On June 23rd, 2023, a significant brand dispute reached its conclusion at the Paris Court of Appeal (n° RG 21/19404) as they delivered their decision in the case of Cartier & Richemont International v. Louis Vuitton.
The dispute revolved around the issue of free riding, with the iconic “Alhambra” jewellery collection by Van Cleef & Arpels at the center of the dispute. This ruling raises critical questions about the protection and preservation of intellectual property and creative legacies within the fashion industry. We delve into the details of this verdict and its potential implications for the world of high-end jewelry design and beyond.
Since 1968, Van Cleef & Arpels has showcased the four-leaf clover design in its “Alhambra” jewellery lines.
The inspiration behind this design is attributed to Jacques Arpels, who would gather four-leaf clovers from his garden, believing in their lucky significance.
In 2015, Van Cleef & Arpels discovered that Louis Vuitton introduced a jewellery collection named “Blossom”, (image below, right) previously known as “Monogram”, which included pieces featuring a four-leaf clover design in semi-precious hard stone surrounded by precious metal.
Cartier and Richemont International, responsible for marketing Van Cleef & Arpels jewellery in France and financing its advertising, filed an action against Louis Vuitton for “free riding,” claiming that the “Blossom” line reproduced all the distinctive features of their iconic design (image below, left).
Designs as featured in Court of Appeal’s decision
The plaintiffs argued that the “Blossom” jewellery line replicated:
- The aesthetic characteristics of the “Alhambra” collection, including a four-lobed design shape in smooth semi-precious stone outlined by precious metal, without any technical necessity
- The specific composition of the “Alhambra” collection, consisting of 31 four-leaf clover jewellery pieces
- The chosen colors for the semi-precious stones
- The three different sizes of the jewellery pieces, identical to those in the “Alhambra” line
- The pricing of the jewellery, referencing the price range of the “Alhambra” collection
- The advertising and communications employed by Van Cleef & Arpels, diverging from the typical Louis Vuitton style
Louis Vuitton defended itself by asserting that it had registered the design of a four-lobed flower enclosed in a circle as a trade mark (trade mark n° 96 612 504) in 1996, specifically for jewellery, and other categories. They emphasised that the choice of design for the “Blossom” collection was intentional and inspired by their iconic historical monogram. Finally, the defendant argued that floral designs, including four-round-petal designs, were widely used by other jewellery companies, pointing to prevailing market trends and common industry practices.
The Paris Commercial Court found Louis Vuitton liable of free riding, ordering them to pay over €200,000 in compensation to the plaintiffs. The court also banned the sale and manufacture of the contested jewellery pieces from the Blossom line, subject to a fine. Louis Vuitton was also directed to cover €120,000 of legal costs.
In response, Louis Vuitton appealed the decision, seeking the dismissal of the plaintiffs’ claims. Cartier and Richemont International cross-appealed, seeking additional damages.
Rationale behind appeal verdict
The Paris Court of Appeal reaffirmed freedom of trade as a fundamental principle, allowing the reproduction and marketing of objects not subject to private rights. They acknowledged the iconic nature of Van Cleef & Arpels’ “Alhambra” design and collection, defined as a “perfectly symmetrical four-leaf clover in semi-precious hard stone surrounded by a beaded precious metal and double-sided”, was considered a unique economic asset qualifying for free-riding under French law. Additionally, the Court dismissed Louis Vuitton’s argument regarding trade mark registration, stressing that fair trade practices must be upheld regardless.
The judges emphasised that the “Blossom” jewellery pieces, while similar in size to Van Cleef & Arpels’ design, lacked key characteristics such as a beaded, double-sided, smooth stone, and pearl setting. They also noted that the use of a four-leaf shape was common in applied arts and jewellery, citing similar collections by Chopard, Buccelati, and Morgane Bello. Finally, the Court recognised that Louis Vuitton drew inspiration from their own monogram canvas, adapting it to current trends, and did not position themselves in the wake of Van Cleef & Arpels’ iconic model.
The judges highlighted significant structural differences in the composition of the two jewellery collections. They noted that only seven commonly used semi-precious stones were shared between both collections. The Court also recognised that offering jewellery in two or three sizes is customary in the industry. Also, the prices set by Louis Vuitton for the “Blossom” collection appeared unrelated to Cartier’s pricing policy.
Regarding the claim of similar communication elements, the Court found the nature-themed presentations with clover/flower-shaped jewelry insufficient to prove Louis Vuitton’s intention to free-ride.
Based on the above, the Court dismissed Cartier and Richemont International’s free riding claims against Louis Vuitton, considering the evidence of wrongful conduct to be unfounded. The Court of Appeal reversed the first-instance judgment and ordered Cartier and Richemont International to pay €50,000 of legal costs to Louis Vuitton.
Though not legally groundbreaking, this decision serves as a valuable reminder, especially for luxury goods companies, about the concept of free riding and how it is handled by French judges. It highlights the importance of a thorough factual analysis and careful consideration of marketplace and industry practices.