PARIS — If Chaumet’s new archives room could talk, the temperature- and humidity-controlled facility in the jeweler’s recently restored mansion on Place Vendôme would tell tales of love, betrayal, glory and woe.
And since late 2022, Thibault Billoir, an archivist at Chaumet, said, visitors may book appointments to inspect the house’s historical records and learn some of those tales themselves.
Chaumet, founded in Paris in 1780, moved to its current location at No. 12 Vendôme in 1907. For Mr. Billoir — who has been part of a team since 2016 tasked to collect, sort, preserve, index and digitize records going back to the early 1800s — history is not an abstract concept. It is embodied in the brand’s continually expanding treasure trove of vintage jewelry, drawings, accounting records, visitor registers and photographs, a record so voluminous the house has calculated that if it arranged everything end-to-end, the line of goods and paper could circle the vast Vendôme square one and a half times.
Mr. Billoir recently talked about the complex work of indexing, an abandoned commission and a 20th century brush with the law. The interview has been edited and condensed.
What is the purpose of the archives room?
This room was, from the outset, part of the restoration project of our hôtel particulier [mansion]. We wanted to create a salon that was elegant, welcoming to visitors and provided access to over two centuries of the history of Chaumet. Here, researchers, students and journalists can examine original documents, and use modern tools to examine archival objects and records. Our objective is to use these archives not to engage in pretty storytelling, but as actual records that help us find the traces of our history.
What are the archival records?
Our first general ledger dates back to 1816. Our accounting records — which describe in detail who the client was, what that client ordered, what they paid for the piece — go back to 1838. Indexing is an enormous task because every photograph must be dated, every stone and metal used identified, every draftsperson named, to make the archives searchable.
What about the earlier records?
Many are in the French National Archives. We also augment our own collection with historical records we find in auction. In 2021, we bought an original report dated Jan. 2, 1811, in which an expert confirmed the value of a medallion made by Marie-Étienne Nitot [founder of Chaumet] and bearing a miniature portrait of the Empress Marie-Louise, wife of Napoleon I, so the jeweler could be paid by the state. That report validated the workmanship and value of the diamond-set medallion for which, until now, we had no other evidence.
Have you discovered stories while sorting through the archives?
We recently found an order for two gold wedding bands, engraved “Eugenie and Louis-Napoleon,” and priced 40 francs. It was placed in 1853 by the mother of the future Empress Eugenie. A related accounting entry pertains to the celebrated actress, Rachel, a known mistress of the future Napoleon III. After his engagement to Eugenie was announced, our records show that Rachel never picked up the Chaumet piece she had had engraved for him with his initials. Jewelry stories usually have happy endings, but not always.
Any interesting facts about the Chaumet mansion?
We have found a 1907 police report following a “nuisance” complaint filed by neighbors at 12 Place Vendôme, after Joseph Chaumet had settled here. The officer came by to investigate, and reported that Chaumet had set up a workshop on the premises where men worked noisily and “heavy tools” were used to melt metals, posing a risk of “accident and explosion.” That report confirms the fact that Chaumet had a working atelier here in 1907.
When archives reveal information about clients, how do you draw the line between history and their privacy?
With historical facts that are more than 100 years old, we reveal information that shows the high standing of our clients, like what Queen Victoria or the Empress Eugenie had purchased, or to show the style of an epoch. We will share facts about the heritage of Chaumet, but not indelicate personal details.
How do archives serve Chaumet’s clients today?
They are a useful tool for those who wish to authenticate a family heirloom, or want in-depth information about a Chaumet piece. We can search through the history of a design, or track how a particular theme was treated over time. This can give a piece the pedigree it deserves. We can also shed light on lifestyles, social trends, fashions, or the place of women, to tell a bigger story than just about a piece of jewelry.