Lying 20 miles off Naples is the island of Capri, a craggy mass of limestone and tangled trees rising above a deep blue cove. It is said that Odysseus was bewitched by the Sirens here, and its flamboyant beauty, mineral light and grey rock have been inextricably linked with glamour, sin and secret pleasures since Roman times.
Through the Belle Epoque, Capri flourished as a destination for rich sybarites living it up amid the bougainvillea. Mussolini tried to curtail its hedonistic excesses during the Second World War, but by the end of the 1940s it had regained its exclusive status as a playground not only of millionaires, royalty and film stars such as Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman, but of the era’s greatest writers and intellectuals, from Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham to Jean-Paul Sartre.
Where the jet set holidayed, luxury followed. In 1950 two friends opened a jewellery boutique on Capri’s via Vittorio Emanuele. Pietro Capuano came from a family of Neapolitan jewellers, and Salvatore Aprea was a lawyer. They named their brand after the rooster Chantecler in Edmond Rostand’s play of the same name — a humorous reference to Capuano’s night-time carousing (it was said that he never returned home before the cock crowed).
Their mosaic-like, handcrafted designs, enhanced with turquoise, tourmalines and coral, were an instant hit with the in-crowd. Jackie Onassis, Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly were all fans. Eclectic and sexy, Chantecler mirrored the island’s reputation for spirited eccentricity. Candy-coloured rings that looked like bonbons were a flash of brilliance, as were the brand’s eye-catching logo necklaces.
Chantecler’s signature piece is a tiny bell known as the Campanella. In 1944, Capuano cast a bronze bell as a gift for President Roosevelt, symbolising peace and prosperity. He later transformed the emblem into a charm, and today these little gems are worn, with fitting Capri insouciance, not just on bracelets and necklaces but also on sandals, handbags and belts.
Until 10 March, a collection of jewellery by Chantecler is being offered in Jewels & Watches Online: La Dolce Vita. Among the most eye-catching pieces are a pair of butterfly earrings and an octopus ring. Exquisitely surreal and incredibly tactile, these jewels reveal just how well the brand navigated ‘Il Boom’, the headlong rush to modernity and economic prosperity in Italy following the Second World War, which ushered in the era of ‘la dolce vita’.
According to Christie’s Jewellery specialist Leo Criaco, Chantecler epitomises the escapism of the 1950s. ‘Their free spirit is very much in keeping with la dolce vita,’ he says. ‘Their jewellery was made to be worn on the beach, dancing in the sand.’
A style that evokes night-time revels, daytime hangovers and that dizzying mix of glamour and freedom is still very much in evidence in the brand’s playful designs today.
Since Capuano’s death in 1984, the company has been run by Aprea’s children, Maria Elena, Costanza and Gabriele, who continue to look to the island’s glitzy past for inspiration and to retain that sense of fun.
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Although Italians are still the biggest collectors of Chantecler jewellery, Criaco believes we are seeing the emergence of a new generation of younger, international collectors who cannot resist that sprinkling of 1950s glamour. ‘They love the brand’s association with that exciting period in Italian history,’ he says.