By Rachel Garrahan in New York
"It's a very dangerous world we live in. Endless polls ask people what they want and then you deliver a bland result. There is no surprise. At Taffin people will see something they don't expect," says James Taffin de Givenchy as he walks me through the chic new headquarters of his eponymous collection of colorful, uniquely inventive jewelry.
"We are like couture used to be. 80% of our pieces are custom-made, and we work closely with our clients, which opens up wonderful possibilities," he adds.
With open terraces on three sides, the light-filled, by-appointment-only salon combines dark wood and James' signature sienna orange. It provides both an escape from the busy Manhattan streets and a place of wonder to discover his eclectic jewels, which are all made in his production atelier in the same building.
The Franco-American designer is the nephew of French couturier Hubert de Givenchy, and he credits his uncle with inspiring his approach to jewelry design. It was early in his career, when James was working for Christie's jewelry department in New York, that he invited Hubert to view the most elaborate jewels on display.
His uncle was not drawn to the outsized baubles. Instead, he selected a beautiful leaf pin by Fulco di Verdura. "This is what jewelry is," said Hubert of the unique, colorful piece. "It helped me appreciate the artistry of jewelry," says James, whose work has married the two worlds ever since.
He later worked at Verdura before launching his own business in 1996, and has always focused on one-of-a-kind jewels. His buyers are passionate jewelry collectors who want something that no one else has. "I try to do something that is more art, an original piece from beginning to end, but with our fingerprint and our DNA. That's what makes us unique," he says.
He is also driven by a passion to play with new designs, processes, materials and color combinations that are unexpected in high jewelry. "It's important to always experiment with something new, to surprise myself. I relish the challenge of creating unusual pieces," he explains.
For the past year he has been working with a new application for ceramic. In one ring, a perfect orb of flesh-pink Melo melo pearl richly contrasts with red ceramic and the designer's beloved rose gold. Red ceramic also provides a dramatic backdrop to the bold pink of large oval kunzite earrings.
There is a touch of whimsy in much of his jewelry. The Passage to India ring centers on a bold emerald bead, which is set in an Eastern-inspired gold shank of emeralds and rubies.
When the designer uses diamonds, he likes to use unusual ones. A dazzling, multi-faceted Jubilee-cut diamond, dating from Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, is set in softly colored cacholong. He explains that Jubilee diamonds are rare because the raw gemstone has to be cut so drastically. This didn't stop James from selecting it: "I love the color, the depth of it," he says.
He strikes a political note with his Phoenix collection for Fonderie 47, a company that transforms AK-47s from war zones and transforms them into luxury watches and jewelry. Using the steel from recycled weapons, conflict-free diamonds and rose gold, James has created a striking collection that is based on the idea of rebirth. Never did guns look so glamorous.