This is a story of swag, of jewelry acquired through sanctioned graft. It’s the story of a heavy silver bracelet, hotly desired and cunningly won—though now, decades later, it seems as clanky and cumbersome as the chain of my title, the one that got dragged around by Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol.
The bracelet, shown at right and at the top of this post, is the Hermès Chaine d’Ancre, an iconic design dating from the 30s. I first spotted one on a fashion editor at one of the women’s magazines where I worked as a copywriter—I forget who or which. It was the sort of thing fashion editors wore: simple, elegant and expensive. It was very much beyond my means. But I filed it away in my mind as something to covet.
A few years passed. I had somehow become the beauty editor at Redbook magazine. I say ‘somehow’ because I had no native interest in haircare or makeup or any of the stuff beauty editors got exercised about. (Except for fragrance, which I love.) I’d been hired because I could write, and because I knew what a story was. I would find myself looking at the back of my hand, covered with lipstick swatches, and wonder: who is this person?
In those days, the early 90s, beauty editors got an incredible amount of swag. Not just beauty products, which required a large room of their own, but gifts upon gifts for no good reason. I was always unwrapping a cashmere scarf or a handwoven chenille throw or a set of sable makeup brushes. My desk was littered with expensive floral arrangements sent by advertisers or their PR people. I got sent to Paris twice, once on the Concorde, with a gaggle of other beauty editors who acted like it was no big deal. Christmas meant an absolute deluge of fancy stuff to eat or wear or (more likely) throw into a drawer. And I was small potatoes: A colleague at a fancier magazine actually got enough Christmas swag one year to fill a dumpster. She sent it home in a hired car at her employer’s expense. (“This is nothing,” she told me. “You should have seen it in the old days!”)
The bracelet? I’m getting to that.
It happened that all the beauty editors were invited by Chanel to a press breakfast. Redbook was a mass market magazine, and I was almost never allowed to mention Chanel products in my beauty stories. Nor did Chanel advertise in Redbook. Our paper stock was too cheap to make their products look good. But they were gracious to all of us. That morning, they raffled off a little Chanel evening bag, and I won it. It was quilted silver with a gold-tone chain, not quite as nice as the one at left.
There was no way on earth I would ever have a use for that bag. I thought it was hideous, though looking at such bags now, I can admire their Chanel-ness. I offered it to the fashion editor, who didn’t want it either. “Don’t be silly!” she said. “Take it to the store and get cash for it.” This seemed unethical, but the alternative was leaving the bag in a desk drawer. So I brought it to the Chanel boutique on East 57th Street and said, with perfect honesty, that I’d received it as a gift and it wasn’t to my taste. Without batting an eye, the salesperson gave me a store credit for nearly $1300. That was more than a week’s pretax pay for me.
The joke, of course, was that this was a store credit, and there wasn’t a damn thing I wanted in the Chanel boutique. I could imagine wanting a little Chanel jacket, but jackets started at $1700, and I didn’t want one as badly as that. There was jewelry, but not the sort I’d give a second look. Karl Lagerfeld was into designing large fake gold chains—a HipHop thing, I guess. Prim little me, I thought them garish and way overpriced. The whole Chanel aesthetic struck me that way, as branding run amok.
Coco Chanel had done something truly revolutionary for women’s fashion: liberated it, made it wearable and sportive. And she did the same with jewelry. In the early 30s, she began a collaboration with Suzanne Gripoix, whose family had devised a secret technique for making jewelry from molten glass set in gold-plated metal. Suzanne’s mother, Augustine, had made pâte de verre stage necklaces for Sarah Bernhardt, and soon after, she was making baubles for Charles Worth and Paul Poiret: not imitation jewelry, but art in itself. (Read more about Maison Gripoix here.)
Gripoix produced jewelry for Chanel for decades. It’s some of the finest costume jewelry ever made, and priced accordingly. Below, three Gripoix pieces for sale on 1stDibs at this very moment.
Oh right. The Hermès bracelet. I told my friend Juliette the story of the Chanel credit. My adventures in the fashion world always amused her in an anthropological sort of way. She had no truck with Chanel fashion, but she did wear a Chanel fragrance: the magnificent Chanel 19, created in Coco’s honor in 1971. It takes a formidable woman to carry off Chanel 19. Juliette wore the most concentrated form, the parfum: uncompromisingly green on top, with leather and musk in the base and powdery iris in the middle. “It’s simple,” Juliette said. “You’ll buy $1300 worth of Chanel 19 and sell it to me at a discount.”
And that’s exactly what I did. I gave her an excellent discount, fifty percent. She handed me cash. And then I walked into the Hermès boutique and bought the biggest, heaviest version of the Chaine d’Ancre. It’s too big for me, really, and too heavy, even though I had a link removed. But I wore it to my various magazine jobs for a long time, and now it’s a clanking memorial to a time and place, and a friendship.
6 thoughts on “I Wear the Chain I Forged in Life”
This is a great story!!
True, every word!
Loved it. A fragrant tale, told with relish. Of such stuff are we made.
Very delightful story, Marcia! Btw… you really won my heart when you said you didn’t want anything in that store. I have always had an extreme distaste for Chanel designs! That bag is just plain silly!
I love the story behind your bracelet. I enjoyed the behind the scenes look at being beauty editor, too.