When James Taffin de Givenchy was approached five years ago by Assouline to do a coffee-table book about his fanciful and inventive jewelry designs, he demurred. His business was 15 years old at the time and he didn’t think it had the weightiness to be the subject of a book.
“If you’re writing about a dead artist or someone who’s been in business for many years, it’s different than making a book about yourself,” he said. “Five years ago, I didn’t think I deserved a book.”
When Rizzoli came calling last year, de Givenchy was ready. “Rizzoli called and was very eager to make a book. There was that number, 20,” he said, referring to the age of his company. “It was the right connection. We just gelled.”
“Taffin: The Jewelry of James de Givenchy,” was written with Stephanie LaCava with forwards by Tobias Meyer and Hamilton South. Hubert de Givenchy, his uncle, contributed text as did luxury goods consultant Timothy Pope.
De Givenchy had some difficult choices to make, including winnowing 3,000 pieces of jewelry to 300. “The only way I survived this was by telling myself that I’ll make another book one day,” he said.
“Each of the pieces has a story,” de Givenchy said. But his clients’ names aren’t part of the narratives. “There are bright fantastic stories about Verdura and who the clients were. I find that very difficult. I wanted to show what I’ve been up to for 20 years.”
Taffin is a whimsical collection that defies characterization. Known for sculptural designs and unexpected materials, from rubber to ceramic to the steel of recycled AK-47s, de Givenchy’s stones are often organically shaped, such as pods, seeds and teardrops. Jewelry takes the shape of a variety of flowers, some with pearl stamen or ovaries.
Bold color combinations are another de Givenchy hallmark, including a blue sapphire, blue ceramic and rose gold ring; diamond and colored ceramic, gold and gray rope necklace; buffalo horn, coral and gold cuff, and rectangular Poniatowski agate intaglio set in a ceramic and gold bracelet.
Price is not a subject de Givenchy likes to discuss. It’s as if assigning a dollar figure to a piece lessens its worth. His collection ranges from $2,000 to $5 million. “Very often in this business, if you’re going to go up to millions, it’s because of a single stone or several stones,” he said. “We do elaborate necklaces and our costs before the stone are up to $100,000. If you look at couture, art and sculpture, at the end of the day, it’s the number of hours that justify the price.”
De Givenchy tries to take the pretension out of jewelry “and make it fun,” he said. “I’m always trying to make the jewelry not too serious, not too complicated. I’m known for using ceramic and I’ve added colors. This helped me define and refine my style.”
After studying graphic design, de Givenchy worked for his older brother, also named Hubert. In 1988, he got a job at Christie’s selling catalogues. Then, floating from department to department, he landed in jewelry, where his French accent was an asset. De Givenchy spent six years at Christie’s, first in New York and then in Los Angeles. He then got a job at Verdura, but quickly realized that he’d have no creative freedom there. “They had books and didn’t want to deviate from Mr. Verdura’s designs,” he said. So de Givenchy left and in 1996 founded Taffin.
De Givenchy grew up around fashion and haute couture. His father was the founder of the Givenchy perfume business. “This was a different time,” he said. “The great designers were Givenchy, Dior and Cardin. It was impossible for us not to be influenced. I never personally worked closely with my uncle. I was seeing it from afar. I always wanted to be an artist. I couldn’t be Hubert. For years, I was trying to find a solution to be an artist and make a living.”