At an age when most teenagers used posters and stickers to rebel against their bedroom décor, Marie-Hélène de Taillac draped her large bed with coral pink velvet and bracketed it between nightstands piled high with an assortment of crowns and gilded tiaras, multicolored cabochons, strass bracelets and rings set with sparkling stones.
In her mind, it was a scene from “A Thousand and One Nights”, inspired by her constant travels - between a crenelated family château in the Gers, the Queen Zenobia hotel in Palmyra, Syria; the souks of Beirut, Italian villas on the Libyan coast, and wherever work took her father, a gentleman oilman.
At 18, she set off alone for London and within weeks had landed a job as a sales girl, and then a public relations manager, for Butler & Wilson, then one of the most popular shops for costume jewellery and the faux crown jewels the British so adore.
What at first might have seemed like an eccentric passing fancy turned out to have been a revelation, the start of a quest.
More than all those years in school, the hours spent handling jewellery and presenting it to the most eccentric customers in the world allowed Marie-Hélène to hone her eye, and broaden and refine her understanding of stones, settings and the techniques of making.
But her dreams had not yet quite taken shape, and whenever she had a free moment, Marie-Hélène would head for London’s museums, flea markets, outdoor markets and auction houses; not to buy, but to look at pieces and immerse herself in them.
She devoured every book she could find on the great jewellers.
She worked as the managing director of the Dinny Hall brand, as an assistant to the haute couture designer Victor Edelstein, and as the collection director for Philip Treacy, milliner to the Queen. The young Frenchwoman took to Swinging London so well that that she’d practically become English.
Yet, in 1995, she decided to leave it all behind — friends, work, security and a collection of jewellery accumulated since childhood — to set off on an open-ended tour of Asia.
Her itinerary was defined solely by gemstone sources and precious materials: silver bracelets from Bali, pearls from Japan, carved and engraved gold from Thailand, and rubies and sapphires from Burma.
Each leg of the journey offered Marie-Hélène the chance to discard tradition, shed her cultural reflexes.
After months of solitary travel spent in backpackers’ hotels and rundown palaces, Marie-Hélène discovered Jaipur.
Motivated by a desire to bring together the best goldsmiths and artisans from across the Indian continent, Maharadja Jai Singh II singlehandedly created the legendary pink city in the 18th century. Two centuries later, their descendants still preside over very active, flourishing dynasties — particularly jewellers, whose pieces draw sovereigns and celebrities alike.
The capital of Rajasthan has begun to eclipse old Europe for the selection, quality and size of its stones.
Marie-Hélène spent all of her time among the enamel foundries and polishing and setting workshops, meeting merchants who come here from all over the world to sell the rarest of gems. This experience made her realise what is essential: the beauty of the stones, simple volumes and settings that would bring out the very best in them.
The only things that count are colour, depth and light, the elegance of a jewel and the aura emanating from it.
One place drew her in more than all the others: the Gem Palace.
The heir to seven generations of goldsmiths who made the house famous, Munnu Kasliwal strove to distance himself from heavy, traditional shapes while preserving ancient assembly- setting techniques calling for feats of ingenuity and delicacy. For the young designer, this was the ideal place to pursue her quest for simplicity and lightness. In 1996, she created her own brand, which was quickly picked up by a number of prestigious stores.
Then she opened MHT in Tokyo, in Paris and, later, in New York.
Thanks to Marie-Hélène de Taillac, those long-underestimated stones dismissed as “semi-precious” soon attained their rightful price. Her creations revealed their astonishing fire, and hues that vary depending on who wears them. Her designs so disrupted traditional jewellery codes that even the most established houses drew inspiration from them and copies cropped up everywhere. But she didn’t care.
Other designs and stones and places were already calling, and Marie-Hélène de Taillac is guided by only one passion.
A passion for simplicity.
« Genesis of a jewel »
A world of difference lies between jewelry that is produced by machine and handcrafted pieces.
The mere description of the work involved in a piece by Marie-Hélène de Taillac conveys rare know-how that merits more precise explanation.
It’s a long process that begins either with an inspiration – a shape – or with the discovery of a gemstone or a color palette.
After in-depth research – into colors, shapes, cuts – and negotiations, because beautiful stones are expensive and hard to find, each stone, whether precious or fine, becomes the object of careful study by Marie-Hélène and her stonecutters, a small handful of highly respected master craftsmen.
A back-and-forth, sometimes lasting for days, takes place between the designer and her stonecutting workshop in order to draw out the quintessence of the stone, facet by facet.
All gems are faceted one by one.
A miscalculation, a fissure or flaw can decimate any hope of using the stone.
Next, setting and crafting call for traditional techniques: Each stone is mounted in a made-to-measure setting and the gold melted, cut, adapted and chiseled by hand.
Here again, if there is any accident to one of the stones or settings, everything must start over again.
On a piece with dozens of gemstones, if just one is damaged the entire ensemble is thrown into question.
It takes days and weeks to craft such creations, to refine a new gemstone cut and to weave gold. A “Cleopatra” necklace set with pastel sapphires can take more than a year.
Like Haute Couture, jewelry making requires special techniques and successive fittings to arrive at perfection, often with a line so simple and pure it looks like it has always existed.
India is one of the keys to this unique craftsmanship, because that country is one of the last places in the world where artisanal expertise makes it possible to overcome every obstacle, produce every design, and shape a cut, setting and character for every creation.
For the large number of contemporary jewelry brands that have tried, notably, to draw inspiration from Marie-Hélène de Taillac’s originality, the process is often exactly the opposite.
They start with a predetermined prototype, a molded setting, and stones that are all calibrated to that model’s dimensions. Constrained by the norms and requirements of mass production, the stones become identical, standardized duplicates, devoid of soul or fire.
Given this industrial process, comparing that kind of jewelry to creating unique pieces makes little, if any, sense.
Marie-Hélène de Taillac’s unique pieces possess the magic and passion that can only come from the human hand.