Van Cleef & Arpels called on an avant-garde artist of the theatre to showcase its L’arche de Noé collection
To do justice to its vibrant L’arche de Noé collection, Van Cleef & Arpels called on a renowned avant-garde artist far removed from the world of fine jewellery. Charlene Co gets an exclusive tour of his dramatic exhibition, which opens in Hong Kong this m
Undulating waves projected floor to ceiling on the walls of the room create the sensation of being in the middle of a massive body of water. Suddenly sounds overcome the visitor—an increasingly turbulent storm, an apocalyptic crash of thunder, then a neardeafening silence. Suspended above the space is a wooden flat-bottomed boat, and glowing from the “water” are dozens of small windows displaying exquisite pieces of jewellery.
This multisensory experience was designed by American theatre director and artist Robert Wilson to showcase Van Cleef & Arpels’ latest high jewellery collection, L’arche de Noé (Noah’s Ark). “The sudden boisterous thunder is, of course, intentional,” says Wilson. “Because the silence that follows gives you clarity and focus to look at the jewellery in a different way.”
One of today’s foremost theatre and visual artists, Wilson is described by the New York Times as “a towering figure in the world of experimental theatre, and an explorer in the
“MY GOAL IS AND ALWAYS HAS BEEN TO ELICIT EMOTION. IT’S NOT ABOUT THE VISITORS SIMPLY LOOKING AT THESE BEAUTIFUL ROCKS. INSTEAD, IT’S ABOUT HOW THEY CAN BE AFFECTED BY BEING IN THE ROOM WITH ALL THESE JEWELS”
uses of time and space on stage.” Writers and performers with whom he has collaborated include Heiner Müller, Tom Waits, Susan Sontag, Laurie Anderson, William Burroughs, Lou Reed and Jessye Norman. Though a legend in the theatre and opera scenes, Wilson has never worked with jewellery, which probably goes some way to explaining his ability to conceive a spectacular way to present jewellery like no one before.
The L’arche de Noé show is the first jewellery exhibition Van Cleef & Arpels has opened to the public, a rare event in the world of high jewellery. It made its debut in Paris in September last year and is now about to open in Hong Kong, where it can be experienced at the Asia Society Hong Kong Centre in Admiralty from March 10 to 26. Right from the collection’s inception, Van Cleef & Arpels president and CEO Nicolas Bos felt strongly it would be a “far-reaching” one appreciated by a much wider audience than jewellery
“THE IDENTITY OF VAN CLEEF & ARPELS IS AS MUCH BASED ON CREATION AS IT IS ON TRANSMISSION, AND I BELIEVE THAT OPENING UP THIS EXHIBITION TO THE PUBLIC REINFORCES THAT PHILOSOPHY”
connoisseurs. It is, after all, inspired by Noah’s Ark, a story with universal resonance, and in developing the collection, one particular image caught the designers’ attention.
“The famous scene of a big herd of various animals being led by Noah to the ark has been depicted hundreds of times in the past, but we were drawn to one in particular—a 1613 painting by Flemish painter Jan Brueghel the Elder called The Entry of the Animals into Noah’s Ark,” explains Bos. “That was the specific inspiration for this collection, and what attracted us to it was the way it brings a great number and variety of animals together in a single event.”
The collection numbers 60 clips—from parakeets, owls and koalas to kangaroos, elephants and giraffes, and three mythical creatures: Pegasus, a phoenix and a unicorn. They are all one-off pieces, and the exhibition showcases 41 of them.
The clips continue a longheld theme in the maison’s universe. “Van Cleef & Arpels’ creations are about continuation and evolution,” Bos says. “We find a different angle to a familiar concept to fuel our patrimonial pieces. Throughout the maison’s history, we’ve presented animals in many ways— extravagant, majestic, elegant and funny. This time, we make them playful, childlike and innocent. We also present them in couples, which is different from what we’ve done in the past.” For the exhibition, Van Cleef & Arpels was keen to create an atmosphere that would be appreciated by both fans of high jewellery and the general public, including children. “We were determined to provide
a memorable experience even to those who are not necessarily fond of jewellery, or even those who haven’t stepped into our boutique,” says Bos. “And who better to create such a space than Robert Wilson. To me, Robert is one of the greatest artists for set designs, widely known for his brilliant use of light, which after all is what jewellery is all about.”
Having had no experience working with jewellery, Wilson had some homework to do before starting the project. “I went to see a number of jewellery showrooms and, I probably shouldn’t say this, but they are so boring,” he says. “They all pretty much look the same. So just as I do with all my projects, I asked myself: How can I touch the public with this jewellery exhibition? How can I move the visitors? I wanted to create a space where I can display something static like jewellery and make it a moving experience for those who visit. My goal is and always has been to elicit emotion. It’s not about the visitors simply looking at these beautiful rocks. Instead, it’s about how they can be affected by being in the room with all these jewels.”
Wilson’s early sketches of the installation show what perhaps most visitors would expect: a massive, solid ark. “But it just wasn’t right,” he says, “it was way too predictable and would occupy too much space.” As he recalls his process, he takes out his sketchpad, starts to draw and says, “I got thinking of a tiny boat. And this little thing, you’d imagine, would be nestled in this big empty space. Not only will we achieve this illusion of space, we also give the jewellery breathing room.”
Wilson’s installation is brilliant, but it doesn’t for one second overshadow the jewels it is designed to highlight.
Animals have long inspired Van Cleef & Arpels designers. In 1954, for example, the La Boutique collection was created to offer a line of colourful animal clips that would appeal to a younger clientele. More recently, animals made appearances in 2010’s Jules Verne-inspired Les Voyages Extraordinaires collection, 2013’s Midsummer Night’s Dream line and 2014’s Peau d’âne range. L’arche de Noé, however, is the maison’s first collection featuring only animals.
Bos says the decision to open the exhibition to the public fits with the spirit of the maison’s L’école jewellery school, which provides hands-on courses for people interested in becoming “enlightened amateurs”, as well as creative workshops for children. “We are extremely proud of what we do here, and we are very keen to share it with as big an audience as possible,” says Bos. “The identity of Van Cleef & Arpels is as much based on creation as it is on transmission, and I believe that opening up this exhibition to the public reinforces that philosophy.”
The French house has earned a reputation for its spectacular events and exhibitions. It held a grand soiree at the Château de Chambord, a magnificent castle just outside Paris, to present its Peau d’âne collection in 2014. A cruise from Monaco to Nice introduced the Seven Seas collection in 2015. And last year in Hong Kong, the maison whisked guests by chopper to its Poetic Complications exhibition at The Peninsula— by way of a breathtaking aerial tour of the city. The treatment given L’arche de Noé this year is somewhat subtler—but no less epic.
The Van Cleef & Arpels L’arche de Noé exhibition will be open to the public from March 10–26. You can book your visit at vcaarchedenoe.hk
Boxed Sets Windows draw attention to Van Cleef & Arpels’ exquisite clips at the Paris exhibition in September, which was designed by Robert Wilson (below)
into the wild The Entry of the Animals into Noah’s Ark, painted by Jan Brueghel the Elder in 1613. Opposite page: Artists work on sketches for the L’arche de Noé collection