Madeleine Suzanne Marie Claire Vuillerme, daughter of merchant Jules Alix Vuillerme (1861–1913) and Marie Clarisse Faustine Bailly-Maître (1866–1931), was born 26 Sep 1900 in the town of Saint-Claude, in Jura Mountains (eastern France), 60 kilometres from Geneva (Switzerland).
To fill the long winter months, the inhabitants of the Jura region had developed over the centuries a wide array of traditional crafts, including the art of cutting stones. The town of Saint-Claude was also, between 1885 and 1929, one of the most important world centres of diamonds cutting.
Aware of Suzanne's talent as a designer, her mother encouraged her by enrolling her in the School of Fine Arts in the town of Besançon. This public school was created in 1773 by the Swiss painter Melchior Wirsch and the French sculptor Luc Breton.
Suzanne Vuillerme won first prize in the "Decorative Art" annual competition of 1918, with a pendant-watch. That prize was the reward for her years of study in "Watch-making and Jewelry Decoration".
In March 1919, soon after her move to Paris at the beginning of the "Golden Twenties", Suzanne Vuillerme was taken on as a modelist-designer by Jeanne Boivin, the widow of René Boivin. The French jewellery house Boivin, created in 1890, had lost its founder in 1917, who was a talented designer.
From 1920 the collections of the Maison René Boivin featured many jewels inspired by the sketches of Suzanne Vuillerme from 1917, when she was still a student at the School of Fine Arts. At the time, these large curvaceous jewels went against the dominant Art Deco style, with its refined, geometric and structured jewels.
Jeanne Boivin, who always considered Suzanne "a bit like her own child", recognised that she 'plays a major role in the artistic life of the Maison René Boivin'. Without children, Suzanne dedicated herself by advancing the creative cachet and international reputation of the jewellery house. In 1924, Suzanne Belperron became, at 23 years old, co-director of the Boivin jewellery house.
Suzanne married Jean Belperron, an engineer by profession, who was born on 18 February 1898 in Dole, also in the Jura region. The civil ceremony took place in the town hall at Besançon on 11 Jul 1924. The couple moved to 49, road Lamarck in the Montmartre area of Paris. In the studio of the Expressionist painter Gen Paul in Montmartre, Suzanne Belperron met the writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the actors Robert Le Vigan and Arletty, and the playwright René Fauchois.
Suzanne Belperron might have begun to feel bored and become frustrated that the original designs for Boivin's creations were not attributed to her. This was not exceptional – jewellers over many decades had insisted on the anonymity of their designer-creators, no matter how talented they were.
In February 1932, Belperron resigned her position with Maison René Boivin. She was replaced by Juliette Moutard in January 1933 (who previously worked for the manufacturer of luxury watches Verger Frères) and Germaine Boivin, the daughter of Jeanne and René Boivin (who was previously a designer for her uncle the fashion designer Paul Poiret).
In April 1932, Belperron accepted the offer of Bernard Herz, to take up a central position in his company. Bernard Herz, a renowned Parisian dealer in pearls and precious stones, was one of the René Boivin's favourite suppliers. Bernard Herz gave her the freedom to design her own models under the name of Herz. Based in her private salon at 59 rue de Châteaudun in Paris, Belperron secured the services of the stonecutter Adrien Louart (1890–1989) and appointed Groëné et Darde as her exclusive manufacturer.
During the 1930s, the originality of Belperron's works brought increasing international acclaim to the Maison Bernard Herz. Belperron's fame grew, and she became a major figure in the artistic world both in France and abroad. Almost every month, her creations appeared alongside those of jewellers such as Cartier, Boucheron or Van Cleef & Arpels in luxury fashion magazines such as Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, with the regular collaboration of well-known photographers, notably George Hoyningen-Huene and Horst P. Horst. A close friend, Diana Vreeland (1903–1989), a major figure in the history of twentieth-century fashion adored Suzanne Belperron's style. New York jeweller Paul Flato approached her in July 1939 to propose an artistic collaboration, declined by Suzanne Belperron.
As an unrivalled colourist, the essence of Belperron's work was her ability to play with aesthetic influences from many sources and motifs inspired by nature. Suzanne Belperron was fascinated by the arts and the distant cultures of Egypt, East India, (the Assyrian civilisation in particular), the Far East (China, Japan), Africa and Oceania. She found inspiration in nature's flora and fauna, from creatures like starfish and insects to minutiae of a garden's flower petals and leaves. Suzanne Belperron was also captivated by the underwater world, fascinated by the splendour of its shapes and the combinations of its colours.
Trained at the height of the Art Deco movement, Belperron softened its linear aesthetic, using materials and designs other jewellers hadn't explored yet. She pioneered the technique of setting precious stones in semiprecious materials. In addition to adapting these motifs in a unique way, she also opted for 22 karat gold, a softer karat level than commonly used, purely for its color.
Her jewellery was so original that she never signed her pieces, instead insisting my style is my signature. And only the jewels delivered by the hand of Suzanne Belperron in her salon in the rue de Châteaudun, jewels that passed before her own eyes, can lay claim to the famous quote. She was convinced that the originality of her jewellery made it easily identifiable and that there was therefore no need for it to be signed. It was a principle from which she never wavered, yet it does not make the task of art historians or jewellery experts easy, as it can sometimes be very difficult to attribute a piece of jewellery to a designer solely on the basis of a characteristic style.
Bernard Herz was of Jewish origin. During the Occupation of Paris he was interrogated more than once. On one occasion, Belperron managed to save him from the Gestapo thanks to her friend Rika Radifé (wife of the actor Harry Baur).
Because of the discriminatory "Statute on Jews" legislation, copied from Nazi laws and passed in October 1940 by the Vichy Regime, Belperron took full control of the Maison Bernard Herz (from November 1940) to ensure the company's survival. As requested by Bernard Herz following his first arrest in 1941, Belperron recorded a new limited company, called "Suzanne Belperron SARL", on the Companies Register, with a capital of 700,000 francs. She had one associate, Henri Guiberteau. His friend Marcel Coard helped her and lent her the funds needed for the transaction.
Knowing that the future of the business rested solely on her shoulders, Belperron never stopped working during the war, despite the difficulties she experienced in obtaining the materials for making the jewels.
On 2 November 1942, Belperron was arrested at her office, due to a letter of denunciation indicating that "the Belperron house dissimulates a Jewish business". During her transfer to the Gestapo headquarters in Avenue Foch in Paris, Belperron swallowed all the pages of his address book, one by one. Bernard Herz was arrested the same day at his home and also underwent interrogation by the Gestapo. He was then driven straight to Drancy internment camp, where he stayed until 2 September 1943, when he was deported by the convoy n°59 to a concentration camp, Auschwitz, in Poland. Belperron was harassed by the Gestapo and was ordered to supply them with official documents about the origin and religion of her family.
During the hostilities, Belperron also joined the Resistance.
Belperron was approached by several American companies with offers to design jewellery in America, but she chose to remain in Paris.
In a last letter, dated 21 February 1943, sent from the Drancy internment camp, Bernard Herz entrusts his affairs to Belperron, along with his will, asks her to protect the interests of Aline and Jean, his children. On 6 December 1946, Jean Herz, the son of Bernard Herz, returned to Paris after a period of captivity as war prisoner. In fulfilment of his father's last wishes, Jean took on half-ownership of a new company called "Jean Herz-Suzanne Belperron SARL".
At the start of 1945, Belperron moved from her Montmartre flat to 14 rue d'Aumale in Paris, a short distance from the reception rooms of the Herz-Belperron jewellery house. Her vast flat was on a raised level of a neo-classical building, with a Far Eastern ambience harmoniously blended with a classical aesthetic style. The internal design of all the rooms was entrusted to Suzanne Belperron's close friend Marcel Coard, whom she also commissioned for the decoration of the reception rooms at the rue de Châteaudun.
The younger Herz and Belperron resumed the partnership, working successfully together for the next 30 years.
Belperron received her clientele exclusively by appointment in salons situated on the third floor of 59, rue de Châteaudun in Paris. She never felt the urge to set up a boutique, so convinced was she that her pieces of jewellery themselves were her best ambassadors. Her address was only ever given out discreetly, by word of mouth, to chosen clients who had been attracted by the originality of her works, thus ensuring her increasing renown both in France and all over the world.
As a matter of utmost importance before carrying out any order, Belperron always found out about her client's lifestyle, and also studied the contours of her face, the complexion of her skin and the shape of her hands. Similarly, Belperron took care to take the finger, wrist or neck measurements precisely, as an haute couture dressmaker. If necessary she would also have several 'fittings' before delivering the 'made-to-measure' ring to her client, to insure that each creation would suit the customer perfectly.
Like a workshop foreman, she kept a strict eye on the completion of each stage of manufacture, anxious that it should be perfect and that nothing should be left to chance. To this end, she set up a daily meeting at the salons in the rue de Châteaudun with the head of the workshop.
Belperron's clientele included most of Europe's royalty and aristocrats as the dynasties of the Aga Khan, Rothschild, Wildenstein and Duke of Windsor. Suzanne Belperron also attracted clients from the worlds of arts and show business, (actors, comedians, playwrights, dancers and singers), such as Colette, Robert Mallet-Stevens, Ganna Walska, Maria Félix, Arno Breker, Josephine Baker, Raoul Dufy, Daisy Fellowes, Alice Cocéa, Merle Oberon, Françoise Rosay, Mary Bell, Charles Boyer, Harry Baur, Louise de Vilmorin, Jean Cocteau and Gary Cooper. From the world of fashion, the names include notably her friends Elsa Schiaparelli, Diana Vreeland, Nina Ricci, Christian Dior and Jeanne Lanvin. The world of politics included names such as Paul Reynaud, Léon Blum, Maurice Couve de Murville, Gaston Palewski and Houphouët-Boigny.
On 12 July 1963, Suzanne Belperron was elevated to the rank of Knight of the Légion d'Honneur. The Cross was presented to her by her great friend Jean Marchat, member of the Resistance during World War II, Légion d'Honneur and Secretary of the Comédie-Française.
Four years after the death of her husband in June 1970, Belperron and her associate Jean Herz agreed, at the general meeting held on 28 June 1974, to amicably dissolve their company. The Herz-Belperron company was liquidated on 31 December 1975. But this decision did not signify the end of her professional work. Whether in France or abroad, loyal clients had forged great bonds of friendship and trust with her over many years. They continued to call on her services, so she valued their jewels for the purposes of inheritance, insurance or gifts to museums. However, Suzanne Belperron refused all proposals for collaboration (including Tiffany & Co) to re-edit her jewellery collection.
Belperron died in a tragic accident in her bath (scalding herself in a hot bath) on 28 Mar 1983 at the age of eighty-two. Childless, she bequeathed her property to a close friend.