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The Paris Biennale loses the jewels in its crown
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The Paris Biennale loses the jewels in its crown

Wednesday, 07 September 2016
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Alexey Tarkhanov
Journalist, architect and art critic

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4 min read

France’s Syndicat National des Antiquaires called an early-morning press conference to present changes to the Biennale des Antiquaires. The coffee and croissants went down better than the announcement.

It’s all change for the 2016 Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris. The first shake-up concerns the frequency of the event. France’s antique dealers are competing with the likes of Frieze Art Fair in London, the Brafa art and antiques fair in Belgium, and the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht, meaning they can no longer afford to take time out every other year. As of this year, the Biennale will therefore become an annual occurrence. Opinion is still divided as to what it should now be called – Biennale or Fair – and despite promises to reveal the new name before the opening on September 10th, there will probably be no official announcement before the week is out. For the time being then, it remains the one and only annual biennial.

Graff Biennale Antiquaires
The Graff stand at the 2014 Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris. © Alexey Tarkhanov

The second big news is the split with the high jewellery houses. Previous Biennales played host to the crème de la crème of the profession, with Boucheron, Bulgari, Cartier, Chanel, Chaumet, Dior, Piaget and Van Cleef & Arpels alongside other illustrious names. Graff made its spectacular return beneath the Grand Palais’ glass-encased ceiling in 2014, testifying to jewellery houses’ growing presence. Not so this September, when the majority of jewellery firms will be conspicuous by their absence. The reasons for this divorce are to be found in a changeover at the head of the Biennale, with Dominique Chevalier taking over from Christian Deydier as President of the Syndicat National des Antiquaires (SNA), and a subsequent rewriting of the rules governing jewellers’ participation.

Biennale des Antiquaires
Dominique Chevalier, President of the Syndicat National des Antiquaires (left), and Jean-Daniel Compain, Director-General of the Biennale. © Alexey Tarkhanov
Smaller stands, higher rates

“High Jewellery was taking up 1,100 square metres, which was more than 20% of available space. It was too much,” Mr Chevalier explains. “The Biennale is first and foremost for galleries, which are delighted to share with High Jewellery but in reasonable proportions. We therefore set a limit of 140 square metres for all participants, and informed jewellers that each brand would have the same amount of space.” Adding insult to injury, jewellers were also told their participation would cost more, a consequence of tighter security requirements on stands complete with safes and security guards. This was, in Dominique Chevalier’s words, “a hard pill to swallow”.

Biennale des Antiquaires Cartier
Pierre Rainero, Image, Style and Heritage Director at Cartier, in front of the Cartier stand at the 2014 Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris. © Alexey Tarkhanov

These new conditions have been unanimously deplored by the jewellers in question. Pierre Rainero, who is Image, Style and Heritage Director for Cartier, remarked that the firm would be unable to welcome its clients properly in such a tiny space. Exit Cartier. Echoing this, Piaget CEO Philippe Léopold-Metzger commented that the Biennale was “a remarkable setting in which to reach out to new customers and give the necessary visibility to Piaget’s creations. It’s regrettable for us, and it’s regrettable for the Biennale, for Paris and for France.” Just four jewellers will be at the Grand Palais this year. They are Boghossian Jewels (London-Brussels), Cindy Chao (Hong Kong), Nirav Modi (India) and de Grisogono (Switzerland). De Grisogono’s founder Fawaz Gruosi doesn’t beat about the bush: “I’ve always done different. It was hard when there were a lot of jewellers. I don’t know why everyone’s leaving but for me, now is clearly the time to join in.”

Biennale des Antiquaires
Portable sundial, Pierre LeMaire, Paris, early 18th Century. Musée International de l’Horlogerie (MIH), La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland © Dominique Cohas / Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, Genève Suisse
A horological exhibition instead

Certain absentees might find some compensation in their participation in “The Mastery of Time”, the exhibition which the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie (FHH) is curating for the Biennale, after the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. The exhibition comes under the wing of Grégory Gardinetti, an expert and historian of watchmaking with the FHH. He points to the presence of historic timepieces but also contemporary watches including the recently released Octo Finissimo by Bulgari.

Fabienne Lupo, Foundation's Chairwoman and Managing Director

The Foundation’s Chairwoman and Managing Director, Fabienne Lupo, says the exhibition was made possible thanks to the surface left free by the departing jewellers. This is, she insists, “a strictly cultural, non-sales event that is in no way dependent on the presence or not of the FHH’s partner-Maisons at the Biennale. We’d been discussing the matter with the Biennale’s governing bodies for years. I hope this first experience will lead to a long and profitable collaboration that will enable the watch and jewellery brands to be present within a quality, cultural environment.”

The last word goes to the jewellers. “The Biennale is changing and that’s fine. However, we would rather make our presentations separately, during fashion weeks,” comments Chanel’s International Fine Jewellery Director Benjamin Comar. “The Biennale is always an important moment for us and for other jewellers, but from now on we will focus on our own events, ” says Bulgari CEO Jean-Christophe Babin. “So much the better for us, and hard luck for them.” Will the Biennale one day recover the jewels in its crown? Not so sure.

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