January 29, 2009
Critical Shopper | Mauboussin

These Jewels Look Smaller in France


THE timing was a bit inauspicious: Right as our rogue economy gravitationally collapsed into a swirling vacuum, Mauboussin, the 180-year-old French jewelry firm, opened its American flagship. Expansion was its plan, and it stuck to it, despite grim projections casting long shadows over the fripperous world of luxury. Mauboussin had, after all, successfully weathered the Great Depression in the same way it intends to do it now: by making items more affordable, and for a wider clientele.

“It is the end of the rapture, the crash of the hubris, ” Mauboussin’s chief executive, Alain Nemarq, said recently in Le Figaro in an article decrying some of the greedier tendencies of the luxury market (like the practice, by some firms, of marking their goods up to 1,000 percent of the cost). “We will now return to reason, decency and discretion.”

In this spirit, Mauboussin has boldly taken up residence on one of the snobbiest blocks of Madison Avenue, infusing it with the tenacious French qualities of rash hope, intellectual vigor, epicurean sensuality and a soupçon of old-fashioned communism (égalité, if you prefer). The result is a four-story town house that looks as if it were designed by Jean Cocteau’s Freudian analyst on a laudanum bender, and lots of sparkly, quasi-affordable cocktail rings in cheery, colorful quartz.

The theatrics commence the moment you step into the foyer composed of broken glass. Inside, the shopper is wowed by what looks like a gargantuan Dale Chihuly paperweight made of Jonathan Livingston crystal Seagulls, offset by black sandpaper walls hand-stitched with copper wire into the shapes of half-finished picture-frame moldings. This dark first floor is where time is kept — gold and titanium watches with cognac alligator wristbands and enormous faces, the diamond eyes of which stare up at you and ask: “Is Depression 2.0 over yet? Because even my heroically reasonable price point is $13,250.”

It’s a very pleasing eyeful, an enthusiastic execution of the designer David Rockwell’s wish for the environment to be “like a dream.” The staff is très charmant and seems to be relaxed and genuine in that way of people not working on commission.

I was informed that these were not, in fact, the building’s original floors, but planks imported from Siberia, with charred highlights achieved by hand-burning each plank. I pictured gulag inmates being forced to do this with crème brûlée torches. (Perhaps we should have written nicer plays about the Kremlin, tovarich.)

I asked Caroline Anderson, a French saleswoman, to explain the difference between French and American tastes in jewelry. “Americans like big cocktail rings,” she said. She indicated a shape on her hand the size of a brioche. “The French prefer to wear something ...” — she blushed — “a little smaller.”

Mauboussin’s clever means of catering to each customer according to her abilities was introduced with the Fou de Toi (Crazy for You ) line: small, relatively affordable green quartz and morganite gems, in polite pavé settings ($2,090). If that’s not crazy enough for you, there is Trop Fou de Toi — the same, only with larger gems and more romantic obsession. Or, for the true sociopath with all her Ponzi schemes successfully laundered and offshore, there is the Tellement Fou de Toi line (rings, $10,690), representing insane, stalkerlike love and gems so large they can be worn only in Texas.

I admired an enormous black watch made of space-shuttle ceramic, so ornately gobbed with black lacquer and diamonds that I thought it should come with a complimentary tankard of P. Diddy’s I Am King cologne ($30,350). I was moved to try on a 17.08-carat yellow diamond ring ($617,000) because I wanted to see if I could actually burn down the Longchamp Building across the street with it.

The second floor features slate-colored walls, with the incomplete picture-frame motif scraffito’ed into them, and the Étoile Marine collection by the actress-sculptor-ex-model Marine Delterme, who not only creates a fetching line of pavé starfish and sculptures for Mauboussin but also has the advantage of being best friends with Mme. Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the French president’s thrilling wife.

There is some superlative Art Deco design, a Mauboussin specialty: a choker and bracelet from 1928 with strings of pavé gum balls encircled by emerald-cut baguettes (bracelet, $286,000; necklace, $515,000) and pavé calla lilies, a sexy and curvaceous design the firm has been making since the 1940s.

The real drama comes when one emerges from the dark, sparkling stairway onto the “bridal floor,” a blizzard-white riot of feathered wall panels and crinoline tufting down from the ceiling; one feels one is being hatched under the corps de ballet of “Swan Lake.” This floor has a diamond bar, where prospective matrimonials can choose diamonds in a liberal range of sizes (with prices clearly and mercifully marked) and install them in classic Mauboussin settings.

This is a soft revolution, a break with the practice at American diamond stores, where shopping for engagement rings is a solemnized and somewhat stressfully churchlike experience of awe and trembling before the altar of massive debt. Mauboussin seems intent on restoring humanity to the act of diamond shopping; it has a little cafe area on the fourth floor where you can enjoy the agony of wedding-band decisions over cappuccino and petits fours, and explore Lucite bento boxes full of cocktail jewelry, which are the centerpiece of each table.

I WAS honored with a visit from Violaine Bernbach, a ravishing French incarnation of Anne Bancroft, who happens to be Mauboussin’s vice president (and my new role model). “In France, quality of life is much more important than making money,” she told me, her tasteful diamonds gesticulating elegantly. “French people don’t need two cars. We like vacation time! Why have so much money if you have no time to enjoy it?”

Mauboussin’s philosophy strives toward a balanced fusion of lifestyle choices that includes art, music, food ... and jewelry; a process that aims to creates an environment of sensual harmony, where one is encouraged to breathe and converse, eat and drink, laugh and relax.

But, if that kind of thing doesn’t ring your bell, Hermès is just a block away. A David Yurman store will be opening next door, and Graff, the esteemed jeweler on the corner, will always be there to soberly intimidate you.


714 Madison Avenue (near 63rd Street); (212) 752-4300

ILS POUSSE Despite economic calamity, this historic jewelry house is bravely expanding through its second American depression.

C’EST JUSTE The company is addressing the changing luxury market by stressing affordability, and a creative lifestyle. Vive la différence!

MA BOURSE Let’s face it, kids: Even reasonable prices for serious jewelry are still harrowing. But I’m guessing it’s where Wall Street’s chastened bailout wives will be spending your tax money.