Every day, in the small, quiet Tyrolean village of Wattens, near Innsbruck, Austria, enveloped in picture-perfect mountain scenery, Swarovski, the family-owned and -run company produces the scintillating cut-crystal stones that have illuminated fashion and jewellery for 125 years.
Once a secretive, elusive industry-insider supplier, Swarovski is now world-famous for its fantastical, treasure-like array of dreamy crystals, of every colour, shape, cut and special effect imaginable and many beyond imagination. It is a glittering reputation built on a rich heritage of ingenuity, innovation and artistry, and on the creative collaborations that have given us today’s most sought-after, collectible couture and fashion jewels.
The company was founded in 1895 by Daniel Swarovski I, a scientist, engineer and visionary, from Bohemia, who, having visited the Electrical Exhibition in Vienna in 1883, invented the first machine for cutting and polishing crystal stones. Previously, these crystal gems had been painstakingly fashioned by hand, mainly by outworkers and farmworkers in villages around Gablonz, (Jablonec, in today’s Czech Republic), the manufacturing centre for fashion accessories and costume jewellery.
Daniel Swarovski’s invention not only revolutionised the fashion jewellery industry but also brought glamour, luxury and style within everyday reach of women around the world. At a time when society, and especially women’s roles, were on the brink of radical change, Swarovski democratised luxury and illuminated the worlds of both fashion and jewellery. A vital part of Daniel Swarovski’s vision was to enable and empower women of all classes and means to express their personal style through jewellery and to bring their dreams to life.
‘At a time when society, and especially women’s roles, were on the brink of radical change, Swarovski democratised luxury and illuminated the worlds of both fashion and jewellery.’
Daniel Swarovski decided to move his invention and his small factory from his native Bohemia to the tiny village of Wattens, in the Tyrolean mountains, mostly to access the water-power needed to drive his machines, but also to keep his pioneering invention away from prying eyes. Wattens also offered a direct rail route to Paris, which was to prove a vital step in developing his embryonic business.
The first Swarovski machine-cut and polished crystal stones, the classic “chatons”, were exceptionally brilliant, immaculately faceted and consistent in size and quality. Known as pierres taillées du Tyrol, the crystal stones proved an immediate and huge success, much in demand across Europe and even America by manufacturers of fashion jewellery, accessories, shoe buckles and haircombs.
Throughout the 20th century, the business went from strength to strength, in perfect synergy with the growth of the couture industry, sparked by Charles Frederick Worth, and accelerated and elevated into an art form by Paul Poiret, and names such as Lelong, Vionnet, Lanvin, and of course Chanel and Schiaparelli. All of whom, most notably Gabrielle Chanel, boosted the creativity and popularity of fashion jewellery, transforming it from imitative to innovative, exploring the fantasy and freedom of the genre, and nurturing a thriving international costume jewellery industry, with Swarovski at its very heart. It was Chanel, in her parody of the great, valuable Belle Epoque jewels, who made unashamedly fake costume jewellery the height of elegance, the perfect counterpoint to the streamlined, masculine simplicity of her clothes.
Daniel Swarovski I was joined in the business by his three sons, and gradually the company became more self-sufficient, in terms of producing the raw materials for the crystal and creating their own colours, using their own ingredients to expand the colour range, and all the time refining the quality and brilliance of the crystal, and perfecting their secret high-tech process of precision-cutting.
In a spirit of mutually creative collaboration, Swarovski worked hand in hand with couturiers, jewellery designers and with the leading Parisian artisanal ateliers, including Maison Gripoix, Francis Winter, Roger Jean-Pierre and later with the celebrated Robert Goossens, who from the mid-1950s crafted Chanel’s rich Byzantine-flavoured couture jewels.
But Swarovski’s most famous and influential collaboration was with Christian Dior, for whom the company created the celebrated Aurora Borealis stone, the clear crystal shot through with flashes of vibrant colours, just like the Northern Lights. When Christian Dior launched his revolutionary New Look in 1947, with its Belle Epoque-inspired hourglass silhouette, and a new vision of post-war femininity, he ushered in a Golden Age of Couture, and with it a golden era of fashion jewellery.
Accessories were crucial to Dior’s vision; a total look for every outfit, down to the last details of perfume and jewellery. Dior had previously bought fashion jewellery from Paris ateliers, but, controversially, in 1955 he signed a licensing agreement with the German manufacturer Henkel & Grosse. Together with Francis Winter in Paris, who made prototypes and models, Dior and Henkel & Grosse instigated a signature style of ravishingly refined, ultra-chic, superbly crafted fashion jewellery. Dior wanted a look that recalled French 18th-century grandeur, that evoked the romance and noble splendour of Versailles, and, it seems, he was particularly inspired by the light, shadows and secrets of the mirrors in the Galerie des Glaces. The Grosse brothers of Henkel & Grosse made regular visits to Swarovski in Wattens, and in 1956, Manfred Swarovski, grandson of the founder, began working personally with Christian Dior and his team to produce a new, distinctive crystal stone to express the couturier’s creative vision. After a great deal of research and many experiments, Swarovski’s artisans came up with the idea of borrowing a technique from the company’s optics department. By coating the lower facets of stones with a micro-thin layer of vaporised blue metal, the crystal exploded with iridescent, rainbow glints of light and colour.
Christian Dior first used the “AB” stone in his 1956 collection, which featured chokers, flower sprays, and flower earrings, with the stones in rich gilt settings. Dior had exclusivity to the stone for a limited time, after which the Aurora Borealis became a massive worldwide success, an absolute fashion mania, through the ’50s and ’60s, used by designers and manufacturers in Europe and America.
Swarovski worked closely, too, with the great American costume jewellery manufacturers, including Trifari, Coro, Mazer and Marcel Boucher during the boom years for the industry in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.
Stimulated by these collaborations and by the seemingly endless creativity offered by fashion and fantasy jewellery, Swarovski continued to innovate, technically and artistically, producing different colours, cuts and finishes, a bottomless treasure trove overflowing with crystals, still bringing creative – and contemporary – visions to life more than 125 years on.
BANNER IMAGERY: Shutterstock