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Born just outside Paris in 1927 to a French mother and Vietnamese father, Jean Dinh Van is regarded as something of a revolutionary in the history of 20th Century jewelry design.
After studying drawing at the École des Beaux-Arts he went to work for Cartier where he spent many years at the workshop bench, first training and eventually creating jewelry for high profile clients such as the Duchess of Windsor. However, the spirit of freedom that permeated the 1960s was calling to him and he began to feel increasingly frustrated by what he perceived as the overly formal constraints placed upon jewelry design. He felt jewelry was becoming a ‘prisoner of tradition’ and he dreamt of designing bold, sleek pieces that would reflect what he saw happening in other areas of contemporary design, such as clothing, art, and furniture. He wanted to redefine luxury jewelry to mean pieces that were simple and bold, pieces that women could wear all day every day, not just for special occasions.
In 1965 he established his own workshop in Place Gaillon in Paris and collaborated with designers such as Pierre Cardin for whom he designed the now iconic ‘Two Pearl’ ring in 1967. The gold jewel was remarkable for its square-shaped shank which housed a pair of differently colors pearls able to spin freely within their partially enclosed setting. The shape of this ring would inspire many variations over the years and is now deemed so significant that it is part of the permanent collection of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Further collaborations with clients as diverse as Paco Rabanne and De Beers followed and, most significantly, with his old employer Cartier. Today, pieces that carry both the Cartier and Dinh Van signatures are particularly collectible.
It wasn’t until a decade later in 1976 that Dinh Van decided to open his own boutique at number 7, rue de la Paix. Further boutiques in New York and Geneva swiftly followed as more and more women discovered these new and stylish jewels that offered them something truly different and original. Unexpected and sometimes controversial motifs based on everyday objects such as razor blades, pins, locks, and handcuffs were transformed in Dinh Van’s imagination into fine jewels which married attitude with craftsmanship and quality. The purely functional suddenly became beautiful, stylish and desirable and his work gained a cult following. In 1980 he partnered with the sculptor César to create a gold pendant in the shape of a woman’s breast which he displayed alongside his own jewels as well as the Swatch watches that he began retailing in the early 1980s, much to the dismay of his neighboring fine jewelers. In 1984 he was selected as one of the first jewelers to exhibit their work in the newly opened jewelry gallery of the Parisian department store Galeries Lafayette.
As a personal protest against the 1993 change in French law which saw the reversal of the ban on importation and manufacture of 9ct gold, he created a collection of pure gold jewels, Pi Chinois, which were handcrafted in richly hued 24ct gold and hammered to give each piece both strength and a unique textured appearance. As both the new millennium and his eighth decade approached, Dinh Van felt it was time to slow down and he retired, selling his eponymous company (along with the rights to his name) in 1998.