There has been a huge revival of interest in the mid-20th-century jewellery and decorative objects made by the self-taught craftswoman
The work of the jewellery designer and decorative artist Line Vautrin, who was brought up in Paris in the early 20th century, epitomises the creative ferment that characterised the city at the time.
She was born in 1913 into a family that owned a bronze foundry, and taught herself gilding and metalworking skills. Vautrin designed her first pieces before her 21st birthday. Her creations — jewellery, boxes, mirrors and other decorative objects — were the result of continuous experimentation, and are imbued with poetry and fantasy.
Christie’s Paris is devoting a significant sale, Différents éclats de paradis: oeuvres de Line Vautrin, on 8 March, to this singular designer, dubbed the ‘poetess of metal’ by Vogue in the 1940s. The event will be preceded by a five-day exhibition at the auction house, where more than 200 pieces will be on show.
‘After three years partly trapped at home, surrounded by familiar objects, we thought our clients would appreciate her incredible inventiveness and sense of humour,’ says Robin Beyries, the specialist in charge of the sale. ‘She had a knack of turning everyday objects into whimsical and mysterious works of art.’
After a brief spell working for the studio of Elsa Schiaparelli, in the late 1930s and the beginning of the 1940's Vautrin started making boxes, ashtrays, powder compacts, boxes and paperweights. She transformed these utilitarian objects by inscribing them with allegories, metaphors and symbols. She wanted to spark the curiosity of people who bought her works.
Some were displaying visual puns, or rebuses, such as a 1940s box she called Aime tant et plus a rare piece made in silvered bronze.
Vautrin loved experimenting with materials. She worked in bronze but also played with small fragments of mirror embedded in her own formulation of cellulose acetate resin, which she registered under the trade name Talosel. It proved a difficult material to work with: she only perfected the technique in 1955.
Mirror frames made of Talosel proved a huge hit, enticing celebrities such as the writer Françoise Sagan, film star Ingrid Bergman and fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.
Vautrin’s career had one pivotal moment. At the 1937 Exposition Universelle in Paris she presented a wide range of buttons and jewellery, including the celebrated Adam et Eve necklace, which launched her on an international stage.
The following year she opened her first shop on the Rue de Berri, near the Champs-Élysées. Her necklaces, bracelets, brooches, earrings and belts quickly became best-sellers. At the annual Société des Artistes Décorateurs fair in 1939 the then up-and-coming designer showcased powder and pill containers in bronze engraved with riddles. Such was her success that in 1943 she moved to larger premises on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré.
After the Second World War she began experimenting with Talosel and started making her style-defining mirrors around 1960. In 1969, after closing her shop, she set up a craft school with her daughter, Marie-Laure Bonnaud-Vautrin, to pass on her skills. By the early 1980s she had retired, but continued to make work in her apartment.
When she decided to sell part of her collection in 1986 and 1987 the English collector and decorative art dealer David Gill stepped in, buying many of the lots. He put her back on the map, showcasing her work around the world.
Five years before her death in 1997 she was awarded a prestigious prize by the Société d'Encouragement aux Métiers d’Art (the forerunner of today’s
Institut National des Métiers d’Art) for her contribution to developing innovative decorative techniques. In 1999 the Musée des Arts Décoratifs held a retrospective of her works.
When the collection of her daughter was sold at Christie’s Paris in 2015 there was new surge of interest in her work. The sale made a record price for a figurine-bordered mirror, Si tous les gars du monde, 1963. Ever since, Vautrin’s jewellery, especially from the 1940s and 1950s, has gained in value.
The Christie’s sale will include a wide range of jewellery, mirrors, boxes and other decorative items arranged in themes, including ‘City Life’, ‘Love and Friends’, ‘Literature’, ‘The Sea’ and ‘Games’, an allusion to the designer’s sense of fun.
Vautrin often drew inspiration from books and literature. An inkwell and quill in Talosel made around 1955 is a case in point. There is also a book-shaped box in gilt bronze and cork engraved with lines from the poem Clair de lune by Guillaume Apollinaire.
Sometimes words and signs are a puzzle, as in the 1940's L'oisiveté est la mère de tous les vices box, one of Vautrin’s many guessing games. Beyries says his team has deciphered her many riddles, and may try some of them out on followers of Christie’s Paris Instagram account.
Some connoisseurs prefer Vautrin’s allegoric boxes; others, her gilt-bronze jewellery, luxury objects that were often made in variation. A Le gendarme et le voleur necklace, made in 1943-5, which ‘gently holds the neck, reminiscing the way a child would hold another in the children’s game of cops and robber’, as Beyries puts it, is unique, although several pieces also explore this theme.
An unique and untitled mirror from the 1960s has a frame that features what seems to be, at first glance, a laurel wreath. But on closer inspection it might be a straw hat sprinkled with leaves. It is this kind of detail that fascinates Vautrin collectors.
Among the 25 mirrors on sale are Folie, or Le Soleil à rendez-vous avec la Lune (Madness, or When the Sun meets the Moon, around 1960), which looks like a black sun, though its curled ‘flames’ also evoke a jester’s cap or a flower.
One of the twisting flames holds a smaller convex mirror representing the Moon. ‘To make this iconic piece Vautrin heated Talosel at high temperature to obtain a rough texture, in contrast to its usual smoothness,’ says Beyries.
A Boudoir mirror made circa 1967, circled with an entanglement of black and red mirrored tongues, shows Vautrin’s fascination with mirrored glass inlays. It became a trademark material, a way of adding luminosity to interiors.