Van Cleef & Arpels mesmerises with a spectacular collection of high jewellery on display at an exhibition in Beijing

SINGAPORE (May 14): The Van Cleef & Arpels, When Elegance Meets Art exhibition explores the rich history of a maison that was founded in 1896. The designs of the jewellery in the collection may have changed with the times, but one thing remains the same: The quest for excellence and desire for technical innovation. From high jewellery to watchmaking, the maison has always paid attention to design, choice of stones and enduring sources of inspiration.

The maison has pioneered numerous technical inventions, passed down through the generations by its master craftsmen. This exceptional savoir faire — combined with a rich imagination — results in works of astonishing creativity.

To view these works of art, make a trip to Beijing’s Today Art Museum, where the exhibition is on from now to Aug 5. This extensive exhibition was first held in 2012 at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. The items in the exhibition — from the Van Cleef & Arpels Collection and private collections — total nearly 400 and are displayed in chronological order. You will learn about the history of the maison from the day it started and the famous people who wore its creations.

Of note are Elizabeth Taylor and Maria Callas. Others include royalty from Iran — special pieces were created for Princesses Fawzia and Soraya and later, the Empress Farah Pahlavi — as well as the Maharani of Baroda, the Duchess of Windsor and Princess Grace of Monaco.

To appreciate the present, the past needs to be understood. This applies to the history of the maison as well. In 1895, Estelle Arpels, the daughter of a gemstone dealer, married Alfred Van Cleef, the son of a stone cutter. One year later, they founded the Van Cleef & Arpels maison. In 1906, Van Cleef went into partnership with his brother-in-law Charles Arpels — and later, Charles’ brothers Julien and Louis — to open the first Van Cleef & Arpels boutique at 22 Place Vendôme. It was an immediate success and new stores were opened in Dinard, Nice, Deauville and Vichy, catering to an international clientele. In 1919, the Place Vendôme salons were enlarged and two more boutiques were opened in Lyon and Cannes.

Through the years

The following are some of the design trends through the years that you will get to appreciate at the Van Cleef & Arpels, When Elegance Meets Art exhibition.

1925: The award-winning Roses bracelet caused a stir with its design of blooming roses in ­diamonds and rubies and emerald leaves. The maison has continued to explore the floral theme in many of its collections. At the time, flora and fauna were popular subjects for jewellery creations.

In parallel, Oriental civilisations — such as those in Egypt, China, Japan and Persia — inspired innovative combinations and motifs. Lapis lazuli, turquoise, onyx, enamel and lacquer shared the spotlight with precious stones in surprising associations of materials and colours, notably on boxes and vanity cases. The white jewellery aesthetic — a blend of platinum and diamonds — placed the maison within the Art Deco movement, with both abstract geometric forms and more naturalist inspirations.

1926 to 1939: These were the years when the maison saw the collaboration between Renée Puissant — the daughter of Estelle and Alfred who took over as artistic director — and the designer René Sim Lacaze. The techniques developed during this period were instrumental in establishing the style of Van Cleef & Arpels. Their perfect understanding of techniques gave birth to the Minaudière, designed to replace the vanity case. This flat, oblong box — in gold, lacquer or styptor (an alloy of pewter and silver) — is fitted with multiple compartments to accommodate a society lady’s beauty accessories.

The mystery set technique was patented in 1933 and the secret lies in thin gold rails, into which faceted precious stones are inserted. The setting is invisible, giving rise to such creations as the Boule ring or the Peony, Feathers and Chrysanthemum clips. In 1934, the first Ludo bracelets appeared, their band made of flexible gold mesh with briquette (bricks) and, subsequently, hexagon motifs.

The maison took part in the New York World’s Fair in 1939 and presented the Passe Partout, a snake chain to which floral clips are attached and that can be worn as a necklace, bracelet or belt.

World War II: Part of the Arpels family settled in New York, where they opened an office, and in 1942, a boutique on Fifth Avenue. It was in the US that the first iconic Fairy and Ballerina clips were created.

In 1944, the second generation — Claude (1911-1990), Jacques (1914-2008) and Pierre Arpels (1919-1980) — took over the management of the maison. The Zip necklace, patented in 1938, was finally perfected in 1950. Based on a suggestion made to Renée Puissant by the Duchess of Windsor, this daring piece — inspired by the zip fastener — can be worn open as a necklace or closed as a bracelet. It went on to become one of the maison’s most well-known creations.

1960s and 1970s: The long necklace, combined with precious stones and braided gold thread, made its debut. Inspired by the four-leaf clover, the Alhambra sautoir was born.

1980s and 1990s: This era saw a return to short necklaces, presented in sets with clips, earrings, bracelets or rings.

The 2000s: The maison took on a new creative energy, and annual themes for the high jewellery collection were developed. They included L’Atlantide in 2007, Les Jardins in 2008, Les Voyages Extraordinaires in 2010, Bals de Légende in 2011, Peau d’Âne racontée par Van Cleef & Arpels in 2014, Émeraude en majesté and L’Arche de Noé racontée par Van Cleef & Arpels in 2016 and Le Secret in 2017.

Venue: Today Art Museum, Building 4,
Pingod Community, No 32 Baiziwan Road,
Chaoyang District, Beijing
Date: Now to Aug 5
Opening hours: 10am to 6pm. Closed on Mondays.

This article appeared in Issue 830 (May 14) of The Edge Singapore.

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