- Charlotte Perriand, Ball-Bearings, and Modernist Jewelry
"I had a street urchin's haircut and wore a necklace I made out of cheap chromed copper balls. I called it my ball-bearings necklace, a symbol of my adherence to the twentieth-century machine age. I was proud that my jewelry didn't rival that of the Queen of England. I was labeled 'inhuman', an allusion to Marcel L'Herbier's film L'inhumaine, and was an easy target for Parisian street kids."1
"To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world . . . "2
Charlotte Perriand's ball-bearings necklace (the collier roulements à billes, hereafter referred to as the collier) was exhibited in 2009 at the exhibition "Bijoux Art Deco et Avant Garde" at the Musée Des Arts Decoratifs in Paris and, in 2011, in the show "Charlotte Perriand 1903-99: From Photography to Interior Design" at the Petit Palais (fig. 1). In the former exhibition, the collier appeared remarkably different from many other pieces because of its simplicity, bold execution, and stark utilitarian beauty, exposing the obvious modishness of its more lustrous (but, ultimately, less illustrious) cousins. In contrast, at the Petit Palais, the piece was exhibited to help chart the career of Charlotte Perriand, modernist design pioneer, enthusiastic photographer and collector of art brut. Among the many notable achievements reflected upon in her autobiography, Perriand recalls the importance of the habitual wearing of the collier at [End Page 169] a time when her career as a designer and collaborator with Le Corbusier was starting to take shape. The collier became, for a short period, synonymous with Perriand and with her championing of the machine aesthetic in the late 1920s and has subsequently attained the status of a mythical object and symbol of the machine age. This essay considers the collier as an object and symbol in the context of modernist aesthetics. It also discusses its role in the formation of Perriand's identity in the late 1920s, when she was working with Le Corbusier, and aspects of gender and politics in the context of the wider modern movement.
In 1927, when the collier was made and habitually worn, Perriand was at the beginning of her exploration of the objects of the machine age. Her interest in all things metallic and mechanical was at its height. She had begun working at Le Corbusier's atelier in the Rue de Sèvres and had forged relationships with many modernists, such as Pierre Jeanneret, José Lluís Sert, Alfred Roth, Ernst Weissmann, Kunio Maekawa, and others. A number of photographs survive of Perriand wearing the collier to work at the atelier and in the company of various collaborators and interns (see figs. 2-4). Perriand wore the piece when seated in the LC7 swivel chair and, most famously, when reclining in the LC4 chaise longue (see fig 5). [End Page 170]
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The collier is made from lightweight chrome steel balls strung together on a cord. Originally, there were 16 and, according to Pernette Perriand-Barsac, the missing sphere has recently been added.3 A companion piece to the chromed collier, a gilded version dating from the same time, has 14 spheres (Fig. 6). A version dating from 1930, in blue glass, has 24 spheres...