Jean Després (1889 -1980) was a French designer who was a member of the Union des Artistes Moodernes, a 1930s group of avant garde artists who believed that art in its purest form should be inspired by the mechanical age and the rhythms of modern life. While other artist-jewelers like Templier, Sandoz, and Fouquet also created works based on these principles, Després is the one who took them most literally and employed them extensively during his career.
Jean Eugene Gilbert Després was born in Avallon, a small town in Burgundy. In 1890, his parents opened a small shop selling jewelry and gifts after his father left his job in a glassworks company. By 1898, the shop had moved to 20, Place Vauban, Avallon, the address where the famous Maison Despres would later be established
In his early teens, Després moved to Paris where he apprenticed with his father’s friend, a silversmith who had a jewelry and metal workshop. In his off-hours Després took design and drawing classes in Parisian art schools. There he met and became friends with some of the most renowned avant garde artists of the 20th Century who had yet to become famous.
These included Modigliani, Soutine, DeChirico, Signac, and most important, Georges Braque, who, with Picasso was the founder of Cubism. Després and Braque became great friends. Each of these aspiring artists would also prove to be great influencers of Després’ work.
Upon the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914, Jean joined the French infantry forces. While first a cyclist because of abilities with a bike, he soon became a draftsman for the Air Force because of his drawing skills. This exposure to mechanics greatly influenced his later creations.
In 1920, after the war Després returned home with a newfound appreciation for design that incorporated machinery aesthetics. He set up a workshop at the back of his house and began creating silver jewelry because it was affordable and currently in fashion.
By 1924, he had taken over the family business and had initiated his career in design. His innovative use of materials was inspired by his artist friends in Paris. He did not have much interest in precious stones and used enamel or hardstone for color. When he did use gold, he used it sparingly and mostly for contrast.
He realized early on that he would need to make a name for himself in Paris because his home was in the provinces. In 1925, he exhibited at the Paris Universal Exhibition. His jewelry concepts were so striking that the Salon d’Automne deemed them too modern and refused to show his work.
He soon met the painter and engraver Etienne Cournault, with whom he formed a collaboration that lasted until 1934. Together they made Bijoux Glaces, a range of jewelry with small mirrored squares that Cournault designed and made and were then set by Després.
Després later also collaborated with other artists to create bijoux-céramique a style that incorporated miniature paintings on ceramic plaques.
Després used geometric motifs in his designs and went on to create a range of tableware and decorative objects in gold, silver and pewter. Their bold, industrial looks were very modern, yet always graceful and refined. Després is one of the artists credited with reviving the art of silver tableware during the 1920s and 30s.
Soon recognized for his unique Bijoux Moteurs or engine jewelry, it becomes a virtual trademark for his style. The loss of his father and his mother’s illness focuses Després’ attention on his work and causes a stir in the jewelry word because of his unusual designs.
In 1936, Després organized his own exhibition, La Femme et l’Art Moderne: The Woman and Modern Art and meets the artist Simone Delattre whom he marries in 1937. So rapid is Després’ artistic ascension that he is awarded the title, Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur.
He developed a reputation among his peers as an exceptional innovator in design and jewelry with his creation’s bold industrial configurations reflected in gold, silver, and enamel. His creations, streamlined, clean, while juxtaposing actual machine parts with precious metals resulted in works that employed cylinders, verticals, cubes, and squares translated into hammered sterling silver rings of unprecedented style.
Després continued his work throughout World War II and participated in many exhibitions. In 1958, he won a gold medal at the Brussels World’s Fair. He was chosen, in 1962, to appear in the International Exhibition of Modern Jewellery, 1890-1961 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London alongside Georges and Jean Fouquet and many others.
The same year Després received the Commandeur du Merite Artisanal which was the ultimate recognition of his craftsmanship. Even into his eighties, Després continued to create surprising and innovative jewelry comprised of uncut semi-precious stones.
When Després died in 1980 on after a long illness, he insisted on the closing of his workshop. He wanted the enterprise which he built to end when he did.
In 2009, Katya Foreman, writing in Women’s Wear Daily, described a Paris jewelry exhibition at Les Arts Décoratifs that transported visitors to the era when planes, trains, and automobiles inspired new dimensions in design. Dubbed “Art Deco and Avant-Garde Jewelry,” the show was promoted as the first dedicated to the niche of jewelry designers who straddled the Art Deco and Modernist periods.
The heart of the show celebrated the striking works of Jean Després and included his iconic “motor jewelry” designs reminiscent of engine parts: from rings resembling nails or cogs to a brooch in the form of a piston rod each of which transformed them into objects of great beauty.
Scarce and greatly desired, Després’ works have become highly collectible. Josephine Baker and Andy Warhol were avid admirers and collectors. Warhol’s collection was sold at Sotheby’s, New York in 1988.
Jean Després was one of the most important Artiste-Bijoutiers. He was also the only jeweler who actually made pieces himself as a “studio jeweler” and giving his work a direct artistic quality. Some of the most dedicated vintage jewelry collectors today seek the Jean Després creations from 20s and 30s with their machine age style that looks very masculine but was well-suited to the Jazz Age and the increasingly strong image of liberated women.
Despres once remarked, “I made rugged, constructed jewelry: the jewelry of a silversmith.”
Després donated a large number of his pieces to galleries in France to illustrate the evolution of his career and to record his success. Today, Després’ modernist and industrial derived pieces are among the most desirable for collectors of vintage jewelry.
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