Inside Jeweller Violette Stehli’s Warehouse Space In Paris
In the 19th Arrondissement of Paris, near the Parc Buttes Chaumont, is a warehouse dating back to the 1920’s. Erected after the government filled the quarries that carved the earth beneath it in an effort to get rid of the squatters living in its caverns, it was built by Violette Stehli’s great-grandfather, an inventor who required a factory. Now, almost a hundred years later, it is from this warehouse that Violette dreams and creates her namesake jewellery line and lives with her boyfriend Antony and her two cats, Buster and Charlie.
The fact that the space sits above an old quarry, feels fitting, as Violette’s work explores and uses the often, forgotten jewels that nature discards. She molds shells, bits of coral, skeletons, skulls, seeds and claws into her talismanic pieces. It’s as if all the treasures often found buried in and on the earth find expression through Violette’s hands above it.
The warehouse is filled with her wild collection of plants and found artefacts, family heirlooms passed down and relics her friends pass onto her. It is a true cabinet of curiosities, Stehli’s very own natural history museum; her treasured objects telling the lives of her, her family and her friends.
Although her jewellery memorialises items of our past, they’re actually amulets for our future, reliquaries to awaken us to the fact that some species may not be here even a few years from now. Whether they are tokens from the natural world, tokens from our pets, or tokens from our own bodies reminding us of our transience, Violette takes nature’s perfect forms and turns them into adornment, something we have always done, but somehow in our current times have forgotten to appreciate. By petrifying them in gold and silver, Violette reminds us just how precious the ecosystem we exist within is, and she imbues her pieces with a power that shows how our interrelationship with nature is more orphic than we know.
“My great-grandfather built this warehouse in the 1920’s. Because of regulations that have to do with jewellery, I had to have a commercial space to work and my grandmother said, “You should put your office here.” Now they’ve changed [the law] so you can justify having your studio in a residential space, but there’s a Department of Customs and Regulations that oversees everything that has to do with precious metals. They need to be able to come and inspect where you work, and they’re technically not allowed to inspect a place where you live. It’s one of those French Napoleonic laws from a long time ago. When we moved in here it was empty which is why we’ve added lots of plants to fill up the space, and most of the furniture just comes from the streets outside.”
“I went to the University of Sydney and I studied at the Sydney College of the Arts, where I did a major in Experimental Film. They had jewellery classes as well, which I took but I’ve always hesitated between the two because I’ve always loved film. When I was a kid, my grandmother on my mum’s side had really beautiful jewellery. (When you talk to jewellers, they always talk about their grandmother’s jewellery.) My grandfather on my mum’s side spent four years as a prisoner of war in World War II, and he met his best friend there who was a jeweller. Because my grandfather was a dentist, he would give his friend gold, and so this jeweller would make jewellery for my grandmother, these amazing one-off pieces. I was always really interested in that, so when I was going to go to university, I tossed a coin between jewellery and film.”
“I really enjoyed doing film, but I also realised that I really don’t like working with people. I don’t like teamwork, it’s stressful [for me]. I have the personality of a Labrador retriever, I’m a people pleaser, so when you work in a team it’s hard to express your ideas when you’re trying to please everyone.”
“I started making jewellery to incorporate into my films, strange little pieces. I lent one to a friend who was doing a photoshoot; I made a piece of jewellery you wear in your mouth that is like a bird beak, and the idea was that you could communicate with birds in an imaginary way. Then, when I moved back to Paris, I wanted to keep making jewellery, but I wanted to make things that were more wearable. I started doing that in 2013. I made the first collection and by luck it got accepted by a high-end clothing and jewellery store in Paris called L’Eclaireur.”
I started making jewellery to incorporate into my films, strange little pieces.
“Then I realised I didn’t have as many technical skills as I wanted, because I had all these ideas, and I couldn’t really implement them. I stopped making jewellery for a while and instead I created video content for clients. At the same time, I started taking classes at École Boulle, which is a trade school that’s really famous for its métiers d’art. Having that second form of instruction for jewellery, helped me to really be able to make my ideas come into fruition.
I use the lost wax casting method; you make a mold of something; you can either sculpt something out of wax and make a mold out of that, otherwise you can mold a pre-existing piece like a shell or string or bones.
I really like the idea of jewellery as heirlooms so the pieces that I wear the most are the pieces that are passed down to me. But then it does me a disservice because people see my jewellery and they say, “Oh, are you wearing your work?” and I say “No” so I have to force myself to wear what I make. I love what I make but I think it’s nicer when other people have it and it’s their thing. When I make it for myself, it has less meaning for me.”
“Most of my pieces have interesting stories, and I have the same core themes that go through my work. Recently I found a necklace I made when I was six; gumnuts from a Eucalyptus tree and an abalone shell collected from a beach and park from near where I grew up in San Francisco. So, I took the necklace and I cast all the individual pieces from it, and I remade it in metal. What I think is interesting is that people don’t really change, or at least I haven’t. When I was a kid, I had exactly the same centres of interest as I have now; nothing has really changed. It’s just that now I can make jewellery out of precious metal.
My work is all about how we can explore and enhance our relationship to the natural world as humans, and at the moment we’re really severed from our ecosystems. Some people are not going to notice gumnuts or a seashell at the beach, it’s not very interesting, but suddenly when it’s made out of something precious like silver or gold, it becomes more precious to people when maybe it should be the other way around.”
My work is all about how we can explore and enhance our relationship to the natural world as humans.
“You can’t really improve on the forms that nature makes. There’s a whole other part to my work that is more about jewellery with stones. Often with jewellery, because it’s a really old tradition, you have pre-existing shapes and you’re not inventing anything new. For example, with a signet ring, you can put your own twist on it, you can personalise it, but it’s not really your idea. But when you look at shapes within nature, they’re really superior. There’s things that are really delicate, but that are really strong, like coral.
I’ve always collected from nature. I don’t know why I started casting them. I think it was because I wasn’t very good at building things with my hands from and it was interesting for me to be able to make jewellery from a pre-existing thing. I like the shamanic traditions of body ornamentation because there’s this idea of appropriating the strength of the thing that you’re wearing. There’s an idea that people would wear [tokens from plants or animals] as cures, or mythologies associated with different objects, parts of nature, or stones.”
“When you look at the history of precious stones in general, you have some really weird ideas. There’s this stone that I like called Chrysoprase. It comes from ‘Chrysos’ and ‘Prason’ and it means ‘golden leek’, but the Romans used to think that when you wear it, it gave you invisibility, which seems like an easy theory to disprove. There’s all these little stories that have been attached to gemstones.”
“I like it when a work has a strong concept behind it, so when you look at the history of whatever you’re working on, there’s always something related to it and you can build with that. It’s also a way of connecting with people really far in the past as well, which for me is an important dimension to my work. When I talk about my work it can sound a bit gothic or morbid but when you see it in reality, it’s not really. But I think it’s always interesting to look at burial traditions and everything that has to do with visible world and the invisible world, the Egyptians had heaps of traditions about that and Native American cultures also have a lot of rituals of communing with animals to be able to reach their different planes of consciousness, so I think it’s a reoccurring theme everywhere.”
“Natural matter disintegrates, but when you turn it into metal, you turn it into something more permanent. I think I’ve always been interested in Victorian mourning jewellery and Memento Mori. But now at this juncture, it’s more interesting to think about [my jewellery] this way because the pieces turn into these future reliquaries for nature that is disappearing or may not be there at some point. I think it really ties into this idea of mourning jewellery but in a different way.”
“I found this necklace, from my father’s side of the family. These are the dog tags that my great-grandfather, wore during the war. For a really long time I was wondering what these [joined doll-like] figures were. Recently, my mum sent me an article about it. Before the first world war, because Germany has always had a really big toy industry, there was a French toy maker who was really annoyed that here in France we were all playing with German toys. So, he made these little French dolls that he named after his and his wife’s nicknames; Nenette and Rintin. During the war, people started making [the dolls] themselves, and they became a little talisman during World War I. You had to have two of them, and they had to be connected, for protection, but you couldn’t buy them, someone had to make them for you, otherwise they wouldn’t be imbued with luck.”
“Over time I’ve amassed this collection of skulls, coral, teeth, skeletons, gems and shells. People bring me things too; they find something and then they give it to me, or they give it to me so that I can make jewellery out of it for them. Recently a friend brought me her dog Goya's baby teeth, and then we made a medallion of it. This is a friend of a friend whose family is Swedish, and they hunt moose or elk once a year and this is an elk tooth. I have lots of teeth, because my friend’s kids prefer me over the tooth fairy. One of my cats had a teeth operation so these are the teeth from my cat, they’re very unhealthy teeth which is why they had to be removed. This is my boyfriend’s tooth, he had a tooth operation, and this is the tooth that came out, it’s huge. One of his baby teeth never fell out, so his adult tooth started going up onto the palate. They had to break the roof of his mouth to get it out. Things take a really long time to make, I’ve had his tooth on my desk for two years and eventually it’s going to become something. It takes a while to come.”