “They were extremely creative because they rid themselves of the walls of tradition,” Mr. Givenchy said. “In America, you can take chances.”
“I’m following in the footsteps of European jewelers who came and created American products,” he said, taking a last sip from his demitasse. “That’s what America is — it’s a melting pot, and I like to think of myself as an American jeweler.”