Style / January 2016

Song of Himself

The birth of the Pierre Arpels watch.

At first, Walt Whitman's most seminal poem had no title. It was simply referred to in his book, Leaves of Grass, from 1855, as 'Poem of Walt Whitman, an American'. But as the poem gained traction and significance; as it grew to define a generation in search of identity amid a world divided between nature and industrialisation, between history and modernity, Whitman decided to change the title to 'Song of Myself'. And it is in this poem that he penned the phrase 'I am large, I contain multitudes',  six words that a century later would also serve to express the multifaceted nature of one of the 20th century's most significant icons of style and elegance, Mr. Pierre Arpels, who was born into the legendary jewellery firm founded by Alfred Van Cleef and his father-in-law, Salomon Arpels, in 1896. Because in attempting to encapsulate Pierre Arpels, one quickly faces the descriptive limitations of the English language. He was so many things: a flâneur and an entrepreneur, a gifted designer and creator, a sportsman, a dandy, a moralist and an adventurer. He was the architect of the firm's modernity amid a rapidly changing world, even while he was its conduit for the tradition of haut de gamme gem-setting and jewellery design. In many ways, Pierre Arpels was the ultimate lightning rod, the amplifier of the zeitgeist of the times he lived in, transmitting its prevailing social mores, and refracting the ever-heightened tension between past and future through his special creative ability. He was a constant traveller in a rapidly internationalising world where the jet set and the Café Society had merged into one nonstop global parade of exuberant experiences, and innumerable nights and days of immeasurable grandeur.

One thing that's certain is that Pierre Arpels was inextricably linked to the fabric of the haut monde of the time. But he achieved this while always remaining understatedly graceful, and even self-effacing. He was very much a man who let his fabled creations speak for themselves, but his achievements amid the haut monde were incomparable. It was he who escorted the maison's legendary diamond diadem to Monaco, for it to be worn by Princess Grace at the Monte-Carlo Centenary Ball in 1966. It was he who travelled to Iran to receive one of the maison's most historically significant commissions - the jewels and crown created for Empress Farah Diba. He created breathtaking pieces for the revival of George Balanchine's ballet, Jewels, while introducing prima ballerina Suzanne Farrell to the world of his jewellery.

And, all this time, his one trusted companion - helping him subtly chart his progress from day to day as he traversed the globe, and serving him faithfully and unerringly - was his timepiece. It was this watch that could be said to be his most deeply personal creation. He designed it in 1949 as a reflection of all that he felt a timepiece should be: a vivid, salient expression of his internal vision for elegance - what Proust called 'the revelation of a particular universe which each of us sees and which is not seen by others'. But let's look at it in context. At Van Cleef & Arpels, he had come out of the dark years of World War II and he was left with a sense of seriousness, a desire to strip away artifice and explore the pure, essential nature of forms. Indeed, had he not remained a jewellery designer, he would have likely forged a career as an architect. Sitting in repose in the Japanese Zen garden he had constructed on the top of his Paris apartment, he began to imagine the perfect watch. A watch that, as in Plato's analogy of the cave, turned our eyes away from the distracting, ephemeral shadows cast on the cave wall and sought out truth as its own form of divine beauty.

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Wei Koh

The Rake's Founder & Editorial Director.