Obituary: Line Vautrin

Patrick Maurles
Monday 21 April 1997 00:02 BST

Line Vautrin's ravishing costume jewels and sculpted objets are the epitome of Parisian Neo-Romantic chic.

Made largely in the Forties and Fifties, of resins, glass and bronze, Vautrin's creations do not belong to any of the traditional genres of jewellery, even of "costume jewellery". They are little miracles of inventiveness, of subtle skill and endless experimentation; delight in materials allied to a love of the primitive, of repeated motifs, patterns and elements recalling ancient inscribed tablets, hieroglyphics and pictographs.

Born in 1913 into a family of metal founders, even as a small child Line was fascinated by her father's business. She never received a formal art education, but by the time she was 14 had mastered some of the skills of casting, chasing and gilding. At 15 she hit upon the idea, then quite novel, of making artistic costume jewellery in gilt metal. Almost straightaway she began to sell pieces, sending out her bills under her father's letterhead because she was legally still too young to be in business.

Her only working experience was four days at the house of Schiaparelli and a few weeks as a representative for a firm of industrial photographers, after which she decided to be her own boss. She started off with a few simple bracelets - "like big napkin rings". As she wrote: "I put a few pieces together in a little suitcase, and set out with some trepidation as a door-to-door saleswomen in Paris . . . I was not yet 21."

She devoted herself to experimentation, alone in a little room, trying out different materials (which already included resins), but with her heart set on gilt bronze - something hitherto unheard of, and considered provocative, in bad taste.

The turning-point came when she hired a stand at the Paris International Exposition of 1937, and attracted a sufficient clientele to be able to open a shop in the Rue de Berri so tiny she called it "the cupboard".

Wartime, with its longing for fantasy and ornament, ensured her breakthrough, and her gilt buttons made her name. Ahead of her lay two decades of frenzied activity, of ceaseless invention, of relish for "frivolity" in all its forms - from house slippers to umbrella handles, from powder compacts to necklaces. She became the "poet of metal".

In 1943 she opened an exquisite small boutique on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, near the Elysee Palace; her buttons filled her windows. Over the entrance stood a statue of St Eligius, the patron saint of goldsmiths. The same year she opened a theatrical atelier in the Marais where her objects were actually created. The former Hotel Megret de Serilly was a vast 26-room building in the Rue Vieille du Temple which had formerly belonged to Louis XVI's Paymaster-General.

Vautrin was a pioneer in the rediscovery of the Marais (later to be restored at the instigation of Andre Malraux). Her workshop was hailed as a model social enterprise: its staff of 50 or so employees was provided with common rooms for relaxation, a library and a refectory on the top floor, as well as the novel possibility of working part-time from home, free from the constraints of the workshop.

These years in the Fifties were perhaps Vautrin's most productive. In addition to buttons, brooches and buckles she also produced big, barbaric necklaces influenced by her research into ancient goldsmiths' work in the archaeological museums of Cairo and on the island of Crete. With time, her artistic pretensions grew. Many of her more serious, larger pieces bore inscriptions such as lines from her favourite poets, Dante or Prevert and the neo-romantics. Important jewels and her popular powder compacts and boxes were given complex mythological symbols or one of those visual riddles called a rebus, so beloved of medieval craftsmen. Like works of art, she gave her pieces titles.

She conceived the idea of buttons made of blown glass containing tiny ships, buttons serving as scent bottles; since there was little mother- of-pearl or synthetic ivory to be had in 1946, why not buttons made of ceramic? She produced hundreds of clips, brooches, bracelets and boxes - among them brooches called Petit Poucet ("Tom Thumb"), Oiseau volant ("Bird in Flight"); boxes entitled Empreintes digitales ("Fingerprints"), and Ammonite.

In the early 1960s higher rents and restlessness led Vautrin to leave the Marais. She threw herself into the new technique she had patented, based on synthetic resin, which was then encrusted with little pieces of couloured mirror-glass. She set up on the Rue de l'Universite where she stayed for several years, also opening a branch in Morocco. She had became increasingly interested in decoration and began to make convex looking-glasses with elaborate faceted and encrusted frames. She called these confections her "witches". One of the first to buy a "witch" was her friend Francoise Sagan. Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner soon followed and - the fashionable seal of approval - Brigitte Bardot.

After she turned 50 she became fed up with the business and its pressing obligations, so gave up manufacturing and selling and turned instead to teaching, spending the next decade showing a succession of students how to handle and design with resins, and travelling around France as the spirit moved her. In 1980 she accidentally discovered a new kind of object - "pellimorphoses" - almost intangible wraiths of coloured resin in which there swarmed a host of chimeras, dragons or birds.

The sale of her jewellery at the Hotel Drouot in Paris in 1986, led to her discovery by the London art dealer David Gill, who began to show her work in London, New York, Tokyo (with Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons) and other places outside France, while Naila de Montbrisson gave exhibitions in in Paris. Two books about her work, Line Vautrin (Thames & Hudson, 1992) and Rebus (Le Promeneur, 1994) followed.

Line Vautrin herself was small, dark, sharp, lively and witty - the incarnation of the ideal Parisienne for whom her creations were designed.

Patrick Mauries

Line Vautrin, jewellery maker and decorative artist: born Paris 28 April 1913; married Jacques- Armand Bonnaud (marriage dissolved; one daughter); died Paris 12 April 1997.

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