Upstarts descend on Parisian bastion of luxury
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Place Vendôme has been a hub for the very best, and most expensive, jewels in Paris since the late 19th century. Yet a new spirit of youth is transforming this luxury destination, as newer maisons — including the square’s first Chinese jeweller — arrive to shake up the status quo.
Boucheron was the first jeweller to see the potential in Place Vendôme, moving into its south-facing corner in 1893. Today, the spacious cobbled street teems with the biggest names in luxury jewellery, many of which have celebrated a centenary. Chaumet, which will reopen its refurbished store in January, has marked two.
Tucked into an offcut of 26 Place Vendôme — the same building that Boucheron still occupies — you will find Qeelin. Unlike its neighbours, the Chinese jewellery house was formed this side of the millennium, by Dennis Chan in 2004.
The shop, which opened in July, is the first Asian jeweller to have joined the longstanding cluster of European incumbents. Though Qeelin has boutiques elsewhere in the city — as well as a network of 38 stockists in Asia, and a presence in North America and Australia — this opening elevates the brand.
“It shows that they are not competing with other Chinese domestic brands, they are competing with global brands and this automatically puts them on a different stage,” says Marie Tulloch, senior client services manager at Chinese digital marketing agency Emerging Communications.
“There was previously the perception that Chinese brands couldn’t be luxury, at least in Europe, but Chinese consumers are among the most sophisticated in the world. And if the consumers are that sophisticated, there’s no reason the brands shouldn’t be too.”
Paris-based luxury conglomerate Kering spotted this potential, too, acquiring a majority stake in Qeelin in 2013.
Qeelin has a global outlook but its products retain a strong Chinese aesthetic. While the brand’s neighbours jostle to showcase some of the largest, priciest gems on the planet, Qeelin prefers sparkly diamond and gold jewels shaped into the form of pandas, robots and pooches that teeter on the edge of kitsch.
Though these symbols might seem pop-ish or even irreverent to western shoppers more attuned to Van Cleef & Arpels’ ode to Romeo and Juliet, or Chanel’s affinity for Russian motifs — both high jewellery collections that launched in Paris this summer — Qeelin’s jewels have deep cultural symbolism that connects with an Asian clientele, and it has no plans to change in order to fit in.
“Our vision is to bring contemporary Chinese design to the world; to usher in a new era of oriental aesthetic and elegance though the lens of jewellery,” says Mr Chan. “Passing jewellery down from generation to generation is quintessentially Chinese. We have wanted to pass on our traditions, our heritage and our wealth.”
Though Qeelin is the first to open a store on Place Vendôme, it is not the first to take advantage of the rich pickings on offer. European-trained Chinese jeweller Feng Ji, who specialises in complex one-off haute joaillerie creations under the name Feng J, has operated out of a hidden atelier in Place Vendôme since 2018.
“I love the challenge to explore a new and innovative code to fit in this prosperous blooming area to create high jewellery for the 21st century generation,” says Ms Ji, whose workshop is accessed by appointment only.
Nor are Asia’s rising stars the only newcomers to the square. A regular sight on luxury shopping promenades the world over, Gucci’s arrival on Place Vendôme in the same month as Qeelin is another signifier of a cultural change.
The Italian brand’s store opening coincided with Paris Couture Week, where the Kering-owned luxury fashion house debuted its first high jewellery collection, the 200-piece Hortus Deliciarum.
It was designed not by an experienced jeweller but by Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele. The label’s brash brand of fashion lingers in the collection’s designs and exemplifies an approach to luxury that appeals to a new generation of consumers — particularly Asian tourists travelling overseas.
The brand has a stronghold in Asia, with the Asia-Pacific region delivering the biggest retail sales growth for the brand in 2018, up 45 per cent. Chinese shoppers spent $115bn on luxury goods last year, a number that is expected to almost double by 2025, according to McKinsey’s China Luxury Report 2019. And more than two-thirds of those purchases will be made outside of China, the report says.
Paris is among the top European destinations for Chinese, with visitor numbers to the city last year rising 3.2 per cent to reach 800,000, according to the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau. However, the continuing gilets jaunes protests in the capital, as well as a weaker renminbi and reduced sales taxes at home, could hamper growth in Chinese visitor numbers this year.
Even at Boucheron, change is afoot as the influence of younger shoppers is felt on the square. At its own Paris Couture Week presentation this summer, jewels were displayed on spinning records while pyjama-clad models in a lounge played cards draped in its latest high jewellery collections.
The likes of Boucheron have little choice but to adapt. Chief executive Hélène Poulit-Duquesne says she views the entry of Qeelin and Gucci to Place Vendôme as a benefit.
“These new arrivals will contribute to making the square even more attractive and therefore a destination for new customers,” she says.