Some of the most influential women in the world of Haute joaillerie (fine jewellery) were the famous courtesans of Paris, the mistresses of the powerful in the early 20th century.
It would be a misconception to perceive these women as just mistresses of the rich and famous of the time. In truth, many of them went on to influence fashion, jewellery, art and culture. They lived flamboyant and extravagant lifestyles for the time, but, most importantly, they empowered women on an unprecedented level.
Two of these courtesans had a famous rivalry. Liane de Pougy and La Belle Otero were from very different backgrounds, but they both shared a desire to escape their origins.
La Belle Otero became such an icon of the Belle Époque. Born in Spain in 1868 as Carolina Otero, she went through a troubled childhood. Otero had real talent as a dancer and this allowed her to escape to Paris, hoping for a better future. She arrived there on the eve of the 1889 Paris World Fair and began to enchant the Tout-Paris, dancing on stage and mesmerizing her audience. She was quickly nicknamed Belle Otero.
Her agent and lover, Ernest André Jurgens, organized a triumphal international tour in the USA, and she returned to Paris in 1891 a bonafide star. He committed suicide after she left him in 1895. Surprisingly, he would not be the last. Other suitors followed this unfortunate path, leaving Otero with a new moniker of ’Suicide mermaid’.
It is believed that when Otero decided to retire from the stage in her forties that her fortune was worth close to $25 million. Unfortunately, her gambling addiction was so strong that she eventually lost everything. She spent her last years in a small apartment, alone, with strong signs of dementia, close to a state of complete poverty. La Belle Otero died in 1965, no longer the famous star she once was.
Liane de Pougy, born Anne-Marie Chassaigne in 1869 in France, has a life equally as unbelievable. Having grown up in a strict military family, she then spent most of her formative years in a nunnery. At 16, she ran off with a naval officer who had got her pregnant. It didn’t take Liane long to get bored and find another lover. Which, of course, led to her husband trying to have her killed and forcing her to abandon him and the child.
Liane sold her only possession, a piano and fled to Paris, where she embarked on her career as a courtesan. She used her charm to make her way to the top of Parisian society. She danced on stage at the Folies Bergères, learnt acting with Sarah Bernhardt, was editor-in-chief of a newspaper named ‘L’art d’être Jolie’ (The Art of Being Pretty), and was famous in Paris for her extravagant and overly expensive jewels.
Eventually, Liane married a penniless Romanian Prince and became Princess Ghika, until she was abandoned by the said prince for a much younger woman after 16 years of marriage. She finally turned towards her faith in God, moved to Lausanne in Switzerland, where she became a nun before dying in 1950, aged 50.
The profound influence these two courtesans had on the Haute Joaillerie is undeniable. Their love for jewellery and the immense wealth they amassed for decades made them some of the most important clients of such houses as Boucheron and Cartier. Every one of their outfits and jewels was discussed at length in newspaper reviews and bourgeoisie circles.
Liane and Otero’s rivalry came to a climax when they both decided to attend the same opening night. Wanting to outshine her rival, La Belle Otero spread the word that she would arrive with the most incredible diamond parure, made on order for her for the event, including a gem-set bolero. On the night of the opening, La Belle Otero arrived covered in jewels, shining and sparkling from miles away, as if her outfit was made not of fabric, but of gemstones. Mesmerized, the audience couldn’t wait to see how Liane de Pougy’s jewellery would compare.
The entrance of Liane de Pougy left the crowd dumbfounded. Proud in her magnificent vaporous dress, not one gem or jewel could be seen on her. Liane made her way into the theatre when suddenly whispers emerged around her. Walking just a few steps behind Liane was her maid, wearing an extravagant dress and the entirety of Lianne’s jewellery collection.
La Belle Otero had to face comparison with a lowly maid, and Liane de Pougy emerged from the fight with a condescending message. And of course, all high society was now talking about it.