With a pedigree like James Taffin de Givenchy, you might expect the storyline of his book, Taffin published by Rizzoli, to be a high falutin narrative about a straight ascent to the top of the jewelry world. After all, the designer is the nephew of the celebrated couturier Hubert de Givenchy. He comes from an esteemed French family of creative talents with roots that extend back to the fourteenth century. And, of course, his creations are some of the most desirable at the highest of the high-end. Yet, the biography is delightfully personal and at times self-deprecating with lots of surprising details.
The tone for a different kind of jewelry book is set in the foreword by de Givenchy’s school friend, Hamilton South. It begins with a story about the time he ran into James years after they had graduated. “The last time I saw James, he was hanging out at a college quad with my sister, drinking beer, listening to reggae music, and playing hacky sack,” writes South. “So when he told me that he had become a jeweler and asked me to come up and see his office, my expectations were low. It struck me as somewhat implausible that a guy who majored in modern dance and played rugby was now designing ‘interesting’ jewelry, but it seemed lousy not to have a look.” It goes without saying South was enchanted. He poetically describes the jewels as creating “the journey to an unseen side of the world.”
Another portion of the introduction is a letter written to James from his uncle Hubert de Givenchy who passed away in March 2018. It is in French and endearing enough to make you well up. The fashion legend tells his nephew, “I’m proud of you and your success. You became a great creator.”
The biography, written by James with journalist and author Stephanie La Cava, is at once charming and substantive. It reveals, rather hilariously, how his career accidentally turned in the direction of jewelry with the persuasion of the esteemed auctioneer and wit, François Curiel. After six years in the jewelry department at the auction house and a brief stint at Verdura, James founded Taffin in 1996 in New York where he began making contemporary jewelry in an old world way.
To this day, James only employs 20 people. Half work in the office and half in the studio, all together in the same building. Each jewel is one-of-a-kind featuring spectacular stones set in a playful way. The individuality James applies to his designs extends to the production of each piece right down to maker’s mark. His first maker’s mark was the Taffin de Givenchy family crest. In 2006, James added a second maker’s mark to each piece, a nod to his adopted city, a torch in the hand of the Statue of Liberty.
In one illuminating anecdote, James explains how he gained his design point of view, “In 1988, my uncle Hubert pulled me over to a viewing case at Christie’s in the jewelry department where I had just started working. I was thrilled to bring him to see the important diamond being sold that week but, instead of being impressed, he pointed out a multicolored gem set leaf brooch made by Verdura in the 1940s. He looked at the brooch and said, ‘Diamonds and gems are beautiful, but they truly come to life with good design.’”
From cover to cover of Taffin, the spirit and imagination of James de Givenchy’s work is lit up by hundreds of gorgeous photographs of the jewels taken by his brother Philippe de Givenchy. The way the visuals are laid out side-by-side with art images bring the jewels to life in a dynamic way that makes you agree, as if there were any doubt, with Hamilton South’s assessment of the designs. They do indeed take you on a journey to the unseen side of the world.