Here is an origin tale of which a brand can be proud: In 1832, a 10-year-old boy in Jura, an eastern region of France, loses his mother, a hatmaker. His farmer father remarries a cruel woman, dies soon after, and the boy, now 13, leaves home to seek his fortune in Paris. Working odd jobs along the way, it takes him more than two years to walk the 292 miles. The boy’s name is Louis Vuitton, and in two decades he’ll make trunks for the Empress of France; 200 years after his birth, his name will appear in rap lyrics and red carpet credits.
“It’s like a Cinderella story,” says Louis Vuitton’s artistic director for jewelry and watches, Francesca Amfitheatrof, reading your mind. Vuitton’s youthful journey was her inspiration for this year’s haute joaillerie, a staggering 90-piece collection dubbed Bravery, in celebration of his bicentennial.
I meet Amfitheatrof far from Vuitton’s France, at the Connecticut compound where she lives with her husband, Ben Curwin, a managing partner at an investment advisory firm, and her teenage children. The Litchfield County property, built in 1880, sprawls across nearly 15 acres and includes a small herd of white buildings (the main house, Amfitheatrof’s studio, a guesthouse, two barns), plus a pristine pool and solarium, behind which grows a pear tree that would make Cézanne salivate. We settle at a patio table; having just wrapped her Vanity Fair photo shoot, Amfitheatrof has changed into a loose silk dress that hits just above her knees. Her left ring finger glitters with two diamond bands, and on her opposite wrist she wears a black tag bracelet from the independent label she founded in 2019, Thief and Heist.
The juggernaut that is Louis Vuitton has long served as a metonym of wealth in pop culture, though typically in reference to the brand’s iconic leather goods (Audrey Hepburn, playing a jewel thief’s widow in 1963’s Charade, totes a set of Vuitton travel bags; Eddie Murphy’s Prince Akeem in 1988’s Coming to America has a fleet of them). Recently, the brand has amped up investment in its jewelry arm: Amfitheatrof’s hiring in 2018 was the starting gun. In early 2020, just months after Vuitton’s parent company, LVMH, acquired Tiffany & Co. for $16.2 billion, Vuitton made more waves in the gem world when it purchased the second largest rough diamond ever cut from the earth. The 1,758-carat Sewelo diamond, mined the year before, is so large that it could not plausibly fit inside a human mouth. If pop culture is any barometer, it’s telling that the first episode of Netflix’s label-loving reality show Bling Empire, which premiered in early 2021, centers not on a Vuitton bag but jewelry: called “Necklacegate 90210,” the climactic scene involves one millionaire wearing a one-of-a-kind pink sapphire necklace from Vuitton’s 2012 haute joaillerie collection to the home of another millionaire, who supposedly owns the same piece.
If one had to describe the designer in a single word, it might be considered. When making a point she tends to hold her interlocutor’s gaze while lowering her eyelids intensely, as though words do not quite suffice but telepathy might. Between her statement eyebrows and high cheekbones she resembles a Face Morph of Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra. Her voice is deep, and while she was born in Tokyo and spent her childhood in New York, Moscow, and Rome (a fittingly nomadic upbringing for a custodian of Vuitton’s legacy), the British accent she picked up at a girls boarding school in Kent—and cemented at London’s Royal College of Art, and subsequent decade-plus residing in that city—has stuck. She has served as the consulting creative director at Wedgwood, the head curator of Florence’s Museo Gucci, and as Tiffany design director. Of her work-from-home wardrobe, “I can’t say that I was hearing heels,” she says, “but I wasn’t in sweatpants.”
Amfitheatrof’s designs for both the brand’s fine jewelry collections (pieces, like this year’s popular B Blossom medallion, which run in the four- to low five-digit price range and are available to purchase online) and high jewelry (which sell for considerably more, to clients Amfitheatrof often meets herself) have been vibrant and modern—she describes her technique as painting with gems. “I tend to use a lot of stones,” she says, and shies away from the typical construction of a statement stone surrounded by smaller diamonds. “I think because I’m not a gemologist, I’m a bit more radical about it.” Her design team was “perplexed” upon her arrival. “It’s Place Vendôme,” she explains, referring to Vuitton’s Paris flagship, situated in the Ozymandian square constructed to honor Louis XIV. “It’s very classic.”
Still, Amfitheatrof’s more-is-more habits are fitting for a brand whose own defining word would likely not be subdued. Le Mythe, a multistrand sapphire and emerald necklace featuring a central Vuitton fleur-de-lis, “has three huge stones in it,” Amfitheatrof says. “Most people will make three necklaces. Whereas I’m like, ‘Oh, all!’ ” Another, called La Constellation d’Hercule, inspired by the stars visible at the time of Vuitton’s birth, comprises more than 30 scarab beetle–sized tanzanites, tsavorites, and opals that look like an image downloaded from Hubble, plus 15 diamonds cut into Vuitton’s patented Flowers and Stars.
“No other house has branded a diamond,” declares Amfitheatrof; she credits Vuitton CEO Michael Burke, who personally approves each stone purchase, with the brand’s team of crack gemologists. (On the state of mining, she says, it “has to be done more consciously”—in Botswana, the gold standard for mining practices, the diamond trade has provided universal health care and free basic education, but across the industry the actual job of excavation remains hazardous and environmentally impactful.) Her own favorite piece from the collection is actually two: glittering bracelets with fraternal twin center stones, a diamond and Colombian Muzo emerald, dubbed L’Aventure, that can be worn together as a single cuff or split up, one on each wrist. “It’s so well-balanced,” she says, “that you wouldn’t change a thing.”
“I go to our CEO and I say to him, ‘I’ve got this idea,’ ” she says of her creative process. “And then I retreat.” She builds a mood board and divides her greater organizing narrative—in the case of Bravery, teenage Louis’s two-year-plus trek—into themed chapters. “I can’t just, ‘Oh, here, there’s a beautiful star,’ ” she ad-libs mock-theatrically. “ ‘Let’s repeat the star everywhere, and that’s going to be my inspiration.’ I’d just get bored.”
Narrative is now a retail buzzword, but for Amfitheatrof it’s just how her brain works. Her father was the Russia bureau chief at Time magazine, her mother did PR for Valentino and Armani; her paternal grandfather was the composer and conductor responsible for scoring Lassie Come Home, and his father was a Russian novelist who once dressed down H.G. Wells. As she describes it, “I’ve always been surrounded by a certain depth to things.” The bookshelves in her cavernous studio are arranged by color and include celebrity memoirs but also Proust and the Platonic dialogues; her record player spins Herbie Hancock and The Doors and Blue Note Live at the Roxy. She has always loved Mark Rothko; Günther Uecker is a more recent obsession. (“I’ve got holiday brain. What’s the name of the German artist,” she says, smizing at me, “that paints with nails?”)
Last year was not an easy one for luxury business: LVMH revenue dipped from more than 53 billion euros in 2019 to around 44.7 billion in 2020 (which is still more than double that year’s GDP of, say, Botswana, where the Sewelo diamond was mined). But, Amfitheatrof says, “high jewelry really was revalued during COVID. People found it difficult, especially people with a lot of wealth, to have satisfaction because your passions were stopped. Jewelry became something that is not only an amazing investment, but you can wear it and enjoy it, and husbands can see it on their wives.” The world is full of shocking disparity but the pandemic threw it into particularly sharp relief. Is this dichotomy, I ask, something that Amfitheatrof has grappled or contended with, or—
“No,” she says. “No. I mean, my thing is, we’re not in a fast-moving industry category. I know what I make is going to last more than our lifetimes. So I have to think really in a timeless way.”
While rarity in fashion is almost always a constructed scarcity—a sneaker can be produced at a greater volume but its maker chooses not to—in the world of high jewelry, supply can’t be bolstered, only faked. Most of the earth’s mined gold is believed to have been deposited, like beautiful space litter, by a meteorite that collided with our planet in its relative infancy. Our diamonds are mysterious, forming 100 miles below the earth’s surface over hundreds of millions—even billions—of years. In this sense, time really is luxury, and to preserve value, a Vuitton gemstone must never have been treated with oil (except, sometimes, emeralds) or heat (which alters color) or have been grown in a lab (God forbid).
As if sensing that our time together is ending, a succession of Amfitheatrof’s dogs, by order of size, flounce from some unseen opened door: a tiny black Pomeranian named Archie followed by a crotchety Jack Russell called Bella, and finally the family guard dog, Quincy. They settle on the paving stones around the pool, content. There are dog years and human years, and both pale in comparison to the lives of gemstones. The American 13-year-old in 2021 is younger than the French 13-year-old was in 1835, and while Amfitheatrof’s own teenagers won’t be trekking solo to, say, Washington, D.C., anytime soon, after a surfeit of family time she hopes they’ll at least get to attend some parties.
“He could have taken two weeks to get to Paris,” Amfitheatrof says of Vuitton, whose own home region is now perhaps better known for the Large Hadron Collider, which straddles the Swiss border some 300 feet beneath the base of the Jura Mountains and allows scientists in search of our universal origin story to mimic the conditions that existed a billionth of a second after the Big Bang. “He chose this time to become the man that he wanted to be. And I think that that’s phenomenal.”
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