Diamonds are a girl's best friend - at these prices

Bargain sparklers and stuffed horses' heads could be in your stocking this year. Suzi Feay travels to Paris and discovers some rather unusual gift ideas

There's a quiet revolution going on in the swanky Place Vendôme, and I can't help feeling that the little gentleman posturing on top of the huge column in the middle would highly approve. "The pillar is made from melted down British guns from the Napoleonic Wars," says my guide apologetically, as I stare up at Napoleon on his perch. "That's OK, I think we've got some of your stuff, too," I reply.

There's a quiet revolution going on in the swanky Place Vendôme, and I can't help feeling that the little gentleman posturing on top of the huge column in the middle would highly approve. "The pillar is made from melted down British guns from the Napoleonic Wars," says my guide apologetically, as I stare up at Napoleon on his perch. "That's OK, I think we've got some of your stuff, too," I reply.

Fascinating as Napoleonic (and Revolutionary, and medieval) Paris is, I'm not here for a history lesson. I'm going to take a peek at something that sounds as though it's come straight out of the Thousand and One Nights: the cave du diamant, or diamond cellar, of the French jewellery firm Mauboussin. I envisage wading through knee-high piles of scattered gems, perhaps with a few of them falling into my boots as I go. The reality is bound to be a little disappointing: the cave is a serious sales tool rather than an extravaganza of bling.

Mauboussin are little known here but, founded in 1827, they are one of the most august of Parisian jewellers, rubbing shoulders with Chanel in the Place, Paris's most chi-chi address. Until comparatively recently, Mauboussin were every bit as stuffy and old money as their peers. But that's all changed, as Béatrice Rosenthal, Mauboussin's directrice artistique, explains. The shop is airy and modern, with a white leather floor, squishy sofas and splashes of bright colour. Rosenthal herself is funky and fashionable in boots and mini-skirt, showing a flash of toned tummy. Her sales assistants are chic to the max, of course, but completely unintimidating.

The company wants to dispel some of the mystique surrounding diamonds, Rosenthal says, and to persuade people that they can be, if not exactly cheap, at least affordable. To this end, the company began putting prices on its advertising, to general tut-tutting in the industry. This is where the cave comes in: clearly on display are individual stones, without settings, ranging from the wee to the whopping: 0.18 carat (€320) through to 2.01 carat (€32,420). The quality and colour are described, too, though that's rather esoteric - they all look alike to me. Maybe I'm getting a rush of blood to the head, here, but some of these seem rather affordable. What about that 0.30 carat beauty - a snip at €1,000! Or no, wait, how about a whole carat at €9,500? You can buy just the stone, which is presented in a dinky suede pouch inside a tactile, coloured egg. Sometimes, says Rosenthal, a family might like to give a diamond to a son to be made into a ring for his future wife. The lucky girl will then get to choose her own setting. You could walk out with a diamond and never go into the shop again - you don't have to get it set there.

The two-carat is a really glorious stone, but have you got anything bigger, I wonder? "Of course people know they can buy a big diamond here," shrugs Béatrice. "This is the Place Vendôme. You can go into any jewellers here for that. But I will bring you the biggest stone we have at the moment." The security guard stands to attention as she returns with a case. It is a huge, P Diddyesque ring with an oblong yellow diamond of just over five carats. I can't say it's pretty, but it is undeniably powerful.

"Rive Gauche, on pense; Rive Droit, on dépense," as the saying goes. You go to the left bank to think; to the right bank to spend. The rue de la Paix, home of more glitzy shops, is accordingly the most expensive property on the French Monopoly board. In search of a more cerebral shopping experience, I head for the 7th arrondissement.

Deyrolle, in the rue du Bac, looks interesting but not exceptional from the ground floor, being a kind of smart French version of a National Trust shop: sturdy and stylish gardening wear, trugs and so on. (No fudge that I could see.) It's when you get upstairs that the fun begins. As you go up the staircase, you get a better sense of the wonderful building that houses the shop: one of those majestic but now shabby 18th-century mansions: high ceilings, big windows, panelling.

Then you forget all that and just gasp. The horse's head leering over the staircase through a window is the first shock. Then you see that the grand suite of rooms is filled with stuffed animals. There's a warthog trotting in the fireplace. I've written "zebras' tea party" in a shaky hand, so it must be true. There are huskies loping on top of a cabinet. There's a bull over here, and a cow over there. Everywhere you look, beady eyes look back at you, unwinkingly.

"Would you like to see the eyes?" The shop lady obligingly pulls open a drawer full of them, different sizes, wired together in pairs. Deyrolle, founded in 1831, in St-Germain des Prés since 1850, is Paris's premier, perhaps even only taxidermist. Can't bear to lose your adored, deceased Siamese? Deyrolle will stuff it for around €500, "in your favourite position", I am assured. The founder started big by stuffing an elephant. I suppose everything else is easy after that.

In the 19th century, the firm also had a sideline in educational posters: visual guides to birds and animals, of course, but I particularly liked those on the perils of l'alcoolisme. The triumphant French worker, the biggest drinker in Europe, looks rather pleased with himself slumped on his heap of bottles. None of the animals were hunted or killed; they all died of natural causes, même les bébés (those baby zebras are heartbreaking), and come primarily from zoos, circuses and nature reserves. It takes two months to stuff a zebra. You can buy a stuffed animal from Deyrolle (at diamond prices), but more practically the animals are available for hire, and are used in advertising, in films, shop windows, or for parties. They look uncannily realistic, because the taxidermists attempt, we're told, to give each beast "a natural look at the time of death". If that's the case, the magnificent lion seems to have died of surprise. "What on earth ..." he seems to be thinking.

I didn't think I'd manage to eat any lunch after that, but Aux Marches du Palais, round the back of the new modern art "space", the Palais de Tokyo, is a traditional Lyonnais bistro, full of Parisians packing down their statutory three courses. The wine is unceremoniously served in unlabelled bottles with an inch of solid green glass at the base, so that bottles of white never look quite empty.

The main reason for being here is to admire the new allotments right over the road, at the base of the museum's blank back wall. The inpromptu garden is the brainchild of one of the artists, Robert Milin, who was asked to use the space for an art project. Milin wanted to reclaim a green space in the heart of the city, and subvert and soften the museum's rather intimidating bulk with a traditional working-class garden. Around 3,000 Parisians answered his advertisement, whom he whittled down to a handful.

So there it is, surprising and totally charming, just a stone's throw from the Seine: a delicious little eden of vegetables and flowers. One gardener has installed a hen coop. There are boards in each patch showing the names of the gardeners. I particularly liked Mireille's potager fleuri, with its edging made of empty wine bottles rammed upside down into the soil. I'm guessing that Mireille doesn't buy her gardening clothes in Deyrolle.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

The author travelled as a guest of Eurostar (08705-186 186; www.eurostar.com) which offers return fares from London Waterloo to Paris from £59 return.

Where to stay

The Hôtel Concorde Saint-Lazare (00 33 1 40 08 44 44; www.concordestlazare-paris.com), 108 rue Saint Lazare, 75008 Paris. Double rooms start at €360 (£257) per room per night without breakfast.

Further information

French Tourist Board (09068 244123, calls cost 60p per minute; www.franceguide.com).

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