It’s 1985. Bernard Delettrez shows a gold ring to a ‘certain’ Karl Lagerfeld, his first jewellery creation, which faithfully reproduces Sydney’s most important monument: showy, opulent, rich. «Do you think I have a future?» Words aren’t necessary to say whether the oracle was right. «I’ve been so lucky in my life, and it’s happened mostly by chance», Bernard Delettrez tells me in his Rome workshop one hot August morning. A life littered with chance meetings, the first in Los Angeles with the owner of several diamond mines, which took him to Brazil to follow the activity in the field. «I didn’t like it there; it was like working at an oil plant. But in Brazil I fell in love with emeralds, and began to appreciate their value and intensity. Then came Italy, marriage, children and Karl [Lagerfeld]. I invented a job for myself, as the designer of jewellery to be exact, but in the end I was nothin« more than a trader, and I no longer liked that aspect of my work. So I abandoned everything and took a 10-year holiday, travelling around the world on a sailing boat a good three times».
In the style of Forrest Gump, Delettrez woke up one morning on the Indian Ocean and decided to return home to make jewellery. He began again quietly, working in fine jewellery but modestly, discreetly, in a completely different manner from that in the past. He designed jewellery for his daughter Delfina, which launched in 2006, but in 2010 decided to reclaim his brand and dedicated himself to two lines of fine and fashion jewellery. His distinctive touch was an immediate hit; from these pieces of dark, dreamlike, almost Gothic jewellery, Les Fleurs du Mal emerged. Whether in gold or silver and bronze, with diamonds, sapphires or enamel, Bernard Delettrez is the master of coherent style, of identity and the value of ideas – regardless of how precious the metal or stone may be.
«There’s never merely one idea in my collections but at least three. The skulls, snakes, omnipresent wildlife, insects and (possibly carnivorous) flowers. I like the dark side of flowers and the perfection of animals, which are my starting point and, often, also my point of arrival». How do fine and fashion jewellery coexist? «First of all we need to distinguish fashion from costume jewellery. The first is made by hand and is the fruit of hours of labour, of an idea. The second is a mere assemblage of rhinestones, produced in a factory. My fine and fashion collections coexist beautifully, because there’s always an idea. It’s only a question of materials. I indulge myself with precious stones and I love going against the trend. I tried to ‘impose’ tanzanite 30 years ago but without success. Today it’s fashionable but I’m no longer interested; I prefer fluorite, morganite, lassonite. I look for stones that others don’t use; this way I’m happy».
Why the skulls? Aren’t they a little too ‘accepted’ today? «I’m a great admirer of Codognato. He’s unbeatable but, to be honest, he’s left a lasting impression on me. Unfortunately, over the past 10 years fashion has rendered skulls mediocre. I don’t question the quality but the vague way in which this subject is dealt with. The skull is, in fact, extremely serious. It’s such a sacred world that it can’t be handled superficially. It calls for rigour and new materials; ones that have never been used before. I continue to use skulls because, in order to revolutionise the design, I want to keep the traditions alive and offer them in my own way. If the scarab has been the subject of jewellery for more than 5000 years then there will be a reason for it. I’m one of the biggest collectors of skulls; I have more than a hundred. I produce three pieces and always keep one for myself. I’m very proud of and attached to this collection, which represents the least commercial part of my work».
How do you see retail channels? «I love small boutiques on the street, even multi-brand ones. The contact with clients, that sense of human touch that describes and explains a piece of jewellery to you. The clients want to know; they ask for answers. Obviously there are also department stores, which we are obliged to sell to, such as the e-commerce platforms that represent an incredible sales tool, thanks to the frightening speed of the internet».
Bernard Delettrez represents the history and evolution of contemporary jewellery over the past 30 years. «Jewellery today is indispensable. Before, fashion was defined by ready-to-wear. Now you can make the difference by wearing an oversized bangle with t-shirt and jeans. If you want to stand out from the crowd then you need to impress. And you can do it with a jewel alone. The enormous variety of hues found in a piece of stone, the possible combinations these offer, the evolution in work methods that has brought the role of design to the fore – these have greatly revolutionised the approach to the jewel world».
Bernard Delettrez speaks with a passion difficult to convey. He loves to do that which isn’t done, and in doing so floors us. His next collection, WWW – What a Wonderful World, focused upon hearts, arrows, stars and, obviously, skulls – will be one such example. Upcoming projects? A small shop on the street. Chosen location? It goes without saying: Rome.
Text by Federica Frosini
September 2nd, 2014