Luxury fashion

How Valerie Messika Made The Akh-Ba-Ka Diamond Necklace A Family Affair

Leader: Unveiled at Paris Couture Week in July, the Akh-Ba-Ka necklace is the centerpiece of the Beyond the Light collection, featuring an incredible 15 diamonds cut from a single rough stone. As the brand prepares to release a second strand to the collection later this month, I visited the Messika atelier to find out how one of Couture Week’s most spectacular necklaces was made.

Behind an anonymous door in the 9th arrondissement in Paris, marvels are made. Tucked under the eaves of a typical Haussmannian building lies the light, airy workshop of one of the city’s most exciting independent jewelry brands. Since 2005, Messika has become a go-to for innovative jewelry, but the most recent collection marked a milestone for the brand, with a necklace that outshone much of the other fine jewelry on show in Paris.

The Akh-Ba-Ka necklace (above) features a 33-carat cushion diamond set in Single Mine Origin (SMO) white gold, the first time Messika craftspeople have worked with a stone of that size. And what makes it even more awe-inspiring, is that the seven main stones of the pendant are all members of the same ‘family’, cut from a single, 110-carat Botswanan diamond. “This is the first time I’ve ever created a masterpiece from a rough diamond,” says Founder and Creative Director Valerie Messika, “this diamond has a very special story, not only because a stone of this class and size is very rare, but also because it was discovered by my brother, Ilan.”

The necklace is the centerpiece of the Beyond the Light series, the first opus of the brand’s annual high jewelry collection. This time, Valerie Messika had drawn inspiration from Ancient Egypt to create a coherent collection of diamonds and gold, that felt modern and fresh: “Ancient Egypt continues to fascinate all generations and cultures. It emanates a mystery and instills a powerful and inspiring spirituality.”

The collection is infused with Egyptian symbolism. Finished with two sizable cushion diamonds ringed with sparkling pavé, the Divine Enigma seven-ring collar references the sacred number, while the protective Eye of Horus takes center stage in the Oujdat necklace, picked out in white diamonds with a sweep of black ceramic kohl. Elsewhere, the Move Iconica set is a celebration of the brand’s signature Move line, as a fringe of mobile diamond tassels fans out across the décolleté.

For a generally design-led creative, Valerie was surprised when the idea of the winged scarab motif came from the stones themselves: “I already had the theme for the collection in mind,” she says. “When I saw the 15 cuts from the same rough diamond, I imagined that they were atypical shapes such as a half-moon cut, pear step-cut or shield cut. The stones inspired the drawing, and because of my emotional connection to them, I drew the shape of a beetle head. It was a bit like a puzzle that took shape in my mind, as if [the pieces] had spoken for themselves.”

Daughter of the diamond dealer André Messika, whose company is now helmed by his son Ilan and supplies all Messika’s diamonds, Valerie started her namesake brand in 2005. She had been unable to find the style of jewelry she wanted to wear herself, and in doing so, launched a move towards ‘everyday diamonds’ that now plays such a part in contemporary Paris girl chic.

Diamond disruption is now the Messika credo, and designs that appeal to a young, affluent consumer have helped fuel exponential growth over the past 17 years, lower-than-market impact of the pandemic on turnover and more than 450 points of sale in over 60 countries. The brand is still majority-owned by the family, and Valerie’s design nous and business instinct have won her plaudits including a Forbes France cover story and regular inclusion on women in power lists.

Back in the workshop, Atelier Manager Nicolas Lodolo is walking me through the making of Messika’s finest jewel to date. From Valerie’s initial sketches, the necklace began to take form as an intricate gouache, before a team of six computer-aided design (CAD) artists each refined separate elements. “We are a small and agile team, we can move fast,” he says, “Valerie listens to us and has input at every stage, the necklace was very much a team effort”; an initial idea for the wings to be hinged was eventually shelved after jewelers raised concerns around stability.

Once the design itself was complete, it was printed directly into wax for casting, then followed rounds of emerizing and polishing before the stone-setting itself even began. The honeycomb structure supporting the gems was intricately designed to draw the light into the diamonds and even the inside of each tiny hole was polished, using silk thread.

The separate pieces were assembled ’empty’, before any stones were mounted, to check how it would eventually lie on the body. “We don’t rush,” says Nicolas, “we take time over each stage to test our solutions,” and ensure they meet expectations, like the glaze of diamond pavé cushioning the central stone, which was designed to look “like a strawberry dipped in sugar”.

Once taken apart again, the stone-setters could start their precision work, a stage which was extra complex because of the many unusually shaped diamonds in the necklace. Then, “the final polish is always the most stressful moment,” he laughs as I watch a young female polisher expertly buff the graceful curves of the Golden Shield collar to a mirror-shine.

What does Ilan think of the end result? “Seeing a drawing come to life was a great moment for him, especially after the intricate step of cutting the diamond. Seeing his sister’s passion transforming it into a finished piece was a great experience,” she replies. It was a big moment also, for the dynamic team of craftspeople alongside Valerie, as she works to change the face of diamond jewelry.

As for a next time, Valerie herself would “love” to repeat the experience. “Each stone in the family found its place on the chessboard, and the beauty of each one reflects that of the others.” As I leave, I ask what it’s like to work with such large and valuable stones. Nicolas is adamant that the team do not allow themselves to be intimidated: “we enjoy finding solutions,” he says, “we are up for the challenge”. Indeed, if the results of their first challenge of its kind are anything to go by, there should be plenty of opportunity in the future for more such problem-solving.

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