THE ART & SCIENCE OF GEMS: VAN CLEEF & ARPELS
In recent years, luxury houses have made ever-greater efforts to emphasise their heritage — the centuries the company has been in operation, its roots in a more civilized age — and the time-honoured, time-consuming nature of the craftsmanship that goes into painstakingly creating their products.
What we often forget, however — and what the 110-year-old house of Van Cleef & Arpels seeks to highlight with its new exhibition in Singapore, ‘The Art and Science of Gems’ — is that at least in the case of jewellery, all numbers considered on a human timescale become mere blips when compared to the age of the stones that jewellers work with.
This unique exhibition juxtaposes more than 400 stunning Van Cleef & Arpels creations spanning the house’s earliest days at the dawn of the 20th century right through to the present time (including historic pieces that were once the property of luminaries including Princess Grace, Maria Callas, Elizabeth Taylor and Wallis Simpson) against 250 mineral and gem pieces drawn from the French National Museum of Natural History — massive gold nuggets, the world’s largest black diamond, meteorites, a boulder-sized hunk of quartz, emeralds, opals, rubies, and stone literally billions of years old.
Explaining the exhibition’s innovative curation, its interplay of mineralogy, gemology and artisanal jewellery, Van Cleef & Arpels President and CEO Nicolas Bos tells The Rake, “We believe it is our duty to give access, an opportunity, to the widest possible audience to discover what we feel is magic about the world of jewellery at large. Not only the collections of Van Cleef & Arpels, but all the different facets of the world of jewellery — the craftsmanship of course, the style and the connections between the world of jewellery, decorative arts, the world of fashion and art, as well as the stones, their history, and all things geological.
“There are a lot of facets to that world that can really make it attractive and fascinating to many more people than just a limited number of our clients that can afford to buy these pieces. We wanted not only to attract those that know about jewellery, but those that have no clue — because why should they have a clue?” The aim, Bos says, is to educate and delight anyone with an interest in the world in which we live. “Hence the decision to not only concentrate on the jewellery but also the stones, the minerals, and to tell the story that really goes from the Big Bang and the creation of the universe, right through to the artisans in our workshop — with pieces that are impressive, that are funny, that are educational, magical, and create a really unique experience for the visitor.”
Though there’s much to appeal to even the most casual observer, the true aficionado of craftsmanship — and the rakish seeker of the quixotic — will find a great deal to tickle their fancy, especially in the collection of objets. Catherine Cariou, Van Cleef & Arpels heritage director, explains that among her favourite pieces in the Precious Objects gallery is “a bird cage, originally created around 1935 for an Indian Maharajah as a special order. It is exactly the size of a real birdcage, and it’s made of yellow gold, rubies, onyx, lapis lazuli, coral — but when it was created, the birdcage was used to house the Maharajah’s pet frog! There is a small swimming pool for him inside, and a gold ladder that the frog would climb at different times according to the weather. Unfortunately, Hortense — this was the name of the frog — he died three years after the creation of his house, and so, it was transformed into a birdcage.”
This eccentric, whimsical creation may be the piece with the most unusual story attached, and the weirdest raison d’etre. But Cariou continued on to point out an array of remarkable objets — among them, a 1920s gold roulette wheel cigarette case, a seemingly superfluous but beautiful Champagne swizzle, a Pacha’s Vendome-shaped lighter, the vanity case gifted by ‘Bentley Boy’ Babe Barnato to his wife commemorating his successful motor race against the Cannes to Calais train, and a perfect precious-material replica of a New York millionaire’s yacht, equipped with an electric bell for hailing the butler (highly innovative for 1907).
Whether you’re interested in exploring the boundaries of man’s imagination, the highpoints of craftsmanship, or the infinite depths of this planet’s genesis, the Art & Science of Gems will undoubtedly leave you dazzled.
The Art & Science of Gems exhibition is on now until 14 August 2016 at the ArtScience Museum, Marina Bay Sand, Singapore