Victoire de Castellane

PARIS — While creations by all six of Christian Dior’s successors feature in the house’s 70th anniversary retrospective currently on show at Les Arts Décoratifs, it has only ever had one fine jewelry designer: Victoire de Castellane.

Dior himself liked to use costume jewelry — made by houses such as Gripoix, Kramer and Mitchell Maer — to accessorize his looks, a legacy that was embraced subsequently by Gianfranco Ferré, who was known for his baroque-style necklaces and earrings, and brought to a crescendo by John Galliano upon his arrival at Dior in the late Nineties. But de Castellane’s appointment in 1998 marked the house’s first venture into fine jewelry, meaning a whole structure had to be put into place.

For de Castellane, who prior to joining Dior was Chanel’s longtime head of costume jewelry under Karl Lagerfeld, embracing the house’s legacy also represented a reversal of storylines. “Whereas Chanel was all about a woman designing men’s clothes for women, here was the universe of a man who cultivated absolute femininity,” she said at the time.

De Castellane landed with a splash, introducing her own new look for the fine jewelry arena and shaking up the conservative Place Vendôme codes with a series of bold, irreverent, wild-at-heart collections mixing classic rocks with unexpected materials like Cadillac paint.

Inspired by the excessive use of fabric in Dior’s New Look silhouettes, her opening “Incroyables et Merveilleuses” line in 1999, which also riffed on the elaborate fashions of the French Directory period in the late 18th century, set new volumes for fine jewelry. Sizable candy-hued stones crawled with salamanders, lily of the valley and butterflies.

She introduced other audacious themes, including Cinderella’s slippers and blood-seeking vampires, along with multicolored hues inspired by old Walt Disney cartoons. Her more recent collections, meanwhile, have marked a shift to more classical, architectural expressions of the house codes. Though more “grown up” in tone, for de Castellane they nonetheless represent a coherent chapter of the same story. “I’m anti-conformist, that’s for sure, but I like to be free within a framework,” she explained.

Her cane motif line for spring 2012 nodded to the Napoleon III chairs used for the house’s couture shows back in the day, while Archi Dior in 2014 emulated the graphic construction of vintage Dior pieces, including the house’s iconic Bar jacket. The collection was unveiled at the Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris alongside miniature versions of some of the gowns that inspired it.

The designer also likes to think that she’s brought a certain showmanship to jewelry, which is traditionally displayed on fuddy-duddy busts. Her concepts have ranged from placing jewels in cots like newborn babies to a virtual presentation on the Second Life web site in 2007 for her psychedelic Belladone Island collection. The pieces sold out within a week of going online.

Direct nods to house codes across the years have included the Rose des Vents line, inspired by Dior’s favorite bloom, the rose, and his lucky charm, the star; the Muguet necklace, and the Mitza ring, after Dior muse Mitzah Bricard.

More tangential spins have included the just-presented second installment of de Castellane’s Versailles-inspired high jewelry story, dubbed Dior à Versailles, Côté Jardins. It was inspired by the private estate of Queen Marie-Antoinette but also, said de Castellane, by Dior’s love of flowers and the aesthetics of 18th-century France, which had a major influence on the house’s decor.

In terms of cycles, de Castellane presents two high jewelry collections a year, synched with the haute couture collections. Small- and mid-level jewelry collections, representing either new lines or new styles and colors in existing lines, are timed with the ready-to-wear collections. The house also has a permanent made-to-measure service, with limited editions created for boutique openings or special events like the Chinese New Year.

Next year will mark her 20th year in the role, with four dedicated boutiques internationally and 68 points of sale.

De Castellane said she likes to do a bit of soul-searching while planning her collections, and to set herself new challenges. She is also sensitive to current events, among a range of factors influencing her collections. “There are the codes of Dior, but there is also what is going on in the world that counts,” she said.

“I like to anticipate, to project myself into the future and imagine how things might be [when the collection is completed]. There’s always a conceptual element, taking several things into account,” said the designer, who also feeds into the mood of the house’s creative director. “It’s like adding a spice to my composition.”

Take, for instance, the Belladone Island line and its wild rings in the form of trifid-like carnivorous plants, which coincided with the Galliano era. The arrival of Maria Grazia Chiuri, meanwhile, with her “direct take on femininity,” has brought a more serene mood, she said.

De Castellane’s unique position in the house’s story fits with her independent streak.

“What I love about my job is that there was nobody before me. To create something in a house that didn’t exist before is incredible. There’s a sense of timelessness; I’m not linked to a specific period of the house, and that’s freeing,” the designer said.

She confessed there have been times when management possibly was “a little afraid or surprised” by a collection. But it’s never stopped her. “I still feel like a kid in this house, as I have a childish [approach to my work],” added de Castellane, for whom the role of the jeweler is “to make people dream.”

Her biggest influence remains the exuberant jewelry worn by her grandmother, Sylvia Hennessy, and her society friends. De Castellane also likes to leaf through Seventies magazines for inspiration, but she is not one for nostalgia. “I’m influenced in general by the feminine universe — all women inspire me. I love observing women, it’s a constant source of inspiration,” she said.

She likes to imagine the brand’s founder as a “friendly presence watching over from afar.”

“I like to think that he would appreciate my work for the house,” said de Castellane who, while well versed in the codes of the maison, has always preferred to keep a certain distance from the archives, “to allow for a bit of mystery, and leave room to reinvent them.”