RENDEZVOUS WITH OLAF VAN CLEEF
He is French, but Olaf Van Cleef’s love for India reflects in his artwork. Society catches up with this artist and jeweller extraordinaire and gets a delightful account of his Indian escapades
The Frenchman Olaf Van Cleef is madly in love with India and he tells us why in an intriguing artsy chat
Cartier’s jeweller for India, Olaf Van Cleef, combines his passion for India and Indian spirituality into fine artwork. His artistic endeavours also blend his yen for jewellery, the result being exquisite paintings intricately embellished with Swarovski crystals, sequins and tiny chocolate foil wrappers. Each painting can be termed a jewel in itself. Having been a counsellor to Cartier on high-end jewellery for four decades, Olaf avers that his artistic endeavour is “inspired by the vibrant colours, the sights, sounds, smells and cultures of India”. His art exhibition at Kolkata’s Taj Bengal sometime back, was testimony to that fact. Olaf is the scion of the famous aristocratic Van Cleef dynasty, known to export cheese from Paris to the Netherlands and were also jewellers to the Czars of Russia. Though a Dutch by origin, Olaf is based in Paris. But the lure of India entices him to visit the country again and again. As the Cartier consultant, he is a hot favourite of India’s aristocrats and royals. He shares secrets and stories with the Maharajas and Maharanis and is always asked to take a look at their precious jewels and advise them on the jewellery. Olaf transforms his insomniac hours into a delight of colours. It is in the solitude of night and the early dawn that he finds solace in painting. “I paint from 2am to 7am, often listening to Mozart at that time. I have my breakfast at 2am and get on with my painting,” he tells us. From then, it is work as usual. He dons his business suit advising the rich and the famous on jewellery trends and design. When does he sleep? We ask. He smiles and says that he catches up with some sleep from 9pm to 2am. His larger paintings could take some 400 hours to complete, while the smaller ones can be completed in 150 hours. “I can spend three hours working in just two cm squared paper,” he reveals. In his paintings, one sees art-deco influence, a hint of Mughal miniature art, Tanjore paintings and Indian calendar art depicting gods and goddesses. The themes are mythological with scenes from the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, gods and goddesses, with Krishna being his special favourite and also other themes of India–a boy reading the Quran in front of a mosque, Vivekananda, Mughal emperor, a scene from a royal
court. Indian themes are finely blended with Western imagery. For example, Vishnu rising from a bed of lettuce leaves or a portrait of Ram and Sita in the background of a typical European castle. Thereafter, he moved to Buddhist and Tibetan deities using thangkas as his inspiration. Olaf’s tryst with painting began on a trip to Austria with his godmother Alice—his father’s girlfriend—who brought him up. The vivacious Alice filled up his life as a motherless child. “The greatest gift from my mother Alice is the box of colours she thrust into my hand, allowing me to experiment with myriad colours and create an avenue to put my soul on canvas.” Olaf then plunged into painting and started recreating his own world. In this world, he was the king. He could transform darkness to dawn with the magic touch of his brush. Later, he discontinued his childhood hobby, only to take it up again, many years later, in 2002. Speaking in his heavily French-accented faltering English, he says, “My guideline, both for my jewellery and paintings, is that less is more.” Olaf prefers designing delicate jewellery as “small can be both chic and expensive and large can be cheap. You cannot have diamond and emerald and lapis lazuli and everything in one piece of jewellery. Like you don’t put butter, marmalade and cream…all of it on your bread! Of course, if someone wants a large piece of jewellery, I have to do it.” Olaf also prefers platinum or white gold to the shining yellow metal and tries to persuade his clients to go in for the subtle look. He went to Pondicherry because of his French connections and there, he became a big fan and follower of the Holy Mother at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. He is also inspired by the teachings of Sri Aurobindo. When Olaf was just fifteen, he first visited India with his grandmother. “I remember the parrot my grandmother bought from Mumbai’s Crawford Market. When we left, she released the parrot. After she died, I forgot India. But when I was 25—like many other young Westerners—I came to Goa with friends,” he recounts. But while the rest were busy smoking hashish, Olaf began discovering the real India. “I have travelled all over India…been to Jhansi and learnt the tale of Rani of Jhansi, have gone to the elephant market in Patna, besides visiting Hyderabad, Kottayam, Hampi, Kutch, Kochi and Chennai. But I still haven’t seen much of India. I have a lot to learn about the country and its people because India is like a continent on its own,” he feels. Olaf has also published a travelogue on India, titled From Darjeeling to Pondicherry. On his Cartier connection and the Indian designs he has done for the jewellery major, he says that in 1985, when Cartier discovered his passion for India, it approached him to look at the possibilities in this emerging market. He recalls a conference with students at St Xavier’s College in Mumbai, where he talked about Cartier. “At that point, one young man said, ‘Mr Olaf, you are very interesting but I have a lot of problems with Cartier. I am vegetarian, so I don’t want the face of a tiger on the neck of my wife. Your collection of bamboo designs is very nice but it also symbolises the house of the poor. Also, your necklace with the elephant is fine but the nose is not right. Elephant for us is also Ganesh, the god.’ All this really opened my eyes to the details that have to be kept in mind while designing jewellery for Indians. The young man gave me a shock because he gave the message that what you do is good for Americans or the French, but not for us. What will you do for us?” Olaf’s next task was to hold an audio-visual show of Cartier jewellery for the ‘ smart people’, show them images of watches, necklaces, earrings, etc and “keenly observe their expressions... what they liked and what they didn’t”. “So many tourists come to India and barge into shops and take home mementos. They want to buy lots of things from India because they are not expensive. But very few people want to give to India. That’s a very difficult thing to do, but I want to do it,” he says passionately.