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Making a statement

Elizabeth Varnell | December 28, 2007 | Story

French jewelry has been big and daring since maharajas and maharanis brought their precious stones to be set by renowned jewelers such as Frederic Boucheron, whose storefront is still on Paris's Place Vendôme. His designs commanded attention, as did the costume gems they inspired. These, in turn, caught the eye of Carla Labat and, 12 years ago, led her to start a line of large-scale costume jewelry called Camille K, crafted in her petite atelier in Palo Alto. Her collections incorporate the vintage French trims, buttons, buckles, appliqués, sequins, beads, passementerie, ribbons, and big bijoux she collects from flea markets in Paris and restores. The result: boldly designed statement pieces. Labat explains how to carry off such jewelry with a certain je ne sais quoi.

What's the first thing I need to know to wear large jewelry?
Look at your posture in the mirror. Stand up straight.

Then what?
Start with your first layer of undergarments. If you have a great-fitting bra, you'll stand up straighter. To get fitted properly, go to Cadolle, the oldest corset maker in Paris. [Herminie Cadolle showed the first bra, called the corselet gorge, during the Exhibition of 1900.] Locally, I like ELA Lingerie in Menlo Park and Agent Provocateur in San Francisco.

What's the next step?
Be realistic about your body type and know what will look good on you. Often, it's either the slow lane or the fast lane: women think they're bigger than they actually are, and their clothes are huge, or they think they're smaller than they really are and wear tight things. Find a basic wardrobe that suits you and start experimenting with jewelry. You think you like small necklaces; then suddenly you try big pieces and want them.

How do you dress?
I love a simple backdrop for that one eye-popping piece of jewelry—Dries Van Noten has great simple pants to pair with fluid, feminine tops. I choose my accessory first. The jewelry reflects the mood. I have to have the right piece on, and it sets the tone. It's like someone who loves to cook: they see beets and immediately think of a goat cheese salad and all the colors of the ingredients together.

Can I dress casually when wearing great jewelry? People love the look of women in Paris who have thrown on jeans, tied their hair into a loose knot, and put on beautiful Boucheron snake earrings. That's all you need: fabulously fitting clothes with one great piece of jewelry, once you have confidence and have learned to hold yourself well.

So big jewelry isn't just for special occasions?
Wear things fearlessly and know that someday you'll have to repair them.

How did you start acquiring large pieces of jewelry?
Ever since I was little, I've been wearing rings. But I wore dainty things when I was young and shy. After marrying a Frenchman, I started going to a shop in Paris called Babylon, which used to manufacture Jean Paul Gaultier's jewelry, when I was in my mid-30s. The pieces were major: huge butterflies. They were genius/madness pieces. I had to have them, even if I put them in a case and never wore them. Then one day I thought, I'm going to wear that, darn it. You don't get there right away, just as you don't start off being a great chef. I had a conversation with Alain Passard during a cooking class, and he said he started cooking with his grandmother and learned how to put things together. It takes confidence, almost borderline cockiness, to throw carrots in with chocolate—and that's a whole other level. But you learn combinations that go together, and you get bold.

How do you figure out what suits you?
Your ultimate style is what you find by experimenting. My mother always told me that you have to take it out of the case and try it on. Fashion is discovery, not following trends. We're an evolution; we keep learning what we're capable of.

What if I don't have a budget for fine jewelry?
You don't have to wait until you're 50 to get a Boucheron ring. It's all becoming more accessible. Jewelers are adding less-expensive lines, and they are mixing fine jewelry with costume pieces. Venice Beach-based jeweler Tom Binns does this.

What interests you most about each piece of jewelry you collect or create?
The history. Paris has taught me that things don't have to be bright and shiny to be beautiful. The patina and the layers on the antique pieces and throughout the city itself redefine what you think is beautiful.

You're an American who has dual citizenship—what jewelry will you be wearing for the Fourth of July and for Bastille Day?
Even though I usually wait to see what jewelry and clothing inspire me the day of an event, I can imagine wearing jeans and a white shirt for the Fourth with one of my big rhinestone paste cuffs for a bit of sparkle. For Bastille Day, I will probably be tempted to wear this fabulous vintage red caftan I have with my long neckpiece of wooden beads and rhinestones. My American side will be a bit more casual, and my French a bit more sophisticated—the food, too! 



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