Saga GAS Bijoux

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I’ve often been criticised in the past for constantly talking about expensive brands.

That’s quite true. I love gold, and gold is expensive.

Therefore I’ll attempt to cure myself by telling the story of an extremely popular, affordable, well-known and incredibly creative costume jewellery brand.

If I pronounce the words St Tropez or Marseille, how does it make you feel? Besides the golden sun, the beaches and the Mediterranean Sea, jewellery wise, the name GAS Bijoux comes to mind.

For the past 45 years, GAS Bijoux has been the most dazzling brand originating from the South of France. Nonetheless, behind this colossal success lies the history of the Gas family.

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As you might have noticed in the past, what fascinates me in my jewellery-addict profession is to discover creative innovation, and to understand the story that lies behind it. The creators, their history, their culture, their passions and interests.

The interest I have for GAS comes from the idea that this well-know brand, distributed widely all over France and abroad, has kept its creative and desirable features throughout the years. The remarkable alignment between intensive distribution and the jewellerys’ precious details is something quite rare nowadays. This explains my admiration for GAS.

In my opinion, today’s high selling brands have traded charm and essence for profit and reputation. It appears to be that commercial success demeans a product’s uniqueness and authenticity in order for the brand to grow faster.

GAS is not amongst those brands. GAS is innovative, regularly creating new models, using new materials and techniques. The brand serves as a reference in the jewellery industry. Other people observe, admire and often copy them. GAS’s clientele ranges from 7 year old girls to 77 year old women, and all types of women wear the jewellery. GAS, to the jewellery world, is what Johnny Hallyday is to the French music industry : an idol.

I jumped onto the train at the end of May in Paris, with downpours engendering a gloomy atmosphere all over the city. 3 hours later, I found myself dazzled by the glare of the Southern sun. I was now heading towards the GAS studio to meet André Gas, the brand’s founder.

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I met my friend Nathalie at the train station. Just like me, she is passionate about jewellery design. She’s the one who kindly organised my trip. I jumped into her lovely Mini outside St Charles train station, and off we set. Next stop, Gas studio.

Attempting to explain the location of the workshop is beyond impossible. Even Nath herself, the most reliable girl from Marseilles, was completely disoriented. Our little road trip was enlivened by tiny roads and one-way streets in the most charming neighbourhood, on a hill next to Notre Dame de la Garde. After multiple distress calls, we finally made it to the correct address. However, once in front of the property at number 4, it seemed to me that we were in front of a private house, not the workshop of a renowned jewellery brand. We were inside André Gas’s house.

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A woman called Nadine welcomed us inside the property. Her seniority was reflected by the warmth of her welcome and the detailed visit she gave us. Inside the five floor studio, every artisan had his own creative space.

From Jean-Claude, Mr. “Feather”, who showed us multicolour handbags and gave us an account about pheasant feathers, to Natacha, Mrs. “Wrapping”, specialising in bangle weaving using colourful thread, including Bilou Miss “Enamel”, an expert on rainbow-coloured enamel and finally Alexandra, the scapular expert and Mr. “Tonneaux” the pearl magician.

 

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On every floor, we discovered even more workshops, secrets and details, synonym of Gas Bijoux’s richness. The higher floor offered us a breath-taking view over the Chateau d’If and the deep blue Mediterranean.

Every employee inside this Tower of Babel of Marseillais’ jewellery proudly showed us his work, his talents and his creations, all approved of by Mr. Gas. It was quite obvious that every employee feels at home here – serene and happy.

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On the last floor, we finally got to meet André Gas, a spry man in his seventies. He was having a serious conversation with the atelier manager, Jean Max. In a rush, he greeted us, addeding “I need to drop off a product in the neighbourhood very quickly and I’ll be right back” and off he went. Not an easy man to catch, André Gas! Nadine smiled and whispered “He’s a little stressed about the interview”. André Gas stressed? I laughed.

After Nadine had kindly invited us onto the rooftop, André Gas joined us to share the spectacular view. Once lunch had been served, André began to tell us the story about his life, with excitement and sparkle. Although deprived of any chronological order, André’s story was captivating.

I will attempt to recount it with a minimum of order.

In 1968, André left Marseille behind to set foot in the prestigious Beaux-Arts of Paris. In between student protests, Gas’s atelier was requisitioned by activists. Passionate about engraving, André confessed to owning a few vintage posters and banners from that era. After a period of time, André Gas’s vocation came to light. His aspiration was not to be an unknown artist, nor an elite artist for that matter. His dream was to be a popular artist.

After he graduated, Gas came back to his native South of France, but this time headed to the beach. Firstly, St Raphaël, then followed by St Tropez. It’s funny, I can imagine André at 28 years old. Handsome, tanned, with deep blue eyes and an inimitable, irresistible charm, drawing a crowd of pretty girls around his jewellery. He recalls that time with a cheeky smile. “It felt like Eldorado. During the day, I was on the beach selling my jewellery, and after sunset, went back to the atelier in my 2CV. We used to spend our nights producing, designing and perfecting every piece of jewellery to sell on the beach the next day. We were unstoppable.”  

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After Nadine had kindly invited us onto the rooftop, André Gas joined us to share the spectacular view. Once lunch had been served, André began to tell us the story about his life, with excitement and sparkle. Although deprived of any chronological order, André’s story was captivating.

I will attempt to recount it with a minimum of order.

In 1968, André left Marseille behind to set foot in the prestigious Beaux-Arts of Paris. In between student protests, Gas’s atelier was requisitioned by activists. Passionate about engraving, André confessed to owning a few vintage posters and banners from that era. After a period of time, André Gas’s vocation came to light. His aspiration was not to be an unknown artist, nor an elite artist for that matter. His dream was to be a popular artist.

After he graduated, Gas came back to his native South of France, but this time headed to the beach. Firstly, St Raphaël, then followed by St Tropez. It’s funny, I can imagine André at 28 years old. Handsome, tanned, with deep blue eyes and an inimitable, irresistible charm, drawing a crowd of pretty girls around his jewellery. He recalls that time with a cheeky smile.

It felt like Eldorado. During the day, I was on the beach selling my jewellery, and after sunset, went back to the atelier in my 2CV. We used to spend our nights producing, designing and perfecting every piece of jewellery to sell on the beach the next day. We were unstoppable.” 

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After asking him if he was alone doing the work, he rapidly answered that they were two of them: him and Dédé, the insomniac. According to André, Dédé used to fall asleep at the end of the night, when the sun started to rise, almost as if in a coma. André remembers the hilarious scene of Dédé in the dazzling light, slumped on the table with a few pearls glued to his forehead. André adds “That’s why I find the concept of the 35 hour working week absurd. What does 35 hours mean when you are building your own company?” After a deep breath he adds “Except for women. In that case I find it fair, for the children”.  

Throughout the interview, I discovered how generous André really is. A kind-hearted man that has built an atelier where more than 50 people work today. The employees, for the most part women, frequently don’t even have a diploma. Their CVs are adorned with life’s misfortunes, but they’ve managed to overcome their issues by blossoming within the company, just like being in a family. Once inside, there is no way out. At the same time, André’s watchword is “GENEROSITY”, so why would anybody want to leave the family cocoon?

Later, in the seventies, André Gas’s career really started to explode. He opened his first boutique by the harbour in St Tropez, a symbol of the South of France, and began his journey developing an artisanal brand that quickly became famous.

I have often read that André Gas was a globetrotter with wanderlust and that he found inspiration in his adventures. Imagining him wearing flared pants and smoking grass in an Indian ashram, I started questioning him about his escapades.

Absolutely not!” he cried out, “Back in those days, I was terrified by the idea of flying, so I didn’t travel at all !!”

I felt relieved and amused that André and I shared the same fears. I remember a trip from Paris to Seoul where I had to stay in the cockpit to avoid having a heart attack!

Nonetheless, in 1980, when André saw Woody Allen’s movie Manhattan, he fell in love. He HAD to discover the Big Apple, fear of flying or not. I can imagine him downing a few cocktails to overcome his fear, then Gas jumped onto a plane heading for the city that never sleeps. This trip marks the end of his fear and the beginning of a new life, a traveller’s life.

He discovered with excitement the 37th Street suppliers, where many Jews had settled during World War ll. When telling his story, I could see in his eyes, the memories reappearing. André spent his time in NY discovering every single jewellery stockist and ended up bringing back to France tons of new materials, supplies and ideas. Enchanted by the city, André began a routine of flying to the US five times a year. Today, his NY trip is biannual.

Thus the second phase of GAS Bijoux’s life began, galvanized by voyages and journeys to the most inspiring countries of the world: India, Indonesia, South America and a few islands lost in the middle of the deep blue ocean.

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This period was followed by many fruitful encounters, enabling André to develop the brand. After repurchasing his boutique place de la Garonne in St Tropez, Gas expanded the brand to Paris, on the rue Etienne Marcel, and to Milan. He also undertook a partnership in New York, thus marking the current internationalisation of the brand. Owning a piece of Gas Bijoux became now a cultural model. ?????

Thereafter the team began to expand and the need for partners became essential to organise the international purchase of supplies???. André was building a creative team that was (and still is) in his opinion an important creative resource with traditional know-how of artisanal work. He adds “They often had ideas that I didn’t have. They were more creative than me!”

He therefore was not the only creator of the brand; he admits that he needs external inspiration. “I’m a solitary person, but if I had done it on my own, I wouldn’t be here now.”

Nonetheless, employees are encouraged to follow their creative instinct, but the result must be an authentic Gas jewel. I asked him to define the singularity of a Bijou Gas and he answered: “The details, the full-stop and the comma all have to be where they belong, that is what make a Bijou GAS”. Generous and demanding, these are the two strongest traits of his personality.

The third phase of André Gas’s career is, according to André himself, his kids. Both Marie and Olivier entered the family business in early 2000. After finishing his business and communication studies, Oliver became the brand’s Chief Executive Officer. Marie undertook law studies and then decided to focus on the boutique’s fashion and accessory development. Moreover, she created concept stores called By Marie, whilst sometimes sharing her creative opinions with Gas Bijoux.

When I asked him what his children have taught him, he answered “My kids? They made me grow from a glider to a jet engine.” His aeronautic metaphor made me laugh a little. It is clear that André is finally at peace with a plane! André started listing a few of his children’s accomplishments punctuated with a lot of onomatopoeias (Bababi bababa !!! ouh la !!) Their computer knowledge, communication skills, taste in marketing and design, Marie’s sense of trend and fashion, as well as their social traits were complimented upon. André’s children are his inspiration, his whole world.

Time goes by and the wind begins to blow harder and harder. André and I switch seats because of the blinding sunlight in his face. He retorts “I’ve heard that too much sun isn’t so good” and begins to laugh.

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We pursued our conversation about voyages. He remembered a trip to Santa-Fé where the city’s richness amazed him, he talked about India’s spirituality, where everyone has a strict status in society and he began describing the country’s rarest, most colourful gemstones. He’s also attracted to polished and cultured ebony, Philippine pearls and all sorts of shells found on desert islands. He makes real treasure hunts out of his trips.

Throughout our conversation, two or three employees interrupted us to ask André his opinion on a product or his approval for a new idea. It is pretty obvious that the team is efficient, but requires André to run it.

André belongs to the post war generation often described as blessed, as if his success depended on the context he lived in. However, he rationalises this idea by quoting Etienne Rey “L’optimiste créé sa chance, le pessimiste lui fait peur” which could be translated as “the optimist creates his good luck, the pessimist makes it scared”.

André Gas does acknowledge that he was extremely lucky to begin his career in the seventies, when everything was possible, where money was flowing without being splintered by taxes, where every entrepreneur had infinite dreams, and when it was possible to shop on Place de la Garonne in St Tropez without having Bernard Arnaud’s wealth.

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He adds “Luck is like a train steaming ahead of us. Some will choose never to take that train. I jumped on it”.

Although he admits that everything is more difficult and complicated today, André is a real entrepreneur and knows how to make the most out of every situation and move forward. He lives in the present and it is that strength that has enabled Gas Bijoux to grow throughout the decades. André constantly has his head full of new projects, ideas and inspiration. Different creations emerge every day in his mind, without any brainstorming, depending on his daily discoveries.

When I ask him about the future, he answers work, meetings, new blood and possibly the idea of handing over the company. He is aware that his methods are outdated, but realistic enough to know that it’s part of his strength. “I can‘t imagine anyone other than myself capable of rummaging through caves at the end of the world to find inspiration. Otherwise, I would’ve met my soul mate!”.

By now, André fascinated me. I think that was quite obvious, according to the look in my eyes. The words “soul mate” made my heart stop for a second, imagining myself as an adventuress in exotic countries. But I didn’t dare saying anything. I felt paralysed and helpless. I couldn’t express myself. Moreover, I don’t think I’d be the best person to send by plane to exotic countries where you can catch Dengue fever as easily as saying hello.

When the time came to leave, I looked one last time into André’s gaze. A gaze in love with life, a gaze illuminated by the blue light of the Mediterranean, with a passion for encounters, voyages, exchanges and opportunities. The glance of a man who never stops, and whose life is an adventure, both private and public, a jewellery adventure.

I wish fair winds to André, and can’t wait to discover what GAS Bijoux has to offer today, tomorrow and in the future.

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