After a successful career at Cartier, Coralie de Fontenay (H.95) co-founded Luximpact. The idea? To relaunch legendary jewellery houses with sustainable models where diamonds finally shine for the future of the planet. We met in Paris with the friend of sleeping beauties.
It is a cool, sunny winter morning. On the grey Parisian pavement, the recently renovated liner of the Samaritaine shines. On one side, the Rue de Rivoli is open to cyclists and pedestrians. On the other, under the Pont-Neuf, the Seine flows. The Art Deco façade of the department stores’ reflects the river. Its gold-set windows shine in the light, taking on iridescent hues, like a large axe-cut diamond set in the heart of the capital. It is as if Coralie de Fontenay (H.95) had carefully chosen the place to meet us. The former general manager of Cartier France took a turn in 2019 to live her own entrepreneurial adventure, but she has not left the world of jewellery for all that. She has even returned to it with a new ambition, that of reinventing luxury, while being mindful of its social and environmental impacts. Her challenge? To offer exceptional but ethical and sustainable jewellery, where the use of precious stones no longer rhymes with mining. She has just seen the enthusiastic reception of this new direction in New York. There, Coralie met with investors, some of the best synthetic diamond specialists and jewellery workshops. She also completed a major fund-raising operation and confirmed serious business prospects there. She had just returned the day before, but a week of business travel and a few hours of jet lag were not enough to dampen her spirits.
8h30. Conference under the glass roof
Blonde hair, white jacket, rust-coloured trousers, discreet diamonds in his ears… At 48, his Botticellian face radiates good humour. « At the moment, I have the impression that I am inventing a model that is in tune with my time and respects the future of my children, in short, that makes sense. And that gives me a lot of satisfaction, » she admits with a smile. Her day also begins with recreation, so to speak. If Coralie de Fontenay has summoned us here early in the morning, it is not to go shopping – even if, like any Parisian, she readily admits to a weakness for this historic temple of elegance. It is here that the members of the HEC Alumni Luxury and Creation Club, of which she has been president for three years, are meeting today. On the 5th floor, the guest of the day is waiting for her: Éléonore de Boysson (H.88), President of DFS (Duty Free Shoppers) Europe and Middle East. She designs and operates the sales areas of La Samaritaine, with over 600 brands. Under the glass roof, seated over breakfast, about fifty former students are about to listen to her tell us how business life is never a long, quiet river, even if it is just a stone’s throw from the Seine. With construction delays, administrative blockages, but above all the health crisis, which emptied the capital of foreign customers, the reopening of the department stores’, postponed many times, finally took place in June. While the audience asks questions, their eyes wander to the magnificently restored décor. Under the glass roof, delicate floral interlacing frames a frieze of stylised peacocks on a golden yellow background. Like a jewel box, the interior of the building designed by Ernest Cognacq conceals a masterpiece of Art Nouveau. One could not have dreamt of a better way to enter Coralie’s world. For what has been occupying part of her days for a little over two years is the rebirth of the mythical Maison Vever. Founded in 1821 in Metz, this brand became a pioneer of Art Nouveau at the turn of the 20th century. Using figures of nymphs and floral motifs, precious stones and new materials such as horn, ivory or enamel, the creations of this jeweller were snapped up by the greats of the time. They are also one of the jewels in the collections of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. And although Vever closed its doors in 1982, its jewellery bouquets are still remembered by connoisseurs.
10h. At the showroom, rue de la Paix
It is on her scooter that Coralie now heads for Place Vendôme and Rue de la Paix, the world epicentre of fine jewellery. Vever, like so many others, once had his boutique there. It is here, in the big league, that the brand has decided to reconnect with its history. « This is what it takes to launch a start-up with two hundred years of history, » jokes the businesswoman. On the 7th floor of a beautiful building, she has set up the offices of her small company Luximpact, whose objective is to relaunch historic and legendary French jewellery houses with sustainable models. The space also houses Vever’s showroom. A lift leads to a double door that opens onto an armoured lock. A camera scans the visitor. You have to show your credentials. This is a sign that you are about to enter a world of your own, where the displays contain pieces worth several thousand euros. At the end of a corridor, an elegant living room draped in blue fabric and lined with thick grey carpet opens its bay windows onto Paris. The place is splendid. Perfect for discreetly welcoming demanding clients and stone sellers. In this contemporary boudoir, the team is complete. There is Frédéric de Narp, his partner, a connoisseur of the world of synthetic diamonds and the jewellery market, who has worked for Harry Winston and Cartier. At the end of a table, in front of her sketchbook, pencil in hand, the other key member of the trio, Sandrine de Laage, the artistic director, scribbles a few sketches. She worked for a long time in California before coming back to France to take part in this adventure. And then there is Camille Vever. At 42 years old, she represents with her brother Damien the seventh generation, « the one of the rebirth », says Coralie. The two women met and fell in love with each other at first sight. Camille was working in clinical research but dreamed of relaunching the brand of her forefathers. Coralie was looking for « a project with an extra soul », to which she could bring her experience and skills. « We are complementary », they say, almost in chorus.
10h30. Fitting session
This morning is test day. It’s a question of sifting through the latest creations from the workshops in preparation for the prestigious Paris Biennale, scheduled for November, where Vever has decided to make its big comeback. Camille Vever, president of the jewellery house, places the pieces on a tray. Concentrated silence. On one finger, Coralie slips on a white gold ring. The object is like a precious flower and a ginkgo leaf. Embedded in the middle of a swirl of 279 tiny diamonds, a rarity catches the eye: this fancy blue diamond that occupies the heart of the jewel. Then, around her neck lands a pendant on which a fire nymph swings. Recycled white gold, diamonds and enamel, the combination of materials, as well as the original design and the lightness of the whole, are a technical feat. Coralie gauges the fall in a mirror. Then she delivers her verdict: « It’s very successful, precise, delicate and beautiful. Everything you need for a piece to be pleasing. General relief. That’s one of her strengths, » says Frédéric de Narp, « she has very precise feedback; her eagle eye immediately detects what’s wrong.
12h. New diamond lesson
If diamonds are eternal, they must be durable. To judge quality, professionals focus on the 4Cs, the four criteria corresponding to cut, colour, clarity and carat. A fifth C has been added, C as a must: the climate. No more digging in the bowels of the earth. At Vever, as at Oscar Massin, the second Luximpact-supported heritage house, laboratory stones are used exclusively. « The younger generations, however wealthy, are less and less willing to wear stones that have been mined, » explains Frédéric de Narp. « A real revolution is underway, and we are among the precursors, » adds Coralie. The result is just as good. Our experts are currently checking the brilliants. It’s amazing. What comes out of the laboratories now has the same physical, chemical and optical properties as natural diamond. Same hardness. The same brilliance, thanks to highly complex technologies. The gemologists are also unable to detect any differences.
15h. In search of the forgotten jewels
Another way to respect the planet is to hunt for old gems. In the case of coloured stones, there are tons of them sitting in safes all over the world. Using them instead of drilling for them makes sense. Indeed, 70% of the precious stones in the earth have already been extracted. What remains is to find the rare pearl. The one that will give its unique strength to a creation. This afternoon, Coralie, Frédéric and Sandrine, together with Marie Berthelon, president of the third house supported by Luximpact, are visited by two young women with mysterious looks. They are stone sellers. As a rare privilege, we are allowed to attend the meeting. From their briefcase, they take out a rectangular leather box. The box opens. We are amazed. Along the white silk grooves, fourteen stones are scattered: rubies, sapphires, emeralds… and spinels from Vietnam, also known as harvest stones. There, after the rice harvest, the farmers rake the rice fields in search of these beautiful purple, violet or pink stones. Estimated value of the set? Almost 40,000 euros. Coralie looks at them one by one through the eyepiece, then grabs a stone and places it on her fingers to imagine the result. Her verdict is: « The tone is perfect », « This ruby is overwhelming », « Very beautiful emerald ».
Meanwhile, Sandrine de Laage is already thinking about her creations. Some of her stones would go wonderfully well with this other French jewellery brand that the small team is helping to revive. Its name is still a secret, but the project is already well advanced. As with Vever, » explains Sandrine, « the idea is to revive an old, very prestigious house, to understand its DNA so that we can imagine what it would have offered if it still existed. On the table are twelve notebooks that belonged to the famous brand. They detail the jewels of the past. Drawings found by a miracle in an antique shop. A style book from the past, a source of inspiration. The yellowed pages show watercolour drawings of jewels with many coloured stones. The box corresponds well to expectations and will be left on loan, under lock and key, to allow testing. The only condition for a possible purchase is the provision of documents certifying the age of the jewels, » insists Coralie at the end of the meeting. For us, traceability is essential.
18h. Beauty stopover
After a long afternoon of meetings and videoconferences, Coralie gets back on her scooter. Direction the 11th arrondissement. We find her on rue Keller. She has to meet Lucile Battail, the founder of Laboté, a custom cosmetics brand in which she invested two years ago. « Here, I wear my business angel hat and I insist on the word ‘angel’, » explains the woman who is also a coach at the HEC incubator. In total, I have invested in about ten start-ups. All of them work for a new kind of luxury, and that’s what I like. I feel like I’m giving back a little of what my career and life have given me. While Coralie takes the opportunity to stock up on beauty products formulated for her skin, she is not here just to talk about the pH of the epidermis. The preparation of the next board of directors, the strategic orientations, the results of the small company… There is no shortage of subjects and Lucile, who passed through the HEC incubator, is eager for advice.
10h. Morning in a top secret workshop
The next day, our second day with Coralie led us to a certain Mr. P., we won’t say more about it. A question of security. It is forbidden to reveal his name, his address, his face. In the world of precious stones, one can quickly feel as if one is in the middle of a detective story. The man is one of the best jewellers in the capital. He works for various houses. Going to his lair in the heart of Paris is like entering a building where there is no indication of what is going on. You go upstairs, then once you have pushed open an ordinary flat door, you come across a second door, this time armoured. Here, you have to pass through a security gate. A small office/workshop is located in the centre of the premises and consists of a jar with thick glass. On the table, diamonds being assembled, prototypes and rings waiting to be polished. All around, in the adjoining rooms, several workbenches on which people are bent over and do not look up. The sound of rolling mills, the clicking of fine pliers, the rubbing of files. Here, people are working on objects that are as lilliputian as they are precious. The craftsman works on future Luximpact projects and assembles the high jewellery creations that Vever offers. Like this new piece, a special order that has just required two hundred and fifty hours of work and for which forty hours remain to be completed: this brooch combining diamonds, Akoya pearls and coloured enamels constitutes a summit of art craft and jewellery poetry. It reveals a suspended nymph. The wealthy client who is waiting for this marvel had asked that the jewel be the colour of his wife’s eyes, a beautiful greyish blue… When you love, you don’t count.