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Van Cleef & Arpels Exhibition, 'Time Nature Love', Milan

Jewellery, because of its size, is not easy to display in an exhibition as it is difficult to understand its craftsmanship when it cannot be handled.

I always want to feel the piece, turn it over to see the manufacture and get the sense of the craftsperson, to see to what extent they have pushed their boundaries. So often, jewellery displays in museums or in dedicated exhibitions only show the front of a jewel, which I find very frustrating as the back is just as important as the front. When I visit a jewellery exhibition, how a jewel is displayed, along with how it is lit, is therefore very important to me.

In January, I went to see the Van Cleef & Arpels exhibition in the former royal residence Palazzo Reale in Milan, where over 400 Van Cleef & Arpels jewels, watches and objets d’art were being showcased for the first time in Italy. As you entered the palace, you immediately felt a sense of grandeur as you walked up the wide granite staircase to enter the exhibition.

The staircase of the Palazzo Reale
The staircase of the Palazzo Reale, leading to the exhibition

The Maison has always been about design and craftsmanship, so I was excited to see how they were going to relay that message to the visitor. Van Cleef & Arpels are renowned for collaborating with other disciplines to enrich the experience of understanding the art of designing and making jewellery.

It was the vision of their guest curator Alba Cappellieri, Professor of Jewelry Design at Milan Polytechnic University and Director of the Vicenza Museum of Jewelry, who interpreted the Maison’s creations through three key themes: Time, Nature and Love, and likened these to the five values cited by the extraordinary Italian writer Italo Calvino: Lightness, Quickness, Visibility, Exactitude and Multiplicity. The exhibition also included homages to dance, fashion and architecture.

Starting with the value Lightness, Cappellieri stressed the Maison’s attention to precision: less is more, less is better. Lightness explored the juxtaposition of the hardness of the stones with making a jewel feel light in weight, lightness being in the detail and also in the light reflecting in the stones.

Van Cleef & Arpels diamond necklace, 1939. Once owned by Princess Fawzia
Van Cleef & Arpels diamond necklace, 1939. Once owned by Princess Fawzia

Quickness is the frenzy of time but also the poetic nature of time; you can travel through time, but it is impossible to know the meaning of time as we give ourselves no time to understand. Time’s invisibility was represented though the Maison’s hidden watches and their invisible mechanisms shrouded in jewelled bracelets and ornaments.

Van Cleef & Arpels gouache for a ‘Ludo' ruby watch bracelet circa 1930’s
Van Cleef & Arpels gouache for a ‘Ludo' ruby watch bracelet circa 1930’s
Ludo Tourniquet secret watch 1937 Van Cleef & Arpels
Ludo Tourniquet secret watch 1937 Van Cleef & Arpels

As we moved into Visibility, we consider how we are often not given the time to explore our fantasies, dreams or our imagination, but if we had the opportunity to follow these pursuits in our lives they would be the new luxury. VCA give their craftspeople time, which is the new luxury. What is interesting is that I am now writing this while in the biggest global catastrophe this generation has ever experienced and at the moment, while many countries are under lockdown, it has given a few of us the opportunity to really think about what is important to us. What will be deemed the new luxury? It will be interesting to see how this phenomenon will alter people’s perceptions of what luxury means to us. Exhibited in this room were the beautiful themed fantasy jewels, depicting fairies, castles and characters from films and fairy tales such as Sleeping Beauty, Songe d’une Nuit d’Été, (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Fantasia, Peau d’Âne and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

 A selection of  Van Cleef & Arpels ballerina broaches
A selection of Van Cleef & Arpels ballerina broaches
Palazzo Reale
Palazzo Reale

Representing the precision of Exactitude were the iconic Mystery Set jewels, which I never get tired of seeing; every time I see them, my appreciation of the craftsmanship just continues to grow. Exactitude encompasses the heart, art, eyes, patience, the ability to appreciate knowledge, passion and creative freedom. Time does not exist in itself, as it is already held within these values.

Chrysanthemum clip
Chrysanthemum clip, 1937, Van Cleef & Arpels. Rubies and diamonds
Peonie clip
Peonie clip, Van Cleef & Arpels, 1937. Rubies and diamonds
Château Enchanté Clip
Château Enchanté Clip, Van Cleef & Arpels, 2014
Bird of paradise clip
Bird of Paradise clip, Van Cleef & Arpels, 1942

To see so many of these incredible jewels all together in one place was such an overwhelming experience.

Next was Multiplicity, in the words of Italo Calvino, ‘...a method of knowledge, and above all as a network of connections between the events, the people, and the things of the world.’ The sense of metamorphosis or transformation has always been one of the Maison’s values. They have explored systems that affect each other; systems that can’t stand alone; instead, it is their interaction and collaboration that will culminate into a working system. Such as the Passe-Partout, which was first created in 1938, a jewel that can be transformed into many different wearable components.

Emerald and diamond necklace,  Van Cleef & Arpels, 1971. Formerly in the collection of Her Highness Begum Aga Khan
Emerald and diamond necklace, Van Cleef & Arpels, 1971. Formerly in the collection of Her Highness Begum Aga Khan

This exhibition was about identifying the philosophy in the jewels, and cross-fertilising between references to dance, architecture and fashion brought renewed innovation and vitality into the jewelled creations.

There were 14 rooms in total and the jewels on display were breath-taking. With the association of the written works by Calvino, I felt I was looking at very familiar jewels from a completely fresh perspective; these pieces come alive again. The lighting of the jewels was sensitively executed throughout the exhibition, as the lights were positioned so that the jewels themselves created shadows of beauty. For most of the pieces, you could see their reverse, which was an added bonus.

To see the number of Ballerina brooches, for instance, all together took my breath away; it was refreshing for me to see the jewels for what they are and not for their monetary value, as is so often the way. This exhibition underlined the ethos of VCA, for its team wants to continue to evolve, be inspired and, most importantly, move forward without losing the integrity it has built over 100 years.

I walked away from the exhibition with my soul lifted and inspired as it placed jewellery firmly in the category of art appreciation, where jewels like these belong. In light of current circumstances, adjustments will need to be made both in manufacture and people’s understanding of quality and good design. If some jewels are appreciated and valued as an art form, then the jewellery industry will survive.

The Bouquet Clip
The Bouquet Clip, Van Cleef & Arpels 1938

Joanna Hardy

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