A flash of light, a roll of thunder and then – sudden darkness.

Welcome to L’Arche de Noé racontée par Van Cleef & Arpels exhibition. Or in English: Noah’s Ark as told by Van Cleef & Arpels.

 

The inspiration for the exhibition comes from an exquisite 1613 painting titled The Entry of the Animals into Noah’s Ark by Jan Brueghel the Elder. The master painter had deftly captured the raw energy of the animals, from the smallest bird in the distance to the large leopards twisting and turning next to the pair of ostriches.

“It’s really a play on movement, colour, shapes and I thought that it’d be a really interesting inspiration to revisit that idea of animals in jewellery – it being the narrative of Noah’s Ark and the idea that animals are in couple, which I thought was an interesting take,” says Nicolas Bos, CEO of Van Cleef & Arpels.

Held at the Asia Society Hong Kong Centre, the multisensory exhibition presented more than 40 brooches depicting different animals.

From cheeky foxes to graceful gazelles, the clips featured beautiful gemstones and masterful craftsmanship that the maison has become known for. Hong Kong was the second city to see the exhibition, from March 10 to 26, after being unveiled in Paris last September.

Woven into the exhibition by legendary theatre set designer Robert Wilson are visual and audio effects that mimic the oceanic environment the animals would have experienced upon the ark during the great flood.

Screened on the walls were videos that depict the sea as a gentle gradation of blue waves, while Spiegel im Spiegel played soothingly in the background to create a calming effect. At one end of the room was a small wooden skeletal version of the ark, strung in place from the ceiling as if it were floating in space.

Suddenly, deafening sounds of an impending storm overcome the space, as the lights flicker, accompanied by loud crashes of thunder before the lights go off, enveloping the room in darkness and silence. A few moments later, the storm passes, the lights come on and the room returns to its calm, comforting state.

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“We had [originally] thought to build a big boat, and you would enter it and inside this boat you would find these jewelled animals,” Wilson says. “But after thinking about it for a while, and how that looks like all of those shops that have jewellery – so busy. And I wanted to give the work space.”

Dotted along the walls were black jewellery boxes, each holding within it unusual depictions of a pair of animals, sometimes as two separate pieces, other times as a single brooch showing the animals in the midst of an embrace.

The choice to pursue the exhibition as a collection of brooches was a conscious one. Apart from the advantage of having pieces that were uniform in size and scale, Bos noted that it also allowed the maison to create shapes that remained true to its inspiration.

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“We thought they [the animals] should be like a sculpture and of course in jewellery when you work on a necklace or a bracelet, the function defines the shape,” he says. “So it can represent an animal but it could never look like an animal. It would still primarily look like a bracelet, whereas a brooch is really
an object, it’s really like a miniature sculpture.”

Each animal was made of different materials and featured different craftsmanship techniques, showing the maison’s expertise.

The unicorn boasts many rows of sapphires set using the maison’s own patented Mystery Set technique. It is an advanced technique where none of the metal prongs show, which allows for a smooth and seamless look. The elephants feature strong, stylised lines created using solid blocks of malachite and lapis lazuli.

“[For] a piece like the elephant we wanted a naïve approach, almost like a child’s drawing,” explains Bos.

Three mythical creatures are included in the collection: a unicorn, a phoenix and Pegasus. The first two were presented during the Hong Kong exhibition, while Pegasus did not make an appearance.

Unlike the other animals, which were created in pairs, these three were the only creatures without mates.

“We kind of imagine that … they’re not imaginary creatures, they were actual existing creatures,” Bos says. “What happened, possibly, is that they entered the ark by themselves, which is probably why they didn’t make it afterwards and why they don’t exist any more today.”

As they say, one is the loneliest number.

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