A gem of an exhibition – literally, Van Cleef & Arpels: The Art and Science of Gems, opens at the ArtScience Museum today. Brought in by the famed Parisian house of high jewellery, with the participation of the French National Museum of Natural History, the drool-worthy exhibition see over 400 of Van Cleef & Arpels’ exquisite works of love as well as 250 minerals from the Natural History Museum’s extensive collection.
Founded in 1906, the Maison’s beginnings is in itself a work of love, following on the 1895 marriage of Estelle Arpels – the daughter of a dealer in precious stones to Alfred Van Cleef, the son of a lapidary and diamond broker. Together with Estelle’s brothers, they opened their first boutique at 22 Place Vendôme – an address that the house maintains to this day in serving a clientele that has over the years included the likes of Maharajahs, Queens, Princes and Princesses.
The house’s rich history is one of the main themes of the exhibition, an introduction to which is given to visitors as they enter. The entrance is also where one of the Maison’s iconic pieces and one of my favourite pieces at the exhibition, a pendant with a flying bird carrying a huge 96.62 carat yellow diamond once owned by Polish opera singer and socialite, Gianna Walska, is showcased. The piece, commissioned by the then new owner of the diamond in 1971 to celebrate the birth of her son, adorned the cover of the Van Cleef & Arpels catalogue in 1972, where it was seen flying over the Place Vendôme. The piece is also transformable – a feature in many of the house’s pieces with the bird becoming a pair of winged earrings and the diamond worn as a pendant.
Beyond the bird that flew over the Place Vendôme, the exhibition proper is arranged across eight galleries, which are all full of delight and discovery, seven of which have displays of Van Cleef and Arpels’ creations arranged according to seven themes: Couture, Abstractions, Influences, Precious Objects, Nature, Ballerinas and Fairies and Icons. Each gallery also contains a parallel exhibition relating to the science of precious stones and feature gems and minerals from the French National Museum of Natural History’s renowned collection. These are arranged according to eight themes, representing the Earth and the seven major principles critical to the formation of precious stones: Pressure, Temperature, Transport, Water, Oxygen, Life and Metamorphism.
Amongst the seven galleries, one that I found particularly interesting was Influences in which the fascination Europe had with the orient that started in the 1920s, is seen in the pieces on display – some of which are very recent creations.
An especially delightful gallery is Ballerinas and Fairies, featuring ballerina clips that were born out of Louis Arpels’ passion for dance dating back to the early 1940s. The dainty and exquisitely crafted clips feature gemstone laden tutus – which have grown shorter with time. The clips also have very fine details in the rose-cut diamond faces crowned with headrests of precious stones and gemstone dancing shoes.
Another area worth dwelling (not that the others aren’t) has to be the last gallery, Icons. Here is where several the icons of the twentieth century ranging from royalty and to stars of the silver screen, have icons of the Maison created for them, displayed. This part of the collection includes several pieces made for the Duchess of Windsor, Princess Faiza of Egypt and starlet turned princess, Grace Kelly of Monaco.
There are also several programmes being held in conjunction with the exhibition to look forward to including a talk at 2pm today on gemology and artistry. Punlic guided tours are also available on 23, 24, 29, 30 April and 2, 6, 8 13, 15, 20 and 27 May, 3, 10 , 17 and 24 June. A workshop on gemstones is also being held. The exhibition runs until 14 August 2016. More information on the exhibition, as well as a downloadable audio app, can be found at: The Art and Science of Gems website.