Creativity on show
For Stanislas de Quercize, president and chief executive of Van Cleef & Arpels, love is what built the jewellery house. He recounts the romantic story of the founders, Estelle Arpels, the daughter of a precious stone merchant, and Alfred Van Cleef, son of a lapidary and diamond broker, who fell in love and channelled their passion for jewellery with Arpels' brothers to start Van Cleef & Arpels.
They chose to open their first boutique in 1906 at 22 Place Vendome, across from the Ritz in Paris, because the city was considered to be at the height of fashion. The family emigrated to the United States in 1942 and later opened a boutique on New York's Fifth Avenue. The brand's third boutique in Hong Kong opened late last year.
About 370 dazzling Van Cleef & Arpels pieces will be showcased in Shanghai for the first time in the 'Spirit of Beauty' exhibition.
'We want to show the creativity of the maison,' says de Quercize. 'Last year, we had more than 180,000 visitors to the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York City. It was called 'Set in Style' and it was a story about design, stones and craftsmanship.
'So many famous people have worn Van Cleef & Arpels: Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Kennedy, Maria Callas, Princess Grace. Jacques Arpels said Van Cleef & Arpels is about the best in terms of quality of the stones and superb craftsmanship.'
The exhibition will be housed at Shanghai's Museum of Contemporary Art from May 20 to July 15 and will feature four main themes: nature, femininity, elegance and exoticism.
'Nature is ephemeral, but in jewellery we transform it into the eternal,' de Quercize says. 'Love, life and friendship can be made into the eternal.'
One of the highlights is a Hummingbird hat pin from 1925. For Van Cleef & Arpels, this bird epitomises extreme movement. The pin is set with rose-cut diamonds mounted on platinum.
De Quercize says the theme of femininity is apt because one of the founders was a woman, while that of elegance is best represented by famous icons. The show includes a hologram of actress Catherine Deneuve speaking to visitors.
This section on femininity includes famous women, including Elizabeth Taylor, Maria Callas, Ava Gardner and Marlene Dietrich, who have worn the jewellery house's pieces. A special piece will be the tiara worn by Princess Grace at her daughter Caroline's wedding in 1976. The glittering diadem is set with pear-shaped, marquise-shaped and round diamonds, totalling 144 gems.
The theme of elegance showcases Van Cleef & Arpels' expertise in innovation. One of its best-known pieces is the Zip necklace from 1951. The Duchess of Windsor suggested the house create a piece of jewellery around this new technological marvel in 1938, but it wasn't produced until many years later. The zipper works and the house has since created many sparkling variations, studded with diamonds and other gems.
The last theme is exoticism, a period in the 1920s and 1930s that captured the fascination of Orientalism. The exhibition will present drawings from that period for the first time.
'It was then that people thought about a paradise, a better world than the one we operate in,' de Quercize says. 'It was about roses not having thorns, animals with no claws, about travel, discovering something new, about excitement and curiosity.'
This part of the show is also a tribute to the mutual admiration between the continents of Europe and Asia. This is illustrated in a Dragon vanity case from 1923 featuring a gold dragon, red enamel, carved jade and diamond details.
Another is a delicate Chrysanthemum clip from 1937. Its numerous petals are carefully created using Van Cleef & Arpels' signature mystery setting, where the diamonds and rubies are 'threaded' on a delicate platinum and yellow gold lattice so that the metal setting is not visible. It's an intensely laborious process as each stone needs to fit perfectly, but the effects are stunning.
Seven years ago, Van Cleef & Arpels established its presence on the mainland by opening its own boutiques.
De Quercize says Chinese connoisseurs knew the Van Cleef & Arpels name and he finds more people are treasuring pieces from the maison, seeing the jewellery as art. 'They are interested in art, long-lasting beauty and timelessness,' he says.
The forthcoming Shanghai exhibition will surely develop the love story between Van Cleef & Arpels and China.