wonders of Creation
The latest exhibition by Van Cleef & Arpels explores the very origins of minerals and their transformation into exquisite adornments. Charlene Co discovers some fascinating tales
Exploring the transformation from mineral to gem
As well as its striking size and beauty, the fancy vivid yellow briolette diamond hanging from the beak of a gem-encrusted bird brooch at Singapore’s Artscience Museum has a fascinating provenance. The spectacular 96-carat stone once belonged to the flamboyant Polish opera singer Ganna Walska, who was arguably more famous for her extensive jewellery collection and fondness for men—she married six times—than her voice.
The diva sold the gem and other jewels in 1971 at a Sotheby’s auction to fund renovations at her Californian estate. Van Cleef & Arpels outbid all rivals, which included Cartier, Boucheron and Chaumet, and named the stone the Walska Briolette Diamond, later incorporating it into the exquisite brooch. Whether by virtue of its provenance or its rarely seen quality and size, this gemstone tells a fascinating story and sets the tone for Van Cleef & Arpels’ largest and most elaborate heritage exhibition to date.
Van Cleef & Arpels: The Art and Science of Gems brings together a carefully curated collection of jewellery from the maison’s archives, a few pieces on loan from private collectors and more than 200 mineral artefacts from the French National Museum of Natural History. The main objective of the extensive display, says Artscience Museum executive director Honor Harger, is to take visitors on a “dramatic journey” of minerals, from their evolution in the depths of the earth to their transformation into works of art.
Harger and experts from Van Cleef & Arpels and the Paris museum spent two years conceptualising and developing the exhibition storyboard. “Throughout the entire process, we were engaged in an open dialogue—proposing ideas and angles that would challenge a traditional display,” Harger recalls. “The entire process required a very open-minded approach from all three institutions, and the result speaks for itself. We have an exhibition that has the authority and authenticity that will transport visitors in the depth of time and of creation.”
It was an ambitious project, to say the least, and its greatest challenge, Harger says, was to deliver twin narratives in a complementary manner—one focusing on the dramatic story of the formation of the earth 4.2 billion years ago, and the other showing how its ancient minerals are transformed through craftsmanship into exquisite jewellery. “This was not an easy task from a curatorial and scenography perspective, to bring two completely different disciplines and ideas into a dialogue with one another, but we succeeded,” Harger says.
The exhibition is divided into seven thematic chapters—abstractions, Couture, Influences, Precious Objects, Nature, Ballerinas and Fairies, and Icons—each with a dedicated gallery. Couture showcases the maison’s most audacious and innovative pieces, such as its iconic Zip necklaces. Abstractions features avant-garde Van Cleef & Arpels pieces inspired by the modernist and op art movements, while Influences presents jewellery representing the exoticism of farflung corners of the world.
Precious Objects offers an intriguing display of jewelled and enamelled vanity cases, such as pillboxes, make-up containers and cigarette holders, while Nature features jewellery inspired by flora and fauna. Ballerinas and Fairies showcases jewels in delicate, feminine figures in graceful poses. Icons is a display of grand pieces the maison created for such Hollywood legends as Elizabeth Taylor and Marlene Dietrich, as well as royals like Princess Grace of Monaco and Princess Faiza of Egypt.
Also displayed in all the galleries are astonishing gem and mineral specimens, including a meteorite four billion years old and an 800-kilogram crystal found in the Swiss Alps and presented to Napoleon Bonaparte in 1797.
A meticulously organised and exhilarating exposition, Van Cleef & Arpels: The Art and Science of Gems is eminently successful in making a display of rough minerals among magnificent vintage jewellery look elegant. Whether you’re into the science of minerals, the jewellery, or are simply intrigued by the provenance of iconic pieces, a visit to the exhibition is definitely worth your while.
Van Cleef & Arpels: The Art and Science of Gems continues at the Artscience Museum at the Marina Bay Sands, Singapore, until August 14.