Feature for Vogue China’s January edition. Interview with Chopard’s Caroline Scheufele. English text below:
As co-president and artistic director of luxury watch and jewelry maker Chopard, Caroline Scheufele is responsible for making the world’s most beautiful actresses truly shine on the red carpet. She talks to Tom Pattinson about why gems and films go together, her new Chinese designer protoge and why she’s always eager to get back on the slopes.
As a teenager, Caroline Scheufele was surrounded by glamour. Her parents would invite Europe’s social elite for dinner and the young Caroline would mix with film stars and celebrities of the 1970s.
Inspired by her lavish visitors, the young Caroline would dress up in her mother’s jewels and dream of one day creating her own pendants and necklaces. It wouldn’t be long before that dream came true. At just 16 years old, Caroline drew a pendent of a smiling clown adorned with diamonds. That Christmas, Caroline’s father gave her a gift that would change her life. The clown she had drawn had been turned into reality – and the pendent would be named the Happy Diamond Clown.
Caroline’s father was a skilled goldsmith and watchmaker, who in 1963 had bought the luxury watch maker Chopard from Paul-Andrew Chopard, a man who was left no choice but to sell the family company after his children decided not to follow in their fathers footsteps in the family watch business.
Karl Scheufele, a young and talented watchmaker, bought the company and continued the tradition of creating exclusive watches that had begun by Louis-Ulysse Chopard back in 1860.
Up until 1976, Chopard was a famed maker of watches but it wasn’t until that Christmas when Caroline designed the ‘Happy Diamond Clown’ that the jewelry range was launched. The ‘Happy Diamond Clown’ led to a range of ‘Happy Diamond’ pieces where diamonds float freely between two sapphire crystals, however, it is the Clown that is still today one of the most famous and best selling pieces from Chopard’s jewelry range.
Today the young girl who dreamed of creating jewelry has grown up and is the Art Director and Co-President of Chopard. The family company is now as famous for its jewelry as its watches thanks to Caroline’s lifetime of work designing, producing and promoting the jewelry side of the company.
Caroline stands, looking out across Shanghai’s Bund, the bright spring sunlight glistening off the diamond necklace draped over her neckline.
“I always had a sensibility towards watches and jewelry,” she says. “And I’ve always had a passion for stones.”
Joining the family was “quite a natural step” she explains. “My father was happy [that I joined] and so was my brother.”
Her brother Karl-Friedrich is also co-president of the company along with Caroline, and runs the watch division. The company has grown significantly since their first days of working together where their father encouraged them to share the same office to learn from each other and support each other. And whilst head quarters have expanded, the siblings share the same space to this day.
Having grown up with glamour and worked her whole adult life in the luxury jewelry market it is no surprise that today, Caroline is at the centre of one of the most glamorous events in the world – the Cannes Film Festival.
Our relationship with Cannes “started when we opened a boutique opposite the Palais des Festival” – the main venue for the Cannes Festival, says Caroline.
“I went to Paris to meet with the Festival President,” she says. It was whilst discussing cooperation ideas in his office that she saw the Palme d’Or – or Golden Palm – the main award at Cannes.
“He put it in front of me and I remember it was a pyramid of black plastic or something,” she says. “He probably saw that I was not so overwhelmed by it and he told me that they had plans to re-style it.
“So I came home to Geneva with the Palme d’Or under my arm and that’s how the whole adventure started.”
Since 1998 Chopard have produced the Palme d’Or prize – made of 18 carat gold in the shape of a palm leaf. It is this prize that is the most coveted of all by international film directors for this is the price for best feature film.
“It is all about the Palme,” smiles Caroline. “The Palme is at the heart of the festival, and every director dreams of winning the Palme d’Or once in his life time.”
For the actors and directors it maybe all about the prize but for Caroline it is dressing the actresses in the most beautiful of jewels, that gets her excited.
“It is somehow the final finish. When an actress gets dressed for the red carpet in an amazing evening gown then the dress just needs jewellery.”
Like icing on a cake, the diamond on the dress is the finishing touch for any world famous starlet. And the glitz and glam that Chopard has brought to Cannes has certainly helped raise the profile of the film festival.
“Cannes was a much more discreet event until we exported it a little bit,” says Caroline. “When we stared 15 years ago Cannes was not so known – especially in America.”
According to Caroline, Cannes is second only to the World Cup in the amount of media interest it gets.
“There are 5,000 journalists and 500 television stations,” she says. “And when an actress walks up the red carpet, the next moment she is all over the world.”
Chopard’s Cannes party that Caroline hosts are worthy of an award themselves. Supermodels, film stars and princesses all attend the star studded bashes wearing customized jewels or something from one of Caroline’s latest collections. In fact Caroline created a line called the “Red Carpet Collection” specifically for those strutting their stuff up Red Carpets from Hollywood to Hong Kong.
The Red Carpet collection is “like a rainbow, you have classical pieces, important pieces, extravagant pieces, very colorful pieces as the actresses are different from one another,” says Caroline. “So in order to have something for all of them, the collection has to be very versatile.”
But Caroline’s passion for film doesn’t end on the red carpet. In 2001 – three years after Chopard started working with Cannes Film Festival – Caroline launched the ‘Chopard Trophy’ for young emerging acting talent.
“I wanted to do a bit more and bring something to cinema,” she says. “That’s why we came up the idea of the Chopard Trophy to kick start young talent.”
Caroline says that the expert judging panel has had a pretty good history in predicting the next big thing.
“For example, Marion Cotillard won the trophy eight or nice years ago, then seven years later she won the Oscar so it was obviously the right choice.” As well as Cotillard, big names including Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Diane Kruger and Gael Garcia-Bernal have all been awarded the Chopard Trophy.
However, it’s not just film stars that Caroline has close relationships. One of her best friends is Elton John.
“I actually met Elton during an event in Cannes,” she remembers. The legendary singer is also a watch fanatic and has a large collection of exclusive watches, including many from Chopard. When Caroline met him he was wearing a limited edition Chopard watch, made for the Prince Charles Foundation. “I suggested that we could do something for Elton’s Foundation and that’s how it started ten years ago.”
Elton John’s Aids Foundation raises vast sums of money from a number of major parties including the famous Oscar Academy Viewing Parties. Caroline has been a supporter of Elton John’s Aids Foundation for many years and supporting charity is something that the Chopard family feel very strongly about.
“Because Chopard is a family business we find it is our responsibility to give something back,” she explains. “My father is very involved with the Leukemia foundation of José Carreras and my brother supports other charities so everybody is doing something.”
As head of the jewelry division of Chopard, Caroline has taken the brand from luxury watchmaker to international luxury brand through her associations with film festivals, creating limited edition ranges for Princes and her high profile charity work. However as well as her business acumen Caroline is also very active in the creativity and design process of the jewelry pieces.
Inspired by her constant travels (she spends at least six months on the road each year), she takes inspiration from “anything and everything”.
“It can be music, architecture, mysterious countries… When travelling I am often inspired. That’s why a lot of the collections that I have designed have names like ‘Pushkin’, which was inspired by the Onion-shaped Orthodox churches in Russia.”
However ultimately she says, her ‘muse’, are still the gems and stones she works with, as they are the objects the often lead the whole design process.
When not travelling Caroline will spend time with her team of designers every day. The design process starts off with a sketch “sometimes even on a napkin in a restaurant” then the in house team of eight designers will work up this initial design into a near finished design. “There might be ten designs worked up for just one stone and when the best design is chosen it then goes to the atelier.” Here they will create 3D images of it to picture how it will look.
Chopard recently finished producing 150 unique pieces of jewelry of animals to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the company in 2010.
“Creating 150 animal pieces is very complex,” explains Caroline. “But sourcing stones to find – for example a light grey shaded diamond – was very difficult but I wanted them to look as realistic as possible.”
The emerald dragon ring that Caroline wears shows huge attention to detail as the head of the dragon snakes around her finger and a large emerald makes up the body of the dragon.
“For the animals series, we even brought in a sculpture, to sculpt all the little heads, all the little details,” she explains.
Once the stones are found the stonecutter and atelier will often work together. The atelier or sculpture will work with “normally 18 carat gold or perhaps white, pink or yellow gold. Sometimes they work with other materials such as platinum or titanium depending on what piece we are going to make.”
Many pieces are 100 percent handmade, Caroline explains. “We don’t make any casting but that’s the beauty of it – you also have something unique.”
After the jeweler has finished his work, the piece goes to the setting department for the stones to be set and then finally for a good polish.
The value in the piece is clearly not just the value of the gems and materials but in the time and expertise that is put into each piece. The Peacock – a large bracelet from the Red Carpet Collection – for example took over 2,000 man-hours to create.
Chopard recruit from jewelry design schools in Geneva, Italy and elsewhere to find highly skilled craftspeople and Caroline explains that they ensure that they have a range of people from different age groups, nationalities and cultures to ensure a good range of influences.
“Actually our latest recruit – the youngest designer we have is Chinese,” says Caroline.
Chopard have a watch-making school and often take some of the best students on to become trainees within the group. After working as a trainee in the Chopard design studio this young girl then returned to school to finish her masters in design.
“She actually won the prize as the best designer of the school,” says Caroline. “Then called and said, she was ready to join the team. I told her she was welcome and that’s how it happened.”
However skilled talent is becoming harder to find with the increased technology that goes into much of the mainstream jewelry making.
“There are certain skills that are at risk of dying out,” says Caroline. Finding skilled enamellers who can enable the dials of watches is becoming harder. “There are very, very few people who are able to do this 100 percent.”
For those that can though, the rewards are great – good specialists get paid “very well” according to Caroline. And this is because it is a skill that takes years of learning. To become a qualified watch maker takes four year but to reach the top expertise levels to make the ‘complications’ can take another four.
Caroline received hundreds of applicants from designers, eager to join Chopard, but says that she can now spot which designers might have potential just from their handwriting. But for Caroline, new designer have to have a passion for the craft. “And obviously talent, then the rest is endurance,” she says.
For Caroline, China is a key priority – this year they will open their thirteenth store and the brand already has a number of well-known ambassadors including Gong Li, Fan Bingbing and Michelle Yeo who are creating that red carpet buzz.
Chopard exhibited the Red Carpet Collection in Hong Kong and Shanghai recently, and after the Cannes Festival Caroline wants to do a show of the Red Carpet pieces across China.
“I am also making a book about the 150 animal series. When this is completed, she says, she plans to bring together all 150 pieces, if she can “convince the owners to lend them back to me for five weeks.” The exhibition would first be shown in Paris then in Shanghai. “Paris and Shanghai are sister cities, so it makes sense”.
You get the feeling with Caroline that she has more ideas than she knows what to do with – global touring exhibitions, producing books as well as running a major luxury jewelry company, Caroline really doesn’t stop.
“I don’t know what a weekend is,” she says. “Sometimes, here and there I take two hours off though.” And during those couple of hours, Caroline might do some Pilates to relax or take her seven dogs for a walk. But, she says, it is skiing in Gstaad that is the only thing that takes her mind of work.
“When you are in the white snow, there you forget. There you can finally forget the hectic world of watching makin