Maître d’art, Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres and winner of the Bettencourt Prize for the Intelligence of the Hand, Nelly Saunier is a plumassière, a feather artist. In her Paris studio, she deconstructs and reconstructs nature.
Plumassière. The French word does justice neither to the material nor to the meticulous nature of the work it entails. Another term should be invented, one that recalls its delicacy and the sumptuous exuberance that characterizes some compositions as “dreams that bring together matter and air”. This is how Frédéric Mitterrand, France’s former Minister of Culture, evoked Nelly Saunier’s work when he named her Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. “The feather has a duality: it is a sensitive, living, dreamlike material, and a symbol of wealth and power,” says Saunier. “Its nature is timeless: children know that each feather they find is a treasure.” She has been collecting feathers since she was 14: “I had a boundless fascination for nature.”
This pastime was no doubt the inspiration for Transformed Nature, “poetic objects” that revisit all things botanical and that the artist, winner of the Villa Kujoyama prize, brought to Kyoto. “I wanted to offer another view of the feather, to transform it to take on wholly novel effects.”
A master of trompe-l’oeil, Saunier creates feather flowers, or what she calls “something fake made from something real”. Faux calfskin made from real rooster neck feathers for Jérôme Dreyfuss or jacquard-type sweaters for Jean-Paul Gaultier made of sewn and glued feathers—pheasant, rooster, partridge, turkey, bird of paradise, goose, garden jay—her talent has seduced the biggest names in couture.
For Givenchy, Isabel Marant, Nina Ricci and Paco Rabanne, she has created wearable sculptures. For designer Maï Lamore, Saunier imagined Souliers de Paradis (shoes made of goose and peacock feathers with pigeon trim) and for directors Luc Besson and Joe Wright, the hats and finery for Adèle Blanc-Sec and Pan: “I loved working for the cinema, but in recent years my clientele has been more in fine jewelry and watchmaking,” she confides. Enchanting birds for Van Cleef & Arpels (Les Cadrans Extraordinaires featuring kingfisher feathers) or Premier Feather for Harry Winston (white gold and diamond watches with dials inlaid with peacock and pheasant feathers), Saunier works within a tenth of a millimeter to create these miniatures feather sets. She recently completed a new piece (Majestic Plumage necklace) for Piaget’s Ailes de Lumière collection: a feather marquetry set dotted with sapphires, spinels and a 7.49-carat tourmaline.
“Feathers are unpredictable. You need to know each color, texture, pattern and volume. They don’t all lend themselves to the same use. Each piece is the fruit of years of collecting molts that are indexed.” The raw material is subject to strict regulations: “We don’t ‘defeather’ the bird, it offers us its beauty.” Sometimes bleached or dyed, the feathers are shaped with a trimming or curling knife then mounted and glued on metal and cotton thread. “Everything is done by hand. After all, beauty needs time!” she concludes.