Van Cleef & Arpels revisits the story of Noah and the Ark and comes up with inspired pieces that delight the senses. CEO Nicolas Bos talks about the journey.

There was thunder and lightning. We walked the gangway as rain pelted outside and once inside, we saw animals in pairs, all 60 of them, with an additional three mythical creatures. This is the story of Noah’s Ark, narrated in high jewellery by Van Cleef & Arpels.

The well-known bible story has been told in movies, books, animation and toys, but never in high jewellery — until now. Van Cleef & Arpels has given a glittering interpretation of how Noah built an ark to save humans and animals from the deluge.

The tale is told with great creativity and savoir faire. Only a maison as venerable as Van Cleef & Arpels — the company was founded in 1895 — could have done it. Imagine toucans, owls, elephants, giraffes and monkeys made of white gold and studded with diamonds, sapphires, garnets and more. Mythical creatures that joined the procession of animals are the unicorn, Pegasus and the phoenix.

How was the maison going to show off these amazing creations? Through a well-thought-out installation exhibition, L’Arche de Noé racontée par Van Cleef & Arpels, held at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center last month.

To pull the whole thing off, the maison engaged Robert Wilson, a visual artist and theatre director. The American is well known for staging plays that integrate dance, movement, sculpture, music and text — hence the theatrics staged for the small group of media people from Asia-Pacific countries and invited guests as a prelude to the exhibition.

The soft-spoken Wilson told the media at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center his approach to the exhibition was to look at the light first and see how it could be used to create space. He quoted Albert Einstein: “Light is the measure of all things.” Wilson made clever use of light to simulate lightning.

He wanted to create a “boat” and fill it with jewels inside. The exhibition space was designed around the theme of the flood, animals and, of course, the ark. A gangway was installed for guests to walk on. Inside the exhibition space, the animal brooches were placed behind glass cases reminiscent of a ship’s porthole but, most of all, the realistic sound and light effects such as the thunder and lightning and rain rounded up the sensorial journey. “The darkness of the space made the jewellery stand out like stars on a navigational map,” Wilson explains.

In the beginning
The L’Arche de Noé racontée collection is the culmination of months of work under the guiding hand of Van Cleef & Arpels CEO Nicolas Bos. In an exclusive interview with Options, he says: “I always look for the stories, tales, elements we could take as a starting point for a collection. Sometimes, we go for it, sometimes there are ideas we know are wrong along the way. I never thought of Noah’s Ark as a source of inspiration.”

But inspired he was when he laid eyes on a painting by Flemish painter Jan Brueghel the Elder entitled The Entry of the Animals into Noah’s Ark at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Bos thought there was great potential in doing a collection on animals using this approach. To him, the painting was all about colour, movement and vibrancy. “It tells the whole story of Noah’s ark and you can see the ark in the background. Because it is a story of the ark, all the animals are in pairs. There is this idea of couples in love; [I thought] that could really be quite interesting if we could do our own Noah’s ark in jewellery.”

Bos recalled, as a child, playing with a wooden ark that stored wooden animals in pairs. To him, there is a great tradition when it comes to a story as popular as Noah’s Ark — everyone knows the story, even those who have never read the Bible.

Creating such a sensorial exhibition is not new to Van Cleef & Arpels. In Les Voyages Extraordinaires, the maison paid tribute to the novels of Jules Verne. Jewellery pieces referenced nature and the incredible journeys of his protagonists and the animals they encountered as they travelled in a hot air balloon or submarine.

Bos explains, “[For the exhibition], we did a kind of representation of Jules Verne’s travels. It is like entering a submarine and there you had the [jewellery] pieces. So, we had [done things like that in the past] and we thought this could be something similar, as the narrative was very strong. We wanted to share with a wider audience and not just our clients.”

With that in mind, Bos realised Wilson was perfect for the exhibition. “I knew a bit about his work from seeing a few of his shows. I felt a lot of it would resonate well with what we do. It would bring a more contemporary, more abstract environment that would complement the jewels and not fight with them because of his familiarity with working with light,” he says.

“I really thought we should have an ark, like a big boat, and have the animals featured inside it, which is what I actually asked him to design. But I left it to him and told him to do what he felt was right. He worked on different variations and came up with this.”

Van Cleef & Arpels has also collaborated with choreographer Benjamin Millepied, who in 2013 staged a dance called Reflections, based on the maison’s ballerina creations. Millepied was with the Théâtre du Châtelet and is now with the LA Dance Project. He is married to Natalie Portman.

Making it work
It is a challenge for Van Cleef & Arpels to come up with ideas that keep the maison at the forefront of everyone’s mind. “Year after year, we try to express the creativity of the house in high jewellery, especially through collections that are anchored in a story. There are inspirations that have to do with a fairy tale, book or ballet, which is pretty much the way we create things,” says Bos.

Creating more than 60 high jewellery pieces is not without its challenges. How does one do justice to a well-loved story while introducing a certain amount of playfulness into the collection? Bos answers with a question: “How do we interpret all of it in jewellery?”

The challenge, according to him, was more on the design. How to create something that would not be too repetitive or boring, so that each and every piece would have its own personality? And at the same time, maintain consistency? Each piece from the collection took six to 12 months to create.

Bos says, “If you are a customer, willing to buy, or a visitor, willing to look at the pieces, you would, of course, enjoy the different animals and different styles. That was probably the main thing, and then, of course, [we had] to make them nice to wear, which is probably more challenging, or less obvious, when you work with a couple, rather than with a single piece.”

The brooches can be worn either individually or as a pair, Bos says. They look good both ways.

When asked which is his favourite piece, Bos hesitates, then says: “It’s difficult to choose. I love them all.” When pushed, he picks the unicorn because of its mystery setting and the owl for its cartoon-like interpretation. Mystery setting is a technique that has each gemstone set on thin gold rails that are less than two-tenths of a millimetre thick. When completed, the stones look like they are floating.

Even as the collection has given Bos so much pleasure, he hopes that it will offer a new experience to others — one they might not have expected, and that is a bit unusual. “Jewellery and high jewellery are not about expensive big stones or something out of a fancy store. This is an artistic category that is playful and has emotions. That’s really what we want to achieve with this type of initiative — for people to discover something that they really didn’t expect,” he says.

And encounter the unexpected we certainly did as we toured the exhibition space. We wait with anticipation to see what Van Cleef & Arpels has up its high jewellery sleeve in the future.


Two by two

ÉLÉPHANTS CLIPS
Clad in the deep colours of lapis lazuli and malachite, these two elephants are enlivened by diamonds. Each piece of semi-precious stone was selected, cut and adjusted with extreme care to ensure that the material’s striations enhance the design. The lines of the animals are stylised, evoking the appearance of traditional wooden toys. Yet, each elephant has an individual expression, the male peacefully nodding his head and the female cheerfully raising her trunk.
White gold, diamonds, buff-topped sapphires, lapis lazuli and malachite

PINGOUINS CLIPS
In this tender composition, two penguins face one another. Their wings are fringed with diamonds, thanks to the scalloped setting technique. The penguins’ bellies — mirrorpolished for added brilliance — contrast with their onyx backs, while the ice floe is suggested by an irregular play of cabochons. Two tones of coral are displayed on the base of the clip and the beaks, reflecting the maison’s expertise in selecting its materials.
White gold, pink gold, diamonds, coral and onyx

RATONS LAVEURS CLIPS
Side by side, two black-and-white raccoons are perched on dazzling and intensely coloured cabochons of spessartite garnet and pink tourmaline. Respectively weighing 36.26 and 12.70 carats, the gems suffuse this highly contrasted clip with a joyful vivacity. Combining onyx and diamonds, the animals stand out for their precise details — the nose, the mask around the eyes and the stripes of the tail, for example — while their coats are suggested by an extremely dense paving.
White gold, pink gold, diamonds, onyx, spessartite garnet and pink tourmaline

ZÉBRES CLIPS
Zebras make a noteworthy appearance in the collection, thanks to a graphic combination of materials. Their striped coats are depicted by an alternation of diamonds and lapis lazuli and onyx. Their muzzles are similarly sculpted in these latter two materials, with intricately crafted details. Different diamond cuts — round, square and triangle — punctuate this duet, whose geometric lines compose an elegant harmony.
White gold; round, square and triangle, white and yellow diamonds; onyx; lapis lazuli

HIBOUX CLIPS
Forming a coloured duo, this pair of owls attracts the eye with its innovative association of hard stones. Rarely used by the maison, sugilite is here given pride of place on the wings and ears of the bird on the right, clad in its rich violet tones. Its neighbour is adorned with the lagoon green of chrysoprase, selected for its intensity and even consistency. Intricately set around the eyes, on the rounded bellies and the spread feathers, round diamonds lend a final, luminous touch to the silhouettes.
White gold, diamonds, onyx, chrysoprase and sugilite

This article appeared in Issue 773 (April 3) of The Edge Singapore.