A unique heritage story lies behind Van Cleef & Arpels’ historical collections
“Design, like art, is part of the history of humankind making stuff. Whether it’s been made for a gallery or out in the world, it still has meaning and it’s embedded with ideas and social, political and economic values” SIMONE LEAMON, CURATOR, NATIONAL GALLERY OF VICTORIA
What constitutes art? It’s an age-old question that gets many purists’ knickers in a fine old twist — especially in light of the rising popularity of museum exhibitions displaying creative works that are not paintings, sculptures, drawings, mosaics or fine photography. Blockbuster shows in recent years including Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, David Bowie Is and The House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture broke attendance records in multiple international art venues. Yet there are still certain critics (some might say ‘snobs’) who would question their rightful place in such hallowed institutions.
The same argument rears its head when it comes to design. Does this form of creative mastery belong in a gallery or museum? It’s a challenge that Simone LeAmon, curator of contemporary design and architecture at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), has addressed numerous times when discussing the triennial Rigg Design Prize (see page 215). “The hierarchy between art and design has been played out since the advent of Modernism,” she says. “Design, like art, is part of the history of humankind making stuff. Whether it’s been made for a gallery or out in the world, it still has meaning and carries messages, and it’s embedded with ideas and social, political and economic values.” Can the same be said about jewellery? At least one major maison sits squarely in the affirmative camp. Earlier this year, Van Cleef & Arpels (VCA) unveiled When Elegance Meets Art, a comprehensive exhibition at the Today Art Museum in Beijing, China, which featured nearly 400 pieces from various private collections as well as those from the maison. Presented in chronological order dating back to 1906, when Alfred Van Cleef and his brother-in-law, Charles Arpels, founded the first Van Cleef & Arpels boutique in Paris, this glittering patrimonial practically shattered its glass cases with wow factor. It featured historical showstoppers and signature creations such as the Collaret, an Art Deco dazzler once owned by Princess Faiza of Egypt, featuring 10 drop-shaped Colombian emeralds and studded with diamonds of multiple size and shape. There was also the 1956 Mystère IV, a flexible gold mesh necklace embellished with a fighter jet and a trail of graduated circular-cut diamonds — a gift for the first female pilot to break the sound barrier, France’s Jacqueline Auriol. ››
‹‹ Ethereal 1940s ballerina and fairy clips highlighted the maison’s celebrated sense of whimsy and charm; jewel-encrusted brooches depicting flowers, birds and butterflies testified to its fascination with nature; and the 1951 Zip necklace — an actual working zipper made of gold that can be transformed into a bracelet — left no doubt about the maison’s superlative technical knowhow. The evolution of VCA’s designs throughout the 20th century and into the 21st tell stories about time and place, and reflect changes in fashion, social mores and even political developments as keenly as any art form. Highly ornate vanity cases and cigarette boxes, all functional works of art, took off with emancipated women in the 1920s. With platinum relegated to military use during World War II, yellow gold became the precious metal du jour. The elegantly simple Alhambra necklace introduced in 1968 — clover-shaped charms set in semi-precious stones — heralded a less-formal approach to jewellery for the modern woman. (At the sprightly age of 50, it remains one of the maison’s most popular designs today.) Van Cleef & Arpels continues to delight its devotees with new innovations, such as 2017’s Le Secret collection — creations with clever mechanisms that give them a theatrical, animated quality. However, the jewellery house remains passionate about its century-long heritage, as exhibitions in prestige venues around the globe clearly attest.
A more intimate curated experience is offered to guests at the 1906 Room, a mini-gallery in the Sydney flagship boutique — the only one outside Paris. The serene space, designed in the hexagonal shape of the brand’s Place Vendôme headquarters, features a rotating themed showcase of signature heritage collections that is refreshed every three months. “This room is dedicated to patrimony,” says Nicolas Bos, VCA’s CEO and design director. “The pieces are not for sale; they are part of our own private collection. But for us, it’s a good way to introduce the house, to demonstrate the technique behind historical pieces, and to engage in a dialogue about how this inspiration or technique is translated today.”
In other words, it’s about showcasing the mastery and craftsmanship behind the glitz, the glamour and, make no mistake about it, the art. As Simone LeAmon so eloquently puts it: “Before people painted on cave walls, they painted on themselves, because it was a form of visual communication between different tribal groups. Jewellery is no less worthy than any other art form of study or applause, or being located in the conversation of human creativity.” Not to mention it’s so damn gorgeous.
“The 1906 ROOM is a good way to demonstrate the technique behind historical pieces” NICOLAS BOS, CEO, VAN CLEEF & ARPELS
Van Cleef & Arpels now has a new boutique in Melbourne’s Chadstone shopping centre. vancleefarpels.com @vancleefarpels
CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE Sequinned dancer clip (1953) in gold, diamonds, rubies; Chrysanthemum clip (1937) in gold, platinum, diamonds, rubies; Mimosa pair of clips (1948), formerly in the collection of Princess Soraya of Iran, in gold, brilliant-cut diamonds; Sequins clip (1948) in platinum, yellow gold, diamonds, all by Van Cleef & Arpels.
FROM TOP LEFT Spirit of Beauty clip (1941) in platinum, rubies, emeralds, diamonds; Indian-inspired necklace (1971) in gold, diamonds, emeralds; Fée Ondine Automaton (2017) clock, created for the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie watch fair in Geneva, in white gold, diamonds, opal, sapphires; Walska Briolette brooch (1971) in diamonds, emeralds and sapphires, all by Van Cleef & Arpels.