the preview dinner at the 2014 Biennale des Antiquaires in the Grand Palais, Paris
Top tables: the preview dinner at the 2014 Biennale des Antiquaires in the Grand Palais, Paris © Getty

The Biennale des Antiquaires, Paris’s prestigious art, antiques and jewellery fair, opens this month in the same building as it has occupied almost without interruption since 1962, but much else about it has recently changed.

The word used by the fair, which runs September 10-18, is “renewal”, but this does not fully capture some of the more controversial evolutions. The fair — while still called the Biennale — will now occur every year, instead of two. There is a new president at its governing body, the Syndicat National des Antiquaires. And, perhaps most noticeably, venerable and prestigious high jewellery houses have pulled out.

Brands including Cartier, Chanel, Van Cleef & Arpels, Dior and Piaget — all of which have unveiled collections during past editions — will no longer show. Whereas the 2014 Biennale featured 14 contemporary jewellers, this year there are only four, nearly all of whom are newcomers.

Space has been the principal cause of discord. According to the Biennale’s director-general, Jean-Daniel Compain, the antique dealers had become “a little bit upset” by the large and growing presence of the contemporary jewellers. There was also, he adds, a general desire to refocus on antiques.

According to senior individuals at both the Biennale and the departed houses, the jewellery brands felt that there was “too much back and forth” and “uncertainty” surrounding how much space each house would be allocated, as the fair indicated their stands would be reduced in size.

Cartier issued a statement earlier in the year citing “new technical measures” which would “drastically reduce the maximum surface area of the stand”. These were “deemed particularly incompatible” to showing its high jewellery collections.

Cartier has historically had one of the largest stands — at around 250 sq m — and Mr Compain says that the association has limited the surface area for all participants to 140 sq m.

Van Cleef & Arpels dropped out after more than a decade of participation. Nicolas Bos, president and chief executive, describes the Biennale as a platform where you can “meet a lot of visitors that are not necessarily knowledgeable or interested in jewellery, but who may buy into the story”. Instead, this month the house is showcasing its new collection at a free exhibition near its Place Vendôme flagship in an installation by theatre director Robert Wilson. It is the kind of display that “could have been at the Biennale”, says Mr Bos, who hopes to attract the fair’s visitors.

Mr Compain admits that communication with the big houses earlier this year was “confusing” but says that the “skies are now clear”. The Biennale will continue to work with luxury houses, he stresses, and the fair this year will house a new joint exhibition with the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, a fine watchmaking consortium founded by Richemont, Audemars Piguet and Girard-Perregaux, which now consists of 28 houses. Titled “The Conquest of Time”, the exhibition will showcase 100 historic watchmaking objects.

Dealers are not all necessarily pleased the big houses have left. Antique jeweller Véronique Bamps has participated in the Biennale for over 20 years and recalls one year when all jewellers, antique and contemporary, were housed in the same hall. “It was fantastic; the energy generated was very good,” says Ms Bamps, who this year will be showing several rare Castellani pieces from the 1880s. Ms Bamps says she had a “a very good Biennale” that year because of the broader audience that was attracted.

The departure of big jewellers, however, has allowed new entrants to break into a fair which is usually hard to access. Of the four contemporary jewellers showing this year, three are first-timers to the Biennale and all four have stands around 55 sq m each. These cost about $500,000, says one, with additional installation and design expenses “considerably more” than the rental.

One of the new jewellers is Cindy Chao from Taiwan, who says she was “surprised and shocked” when she was officially invited to this “ultimate platform” late last year. “I never expected the Biennale would happen in my lifetime,” she says, adding about the departures that “change is good”.

“I realise I shouldn’t compete with those brands. I’m the only Chinese jeweller this year and I want to show international collectors that we can create different designs,” Ms Chao says. This is her first public exhibition and, reflecting her brand’s 12th anniversary, Ms Chao will show only 12 pieces, whose combined value is $80m. “I’m giving it my best,” she says.

For Nirav Modi, the Biennale is the “grande dame of fairs” and the first fair his eponymous brand has participated in. “We were offered a fantastic location in terms of traffic and we said yes,” says Mr Modi. The timing is also opportune: the Indian high jeweller opened its first European flagship in London’s Bond Street last week.

Foot traffic — and the right type — is what led Swiss house Boghossian to sign up. “The Biennale caters to very wealthy, active buyers,” says chief executive Albert Boghossian, who says the Middle East and China are key markets for his business.

De Grisogono is the only returning house, although it last participated in 2008. Founder and creative director Fawaz Gruosi feels unfazed by his peers dropping out: “All my life I’ve been the opposite to the industry.” Mr Gruosi, who will present 12 displays of mainly high jewellery pieces, says the Biennale is “worth doing and good for our brand image” and suggests this year’s fair will be especially successful, thanks to buyers from all over the globe.

De Grisogono will present jewellery from its latest “Folies” collection, with prices starting from €75,000 and pieces valued at more than €10m. The total value of the collection to be presented at the Biennale will be more than €100m.

The historic watchmaking exhibition is one of three shows staged by the Biennale this year, another featuring 35 works from the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. The 18th-century works will highlight the artistic ties between France and Russia. “It’s very important that we develop both the cultural and commercial content of the fair,” says Mr Compain.

The fair has increased the total number of exhibitors this year by 36 per cent, with a focus on international participants. Foreign dealers will now account for nearly 40 per cent of exhibitors, compared with 18 per cent in 2014.

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