THE JOY OF CREATING JEWELLERY. Francesca Amfitheatrof is the Artistic Director Watches and Jewellery at Louis Vuitton. Born in Japan, Francesca Amfitheatrof has lived in Tokyo, Rome, Moscow, London and New York. Her cosmopolitan career is imbued with art, culture and travel, which inspires her creations and personal style. In July the new Louis Vuitton high jewellery collection, SPIRIT, was launched in Marrakesh.
Francesca Amfitheatrof, what do you consider yourself? English? American? French?
I consider myself English-Italian. I have a very Italian spirit, but I am formed by English culture and education. Now I live in the States, but my mother’s in Italy and I go to Rome a lot and also I’m building a house on the island of Ventotene. Then obviously I’m in Paris for work.
Does your inspiration come from many different countries?
Yes, it does. Funnily enough, I never realised how much. I was born in Japan, and I only lived there for two or three years of my life but I have a very attuned and deep obsession with proportions and I’m sure that comes from Japan. My mother’s apartment in Rome is completely decorated with Japanese furniture, paintings, art and objects, so when you walk into it it’s like being in Japan, and I’ve been brought up with that so I have a very strong sense of aesthetic from Japan.
Are you somehow an eclectic person?
I was brought up all over the world and I understand different cultures and I speak languages and I’m definitely a traveler, a nomad. I have a very unique way of seeing the world and of understanding cultures because they are part of who I am. So I am, in a way, eclectic. Even when I’m here in America and I see how people are in America, I’m very foreign to that way of thinking. I have my own point of view that is very well defined and quite strong.
There is a lot of interest in sustainability and there is a much stronger awareness of that today, especially in younger generations. Is that influencing you?
Yes, scale and volume is something that I’m very concerned about; the fact that we are producing more and more. It is very important that we are absolutely 100% aware of not filling the world with just stuff. In the case of jewellery, these are objects that will last more than my lifetime, and these are very rare objects.
“At Louis Vuitton we have created our own diamond cut, so we have gone into utter excellence.”
LOUIS VUITTON: SPIRIT – COLLIER – RADIANCE
Francesca Amfitheatrof, do you consider yourself an artist?
No, I do not like the word art to be used outside of fine art. I don’t like it when people in all sorts of different creative industries talk about their art and talk about themselves as artists. I find it obnoxious and a little bit too much of an ego trip. I like to leave the word artist to painters, sculptors and artists of work and fine art.
Do you consider yourself an artisan?
Yes, an artisan, a designer. I consider myself to be extremely creative. I have an amazing creative eye. I can calculate proportions to the decimal of a millimetre at a glance. I have great skills in what I do. I know my métier with depth.
In 2021 you made a special collection in memory of Mr Louis Vuitton to celebrate the 200 year anniversary of his birth. What kind of collection was it?
A high jewellery collection, chronological, a straight line of storytelling that started with his birth and tracked his youth. It was about his journey from the Jura, an area very close to Switzerland, from where he walked to Paris. It took him two years, and when he arrived in Paris Houssmann hadn’t yet started to build the boulevards but the space was being created for the building of the Opera. He saw this moment of transformation and expansion.
Today LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton is a huge conglomerate and you are specifically in charge of the jewellery and watches of the Louis Vuitton brand. You have previously worked with Tiffany and for other jewellers. What is the difference between jewellery made for a fashion brand like Louis Vuitton or Chanel or Dior and jewellery made for jewellers like Tiffany, Cartier or van Cleef?
The great and simple way of answering this is freedom. If you do not have hundreds of years of history behind you, you have total freedom to create what you believe to be the vision of the maison. When I arrived at Vuitton, the position of Artistic Director for Watches and Jewellery was created for me. This position did not exist before. That meant that I could really embark on something new. There wasn’t an archive or references and that meant that I had a white space to fill, and secondly, because we are not a jewellery house, we can do what we want. We do not have any kind of walls around us that we have to adhere to. Instead, we can break the rules a bit, be a little bit more adventurous. Remember, jewellery is a very old craft. This notion of decorating your body and with the discovery of metal and the use of stones it’s an ancient art form which has really stayed in that craft.
Is a diamond ring from Louis Vuitton less expensive than a diamond ring from Cartier or Tiffany?
No. It’s not so much about the name; it’s about the quality and the level of excellence that that house decides to embark upon. Every house is different. Tiffany is a giant of diamond and engagement ring sales. It’s on a large scale so it’s not always about quality; it’s a lot about volume. Obviously there is also extreme quality, but if you want to buy a ring that is affordable for a young couple you can find that easily at Tiffany. Cartier has another positioning. At Louis Vuitton we have created our own diamond cut, so we have gone into utter excellence and also a very complicated engineered stone cutting idea, and we have been able to brand a diamond. That nobody has done. We’re very ambitious.
What is the name of that diamond cut?
We call it the LV cut. The Louis Vuitton cut is in the shape of a star or a flower, which is a very difficult thing to achieve in diamond cutting. It’s very expensive and it’s time consuming and a lot of houses wouldn’t do it.
When you think of a stone, do you think of diamonds?
Personally I’m a lover of emeralds, but I’m extremely honoured, happy and proud that we have got this cut in a diamond, because the holy grail of the jewellery industry is to be able to recognise the diamond as belonging to a maison. If I’m wearing a diamond now, it’s impossible to tell from the naked eye if my diamond is from Harry Winston or from Canal Street. You don’t know if it’s a lab grown diamond or if it’s a flawless diamond. So the idea that we now have a shape that belongs to Vuitton allows us to have ownership over that stone, and that is something that nobody’s been able to do.
Did you study gemology in order to recognise the stones?
No, I am lucky that I’ve been able to look at a lot of stones in my career, but I am more of a metallurgist. I’m a mini engineer, a bench goldsmith. I always loved metal. I’m definitely somebody who always wanted to work in three dimensional design.
Which kind of gold do you love?
I love yellow gold. When I was at art school I spent time mixing golds, creating different alloys, making gold elastic, making it behave like steel. I very much like metal. I’m a metal lover.
Do you only use gold or do you also use other metals like silver or platinum?
We do use platinum. We mix golds a lot – we use white gold, yellow gold, pink gold – something I’ve started to do in the jewellery is to use yellow gold with platinum, or yellow gold with white gold. I also tend to custom cut a lot of stones. I like different cuts mixed together. I’ve only been at Vuitton five years but we are presenting my fourth collection of high jewellery and we’ve already started to create a very defined design language and mixing metals is definitely part of it.
“Jewellery in its minutiae – this tiny, small object – more than any other piece of accessory holds immense power.”
Francesca Amfitheatrof, do you work in Paris or in America?
I’m very lucky to have a big studio in Connecticut, which is where I do a lot of my work. I’ve created a team which wasn’t there when I arrived in Paris, but they’re all over the world -from Australia to Italy, Hungary, France, Japan, and Germany, and some of them work from their homes. They don’t all have to be in Paris. I don’t believe we need to physically all be in the same place anymore, as long as you have the freedom to create and people understand the vision.
Who produces the physical jewellery?
All the jewellery is produced in Paris, in Place Vendome in our atelier and in the best ateliers in Paris.
What is the message that a woman or a man wants to give wearing a piece of jewellery of yours?
At Vuitton we approach all the collections – and this is the only way I know how to do it – with a strong story. The women who buy the jewellery we make is because there is something within the symbolism and the message that speaks to them, something that they feel connects to them. Of course, there’s also beautiful stones and amazing design and incredible craftsmanship, but they tend to be touched by something that has a strong meaning to them, and most of the time they themselves choose that piece of jewellery. It’s not so much the husband or the partner that buys it for women. Men are the same as women, they buy something because they want to feel quite unique. Historically, men have worn incredible jewellery, and also every piece of jewellery we make, especially the important pieces, there’s only going to be one in the world. We only make one necklace, we only make one bracelet, so there’s something very special in knowing that you’re the only person in the world to have that.
Do you have an iconic piece that represents to you?
I have two collections that I did for Tiffany, the T Collection and also Hardwear, which are still today their two bestselling collections. When I worked at Tiffany I would phone the jewellery designer Elsa Peretti and I always called her a goddess, and she loved it. We had this very special relationship because of my admiration. Elsa to me has always been the most inspiring person and woman designer.
Do you have an equivalent with Louis Vuitton?
With Louis Vuitton we have Vault, which is becoming very iconic. It’s for everyone, and it’s completely unisex. Vault is a fine jewellery collection, it’s not high jewellery, and it represents this idea of jewellery being unisex, jewellery being for a global urban person – of any age, from any country – that understands and loves quite modern, clean design and quality.
Which do you love more? Rings and bracelets, or earrings and necklaces?
Rings and bracelets because I can look at them. I can see them and so they give me pleasure. If I’m wearing a necklace or an earring I don’t see it, other people see it.
What is your ideal ring?
A very big cocktail ring with a very big stone – a nice emerald – and I would add diamonds too. I would wear it on the pinkie or next to my wedding band.
Is a wedding band the best ring?
A wedding band is something that obviously becomes part of you. That’s what’s so amazing about jewellery it really becomes part of your body, it just molds into you. Jewellery is something that should really suit you as a person, as a personality. It’s something very personal to you.
Are you sometimes inspired by ancient jewellery, such as from Greece or India or Egypt?
I look at antique pieces a lot and I’m a great lover of jewellery from the past. Actually there’s a necklace called Destiny in this particular collection that has a very important ruby and that was completely inspired from a necklace and various jewellery from Africa. It is very geometric, quite big as well.
How do you deal with jewellery being a symbol of love but also of power?
Politically, jewellery has always had a very strong and quiet form of communication. Look at Angela Merkel and her brooches, or Kamala Harris and her pearls. Everything is there for a reason. There is such a strong connection between power and jewellery, and I think love is even less important in a way. Love is something that’s been constructed later around jewellery. Jewellery in its minutiae – this tiny, small object – more than any other piece of accessory holds immense power. We are using some of the most ancient, old materials from our planet. Diamonds are the earliest object that we can hold that connects us to the Big Bang. The power of having something that takes you to the beginning of life is there all the time, plus we dig these objects kilometres deep in our earth. We dig them up, we transform them, we cut them, we polish them, we make alloys, and we work them into beautiful pieces. These things take millions of years to come to life. Of course, they’re powerful. They’re incredibly powerful.
LOUIS VUITTON: SPIRIT – COLLIER – GRACE
LOUIS VUITTON: BO – EMPREINTE
LOUIS VUITTON: VOLT
LOUIS VUITTON: VOLT – BRACELET
LOUIS VUITTON: EMPREINTE – PORTÉ
LOUIS VUITTON: SPIRIT – COLLIER – LIBERTY
“I love it when I see jewellery that inspires and moves me, but I work on my own, with my own vision.”
Francesca Amfitheatrof, you said that love came later but hasn’t one of the most popular symbols of love, the heart, become represented by every jeweller in the world at many different value levels?
Even why we wear a wedding ring on the fourth finger is because it is the vein that connects to your heart, so there is always this notion of love, of course, and the idea of symbolizing the permanence of your love, the idea of locking love in an object, is represented by jewellery beautifully. Today it’s open to all forms of love. Today it’s open to self-love, to same sex love, to friendships, to couples rings in Asia. There is always an exchange that happens through jewellery to symbolise love.
Jewellery exists for a long time but fashion is something very nervous and has to change every six months. How can jewellery follow the pace of fashion, and is there a concept of out of fashion in jewellery?
No, I think it’s the opposite. Jewellery has this very long period of time for it to mature. Jewellery can be successful straightaway – look at Elsa Peretti’s perfect example – but if you leave it over decades it becomes more and more popular. The most important thing for me is that jewellery does not become a uniform, when to me it stops being desirable.
What do you mean by a uniform?
Something that’s been overproduced, that you see on everyone. What I love about Vuitton is our jewellery is not everywhere, and our jewellery is not to be seen on everyone. It’s a special person that wants to find something for them that speaks about them.
Does one find Vuitton jewellery in Vuitton shops?
In some, not all. In the flagships and the biggest stores. There’s not tons of it. We sell out often and you have to wait to get that piece. I particularly like that because to me when everybody wears the same piece of jewellery you’ve entered fashion and you have become out of fashion. An Elsa Peretti Bone Cuff is such a beautiful design it’s never going to go out of fashion. It’s perfection.
Vuitton is selling all over the world, in China, in India, in Japan, in America, in Africa, everywhere. Do you design jewellery that is good for every woman in the world or do you specialise for women of one place or another?
I design for everyone. When it’s high jewellery, it’s very much in a certain tone. When it’s fine jewellery, I segment or categorise different emotions and different feelings that one woman may desire, and even proportions. There’s a woman who may want more sculpture and the bigger look; and then maybe a woman that wants a more fine and dainty and feminine look; there is a modern urban man and woman. I look at characters more than geography.
What is your creative process?
I come up with a concept. I then go to our CEO, Michael Burke, who is a great jewellery lover and stone lover – he signs off on every stone we buy. I give him like a title and maybe one or two pages with some images and some words and I say, I want to do a collection called Bravery and it’s celebrating the birth of Louis Vuitton, or I want to do a collection called Spirit to celebrate the spirit of the Louis Vuitton maison today. And that’s it. And then I go off and he says, great, Francesca and I go off and I create chapters, like in a book. Each chapter has a title and a theme, and I do mood boards on every chapter and I then work with our stone buyer and I allocate stones to each chapter. It’s literally a story that I narrate. Then I present it to the design team that I work with and each designer chooses. I allocate themes to each designer, or a designer says, I feel very strongly about this, and then we start designing. I work very closely with them and make sure that the storytelling and the design really flows through, so that there’s moments that are very dramatic and there are quieter moments. It’s a curated collection.
Can you reveal some of your future collection?
We work two years in advance, so I have just completed and we’re starting to develop what is going to be 2023 high jewellery and I can only tell you that it’s very robust. We are expanding, every year the collections are growing. When I arrived we made 80 pieces, we’re now making 200 pieces. It’s a collection that’s about the beginning of life, that’s as much as I can say. Next year I want to do something completely different. Every year I find something that I don’t know how to explain, it’s kind of crazy. Like when I did Stellar Times, the main piece was a necklace about a woman going to Mars. And then that year Mars was very visible in the sky. Every time I do a collection, there’s something that is actually surreal. There’s a surrealist aspect to it that connects us to something contemporary, and it always happens by chance. But I really travel on the themes. I move very much from one theme to another. Every year things change quite a lot.
There is a lot of competition in your trade. Is it because they are Louis Vuitton clients that people buy your jewellery?
Louis Vuitton is the biggest brand in the world, so obviously they have a lot of clients and that allows us to invite people to see the jewellery. A lot of jewellery houses don’t have the traffic we have. I tend to not look at what other houses are doing. All the jewellery houses launch collections, this year Cartier was in Madrid, Bulgari was in Taormina. Everyone does their own fabulous event. I love it when I see jewellery that inspires and moves me, but I work on my own, with my own vision. I think what is right for the maison. I work with an incredible group of people, so together we inspire each other. I work with amazing material. I work with the best ateliers in the world. There is so much that we do together as a team that feeds me. I don’t worry about the competition and I don’t have jealousies or anxieties. If there’s something that a house makes that’s beautiful it’s like food, it gives you energy.
Is jewellery an ornament or an investment?
During the period that we were in Covid lockdown people had their passions taken away; travel, holidays, visiting New York City or wherever. There was a period of time that nobody bought anything and then they got very bored and jewellery became an amazing source of pleasure – you can wear it, you can use it, and you can see it – and at the same time a great investment. It can satisfy so much. Jewellery had this boom during lockdown, and also, because we were on Zoom all the time, people could see earrings and necklaces. The sales shot up because everybody was only seeing this square of themselves. When you’re looking at precious stones, jewellery is a great investment. These are materials that are going to run out, that are unique; we won’t be able to find them ever again. If you find a great stone, that stone is unique to the world. We’re talking the best of the best here. We’re talking the greatest of the stones, the greatest of the carat and the clarity and the size and everything. So in that sense, yes, it is a great investment but at the same time it’s an investment that you can get so much pleasure out of because it’s a beautiful piece that can be part of your life every day. It is an investment that you can carry with you anywhere you want to go in the world, and you can get great joy out of it. It’s fantastic.
Thank you very much for your time.
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