The ribbon itself was fairly nondescript. An inch wide, in a tone of deep red that had, when it was new, been reminiscent of a newborn claret before it enters the casks for aging. The ribbon was still red, of course, and anyone seeing it for the first time might exclaim that it was a lovely color, but truly it was ever so slightly faded, and its satin threads had lost some of their shimmer over decades of handling and wear, interspersed with long stretches of time inside a wooden treasure box. What really distinguished this ribbon was the edging that had been added, ever so delicately, of bobbin lace the color of the inside of an eggshell, woven into an intricate pattern of scallops and fern leaves by the women of Peniche, a village in Portugal in which the women occupied themselves spinning bobbin lace while their husbands were at sea. Some of their husbands never came home and those women made the most complicated and etheric lace of all. At its inception as a piece of fine jewelry, the ribbon with its lacy boundaries had held at its apex a teardrop-shaped ruby that echoed the color of the ribbon and made the lace look like a wedding veil.
Even as a toddler Geneviéve had admired that ruby when it hung from her grandmother’s neck; indeed, the whole choker made her feel bewitched and her favorite moments growing up were when her grandmére allowed her to handle, ever so gently, the things in her jewelry case – – except that the choker, with its already-dulling satin finish, could not be touched. But then Grandmére gave the choker to Geneviéve for her 16th birthday, from which time it sat in her own jewelry box until she was – – as her mother so irritatingly put it – – old enough to be responsible for the stir she would cause by wearing it. Over the years the threads holding the ruby became thin and worn, although this fact went unnoticed by Geneviéve because she always handled the precious necklace with such care. Then one night as she was climbing down from their carriage upon arriving home from a soiree, she became terribly impatient with her husband, Lucien, and when her hand flew by in front of her face in a gesture to reject his unwelcome chatter, the ruby fell into the mud, only to be buried by the left rear hoof of Geneviéve’s favorite horse. She was bereft when she undressed for bed that night and discovered the loss.
In the 15th century King Ram Raengkheng of Siam had the idea that he could harness the power of Asian elephants in ways that would benefit his monarchy. They could be used for transport! To assist in the planting and harvesting of crops! They could help his army defend the kingdom! In the farthest northern province of Siam King Ram created a sanctuary that doubled as a center of animal husbandry and a training ground for elephants and for their handlers. One hundred and thirty years later Kim Ram was long dead, but his successor had continued to breed and train the elephants, who were led by the matriarch of them all, Megadra. The entire country mourned when Megadra died, but her daughter Charyanda took up the tradition of keeping the other elephants in line and letting their handlers know when to come forward and when to leave them be. Charyanda died too soon, herself, of a snakebite on her trunk that brought her down in three beats of her pachydermic heart. Charyanda had two of the most stupendous, beautiful, smooth and lustrous tusks that anyone around the elephants had ever seen. When she died her tusks were removed and the right one, the straighter of the two, was cut into four pieces, three of which traveled down the Silk Road to various places, far and wide, an ivorian diaspora. The largest piece ended up in Sicily, where it landed, eventually, in the hands of a carver of cameos.
This carver was one of the artisans who was captured by Napoleon when he conquered Sicily in 1807. Napoleon was so captivated by the artistry and craftsmanship of the cameos in Sicily that he uprooted the entire craftsman’s guild, took them as hostages to France and established a new school in Paris where the Sicilians trained French craftsmen to carve and set cameos.
Thus, a small flake of the ivory from Charyanda’s tusk was transformed into a cameo, a delicate, intricate, finely carved cameo that depicted, of all things, the birth of Venus, and was inset into onyx. This was the cameo that Lucien du Marchant gave to Geneviéve for their tenth wedding anniversary, in replacement of the ruby that had been lost in a fit of anger many years before.
Because she and Lucien were among the nobility of France at that time, Geneviéve wore the choker with its magnificent cameo on July 25, 1894, the day she and Lucien attended an event of state and met the First Couple of France. She wore it with a fine dress of the same, deep, claret red, a silk dress with gigot sleeves and underlain by a linen corset with 60 whalebone stays — corsets having been introduced to France by Catherine d’Medici in the 1500’s — accompanied by Moliére high-topped shoes of rose-colored suede, suede being newly au courant in the Paris of the 1890’s.
My name is Lizette Clemenceau and I am the curator of the Museé Galliera in Paris, France’s foremost fashion museum. My maiden name, however, was Lizette du Marchand. Geneviéve was my great-grandmother.
Cover photo by Tania Oloh on Unsplash