Jeanie Keogh meets a woman who turns the past into the present at AXL Jewelry.
From the street, the ivory glow emanating from AXL Jewelry store makes the round Art Nouveau window look like pearls. Stepping into Brussels’ first high-end jewellery concept store on rue Mignot Delstanche has an immediate luxuriating effect. Axelle Delhaye sits down with me on the divan and I’m instantly drawn in by the hypnotic combination of her poise, soft voice and piercing eyes, to say nothing of her beauty. She is the personification of a precious gemstone and I take an instant shine to her.
She has two jewellery lines – her capsule collection, AXL, which is contemporary, and a more classical collection using Victorian era jewelry under her own name.
Speaking of what inspires her to work with antique jewellery, she says: “In the olden days, people didn’t speak to each other easily. There were a lot of social barriers, and jewelry was a means of communication. It carried a message. The way that flowers were arranged in a ring, for example, could express ‘I love you’. Each gemstone was coded. The letter ‘R’ was spelled using a ruby. I find that fun…”
It feels like we are not strangers talking in a boutique, but rather sisters in a boudoir.
“It’s the sentimentality in jewellery that I enjoy. Little round circles represented eternal love that could leave like a free bird, but would then come back again… or not, because at that time, people left and sometimes didn’t come back because they’d died.”
Axelle explains that although she works with unique bejeweled antiques from the Victorian period – a time well-known for its symbolic jewellery – the finished product is very contemporary. Her jewellery is what she calls “a meeting between the past and the present”.
She mines for precious gemstone jewellery at markets or through her sources, cuts them up, and then assembles pieces in a way that is more modern. For example, a fly from an elaborate brooch becomes a single earring, an Albert chain turns into a woman’s necklace with eclectic charms attached, the iconic Birmingham brooch becomes a ring, a hair pin is revived as a pendant on a necklace. Her golden touch is the way she is able to deconstruct the overly ornamental style of the Victorian era so that the understated simplicity of the jewellery can shine through.
In Axelle’s hands, a necklace with an assortment of artfully chosen charms becomes magical. She fingers a tiny gold fish charm from the 1950s and I can feel the reverence she has for the tiny piece of history she is delicately holding.
Encountering Axelle’s jewellery is much like the moment a mother hands her daughter the key to her jewellery box for the first time to look through the family heirlooms. Or, like discovering a lost engagement ring on the beach and wondering how it got there and who it belongs to. Her work is about the story contained in the piece of jewellery.
We peer over the glass menagerie and she stops at a magnificent ornate Victorian brooch that has caught my eye. She hasn’t touched it, but has rather left it in its original form.
She admits it will be difficult to sell as is.
“Maybe one day I’ll do something with it.”
For now, though, it will stay on display while she ruminates about how it should best be given a second life.
“If you look here you can see it is nicely mounted and well crafted, so I’m not going to cut it up just to cut it up.”
Much of the creative process happens in her head before she dismantles a piece and plays with different configurations like luxury Lego. It’s a lot about improvization and feeling, she says.
And as for the reason Axelle has a line that departs completely from the past and makes only contemporary jewellery: “I like to switch it up.”
Speaking about her idea to open AXL Jewelry store, she says: “I wanted to create a store where I could show off designers I liked.”
Indeed, she is wearing earrings made by two designers – in her left ear she wears a single Maria Tash opal triple spike and in her right is an earring by Yvonne Léon.
“I used to have a store close to Place Brugmann and worked in jewellery for 15 years before opening a store here. Before, we had not yet entered into ‘la petit joaillerie’, meaning jewelry that used real diamonds and gold but at a reasonable price. It was a time when this didn’t really exist yet.”
AXL Jewelry has been open for less than half a year, but I’d bet that it won’t be a flash in the pan.