When I was growing up in my mother’s antiques shop, she always used the term “shocking pink” to describe a particularly vibrant hue she loved. I didn’t realize until much later that the term originated with fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli. This happened when I started foraging for vintage accessories and took notice of Shocking de Schiaparelli perfume bottles and hatboxes covered in vivid pink.
With so many great collectibles produced bearing the Schiaparelli brand, I couldn’t help but learn more about them. My study and admiration of Schiaparelli’s work is mainly focused on her body of jewelry designs these days. But before we delve into those specifics, I’ll share a little on the background of this creative woman’s work and numerous collaborations.
Elsa Schiaparelli trained with French couturier Paul Pioret before beginning her work as a freelance fashion designer in the mid-1920s. By 1927, she was running her own Parisian design house. Her business grew into a very successful entity during the 1930s. In fact, she was a rival of Coco Chanel who was also taking Paris by storm during this period.
While Chanel’s fashion designs were more classically chic, many of Schiaparelli’s were designed to draw attention. With bright swathes of color and eye-catching motifs – including dresses featuring bold musical notes and hats shaped like shoes – her designs were favored by many notables. Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, was photographed for Vogue magazine in 1937 wearing Schiaparelli’s famed lobster dress which was a collaboration with Salvador Dali. Other stars like Gretta Garbo and Vivien Leigh were also fans of her fashions among many other celebrities and socialites.
Schiaparelli’s collaborations didn’t stop with dresses, however. She worked with others to design exclusive jewelry as well. Among these pieces, which are usually unmarked and considered hard to find by collectors, is the “Aspirin” necklace collaboration with writer Elsa Triolet. Noteworthy jewelry designers employed by Schiaparelli in the early years were Lina Baretti and Jean Clement. She also worked with Jean Schlumberger who later conceived breathtaking jewels for Tiffany & Co. and the famed parurier Roger Jean-Pierre who designed for Dior and Balenciaga among others.
Schiaparelli’s fashion house ceased operation in 1954 but she continued to allow her name to be used on licensed products including jewelry. The first licensed jewelry first pieces, which are seldomly found today, were marked in lowercase block lettering. The mark changed to the more familiar script lettering in 1949. Eventually the Schiaparelli moniker appeared on everything from perfume in torso-shaped bottles – one of the brand’s signature motifs – to stockings, scarves, and gloves, many of which were marketed in prominently branded shocking pink boxes.
Before she died in 1973, Schiaparelli sold the remainder of her business. Italian entrepreneur Diego Della Valle then acquired the archives and rights to the name in 2006. The Schiaparelli design house was then resurrected in 2012. Many current celebrities like Lady Gaga, Adele, and Beyoncé have worn Schiaparelli clothing and jewelry designs over the past few years bringing new awareness to the brand. The quirky history of this fashion house is significantly reflected in these new designs.
More on the Jewelry
Early Schiaparelli jewelry is desirable and hard to come by today. Some of these pieces, such as those from the “Pagan” and “Circus” collections, coordinate with clothing lines from the 1930s and the majority are unmarked. Pagan pieces incorporate representations of insects, leaves, pinecones, and other natural elements while Circus designs focus on animals and performers. Many of these pieces are held in museums today or in the collections of Schiaparelli’s most devoted fans. Andy Warhol’s muse BillyBoy*, who wrote Frocking Life: Searching for Elsa Schiaparelli with his husband Jean Pierre Lestrade, falls into that category.
Most of the licensed Schiaparelli jewelry pieces collectors run across now were purchased by fashionable consumers from 1949 through the 1950s. They tend to be bold designs like wide bracelets and eye-catching earrings, along with coordinating necklaces. Unlike the earlier couture jewelry, these examples were mass-produced. They were made in lower quantities in comparison to other brands of jewelry produced during the same timeframe though, so they’re still not extremely plentiful today. Many of these Mid-Century pieces are marked with Schiaparelli in script lettering but there are some exceptions.
Most Schiaparelli earrings from the 1950s are marked on the clip backs. Many matching brooches, necklaces, and bracelets from this period are unsigned, however. The unmarked pieces are attributed by the style, materials used in the construction, and the craftsmanship which can be quite distinctive. Buyer beware, however. Many unmarked pieces that are not related to Schiaparelli are misidentified in the secondary marketplace.
When identifying Schiaparelli jewelry, one additional thing to look for is the use of out of the ordinary stones. For instance, some pieces contain stones nicknamed “lava rocks” in reference to their chunky, irregular appearance. “Watermelon” stones, a collector’s nickname for Vitrail Medium II stones sold by Swarovski, were also featured in several designs. Other stones made of molded glass are shaped like leaves, textured, or unusually faceted. Various leaf motifs were incorporated into the metalwork of several lines as well.
Some vintage Schiaparelli jewelry pieces have been found with torso-shaped hangtags reading “Designed in Paris … Created in America.” Research by jewelry historians to date points to Ralph DeRosa’s company making these but D. Lisner & Co. was also reportedly an authorized distributor for Schiaparelli
in the United States. As technology allows for more thorough research opportunities, historians studying Schiaparelli jewelry may have new information to augment these assessments in the coming months and years.
Now that the brand has been revived, the current owner of the Schiaparelli name has registered three additional trademarks as well: Schiap, Shocking, and elsa ES. Many of the jewelry pieces currently being made are reminiscent of the Surrealist collaborations Elsa Schiaparelli cultivated during the 1930s.
While there are no books dedicated solely to her jewelry at this time, European Designer Jewelry by Ginger Moro is one that offers a good selection of Schiaparelli pieces to peruse. This title has been around for decades but is still available through Schiffer Publishing and covers all the major Parisian fashion houses along with jewelry from other European countries.
Also recommended is Elsa Schiaparelli: Empress of Paris Fashion by Palmer White. Although it covers her clothing designs more so than jewelry and is now out of print, this title is worth tracking down a used copy.
Many newer books have been published detailing the life of this imaginative designer as well. This includes the highly rated Shocking Life: The Autobiography of Elsa Schiaparelli by V&A Publishing, the publishing division of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London where some of Schiaparelli’s early jewelry designs reside.
On July 4, there was an opening ceremony for the exhibition, "Shocking! The surreal world of Elsa Schiaparelli," a collaboration between The House of Schiaparelli and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.