Look back in wonder

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 November, 2009, 12:00am

Since its inception in 2003, the Mori Arts Centre in Tokyo has hosted exhibitions from contemporary artists such as architect Le Corbusier to photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto. So its latest exhibit, The Spirit of Beauty, a retrospective celebrating 100 years of creation by French jewellers Van Cleef & Arpels, may seem an odd choice for a museum dedicated to modern art.

'I was keen to work in a contemporary environment that was associated with visual arts today. I didn't want to go in a traditional route - it would have been expected,' says Nicolas Bos, vice-president and creative director of Van Cleef & Arpels.

The exhibition, which opened in Tokyo at the weekend and took two years to co-ordinate, is vastly different from the house's last retrospective which was held in Paris in 1992. It's twice as big - since then the jeweller's private collection has doubled - and it's not limited to jewellery, with fashion accessories, timepieces and objets d'art included as well.

But perhaps the most striking difference is in how the pieces are displayed. Covering a floor of the Mori Arts Centre, the pieces aren't categorised chronologically; nor are they displayed in glass boxes. Instead, the house commissioned interior designer Patrick Jouin, who previously worked with the brand on its Place Vendome boutique in 2006, to create a scenography that evokes a magical wonderland.

It is not the first time Jouin has been enlisted to design a scenography for a museum - his past work includes projects with the Musee d'Art Modern or the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris. The Van Cleef project, however, offered him a chance to be more creative.

'I was immediately drawn to [Van Cleef & Arpels'] universe, especially the femininity. I could never draw for a brand like Cartier, which is more masculine, powerful and about muscle,' Jouin says.

'The most important element for me was to create a strong emotion. Usually with jewellery, you display it in a glass box and it becomes like a museum or shop - you don't connect with it.

'I wanted to create a dream, to put the visitor in the spirit of beauty, the spirit of the brand, so I came up with a concept of a strange woodland. Inside, you can get lost in a dream, in a journey.'

The exhibition, which is led by a dragonfly fairy (modelled on a diamond clip chosen as the symbol of the exhibition), is divided into three rooms and four themes.

The first room, representing nature, features walls covered with brown cotton string evoking a forest. In the centre is a larger-than-life tree branch dotted with dew drops (plexiglass bubbles with jewellery encased inside). Featured are the house's signature pieces from flora and fauna to limited edition Japanese lacquer butterflies made by artist Junichi Hakose.

'I play with scale, because the jewellery is different sizes. It's inspired by Alice in Wonderland, who changes sizes when she eats cake,' says Jouin.

At the end of the room is a birdcage made of transparent fibreglass bars, with the jewels suspended by a string inside each bar. 'Customers go into the cage and can see the jewels so closely, [they] can almost touch them. You can see them from every angle which is unusual,' says Catherine Cariou, heritage director.

The second room is divided into two areas. The spirit of elegance features surreal designs inspired by couture with pieces such as a zipper necklace created for Wallis Simpson in 1951. On the other side visitors can explore the spirit of adventure with jewellery and objets d'arts inspired by places such as India, Egypt, Japan and the mainland.

'The Asian elements are important, with almost 20 per cent of jewellery inspired by Asia,' says Cariou.

The third room, Incarnations, is the most unique part of the story. Here visitors are introduced to women who have worn Van Cleef jewellery over the years, from Grace Kelly to Marlene Dietrich. Each has her own private suite decorated to reflect her life and loves - for example, late billionaire Barbara Hutton's room features a recreation of the bed where she slept with all her jewellery.

Visitors are also invited to interact with the jewellery through devices such as reflections and video projections. Reflective glass allows visitors to try on Princess Grace's tiara, while a projected image of Jackie Kennedy's diamond clips are incredibly detailed and lifelike.

There are videos of celebrities wearing pieces on the red carpet or to royal events, and a screening room plays a film explaining the house's history and displaying its techniques.

'The idea is to move from reality to a dream, then back to reality,' says Jouin.

'This house is about imagination and making dreams into reality. I really like the part where we display pieces that aren't the best known styles but that are important to us. There are some pieces that have humour; it makes the exhibition more fun,' says Bos.

The jewels are the featured works of art, with highlights including a mystery-set butterfly ruby and diamond necklace featuring butterflies that can be detached and worn as clips, and a Spanish dancer clip from 1941. Selected by Cariou, there are 250 pieces on show with 90 on loan from collectors and displayed publicly for the first time.

'They really reflect the techniques of the house, the style, the DNA,' says Cariou. 'So much of it is so rare, such as the mystery-set emeralds. [The jewels] explain us from the beginning, and how we've evolved for more than a century.'

'It was also key to show a progression from the jewel being a piece of art to actually being incarnated - jewels not only as objects, but how they were worn and what they meant to the people who wore them,' says Bos.

'We didn't want to show something distant that people can't relate to. So for the last room, for example, you really are entering the intimacy of these women's worlds.'

The retrospective is on show for three months at the Mori, then moves to New York, Paris, the mainland, Russia and Milan next year and in 2011.

'So many of these pieces are part of private collections and for the first time we have been allowed to exhibit them. It's a great way to convey our identity,' says Bos.

The Spirit of Beauty, until Jan 17, Mori Arts Centre, 52/F Roppongi Hills Mori Tower, Tokyo. For more details, go to thespiritofbeauty-vancleef-arpels.com