07 Feb Time, Nature, Love VCA 2020
It’s not every day that I get invited to a high jewellery event, let alone a private one. So, when I received an invitation to view Van Cleef & Arpels’ Time, Nature, Love exhibition at the Palazzo Real in Milan, I was on the next plane.
The last time I was in Milan, I was a curious 20-year-old art history student. My sole mission back then was to see Leonardo’s Last Supper in Santa Maria delle Grazie. I will never forget standing in front of the fresco in complete awe, gazing at Jesus and His Disciples at His final meal. The mural had faded quite a bit, but I was spellbound. The painting was on my list of places to revisit, and I was excited to see what it looked like after its 20-year restoration. However, little did I know that you have to pre-book tickets in advance and the next available slot was in March! I was annoyed with myself for not planning better. I asked the concierge for help. Surely hotels have an “in” with the local tourist office? No such luck. The concierge told me that only 1300 people a day are allowed to visit the painting and are given 15-minute slots. The maximum capacity per visit is 25 people per slot to limit the damage of fine dust and particles carried by visitors, which accelerate the deterioration process. The Last Supper will have to wait.
Saturday morning arrived, and I was on my way to meet my friend Dimer, who at that time was also the London VCA boutique manager. Double my luck was the fact that his wife and my friends from Hong Kong, were also in Milan. We were about to have a private tour of the entire exhibition before the galleries opened to the public. It would be a weekend of high jewellery, culture, food and catching up with friends. I couldn’t ask for anything more…except for the company of my husband.
I worked for Van Cleef & Arpels many years ago, and I had the privilege of handling jewels that were not only unique and exquisite but also expertly executed to the highest standard. I had the rare opportunity to visit the atelier at Place Vendome and to witness the design to the conception process. However, there is something surreal and magical when you see over 400 pieces dating from the Maison’s early years to the present day. The exhibition, Time, Nature, Love, is spread out over 14 neoclassical rooms at the Palazzo Real. Never before has VCA exhibited so many pieces of jewellery and objects d’art at one time and never in Milan. The show was going to be full-on. I was happy to be wearing trainers. Funnily, I was a little anxious as well as excited, a bit like a school reunion. Needless to say, I was about to be reunited with old friends, albeit in the form of beautiful jewellery and stunning gems.
The Palazzo Real is the former Royal Palace and has as a long and exciting history dating back from the Middle Ages. You can discover more here.
The collection is beautifully curated by Alba Cappellieri, who is a professor of jewellery design at Milan Polytechnic University. She is also the director of the Vicenza Museum of Jewellery. Cappellieri drew her inspiration from the late Italian writer Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium. In this short book, there are five lectures dedicated to lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility and multiplicity.
The 6th chapter Consistency is not included because Italo died before he could finish the book.
Cappellieri chose the title Time, Nature, Love because “I consider Time, Nature, Love to be the most important and most representative values of life and consequently of the objects that accompany our daily lives.”
You may be wondering what is the connection between Cappellieri’s interpretation of Calvino’s memos and Van Cleef and Arpels jewellery? It is simple.
Lightness refers to the use of lighter material, white metals and jewellery mostly set with white diamonds. The Maison’s artisans were working with new alloys, mainly platinum to create structures that used less metal. With less metal, jewellery was lighter, and gemstones became the main focal point. (fig 2)
Quickness relates to jewelled watches and timepieces. The Cadenas watch, created in 1935 is still an iconic piece today.
The idea was to create a watch that revealed the time only to the wearer. A cleverly angled dial hid the face to everyone but the wearer. To anyone else, it looked like a beautiful bracelet. (Fig 3 & 4)
Exactitude represents technical and scientific skill as well as an artistic and cultural experience. It occurs when precision and harmony come together. Only a few jewellery masters possess this art. Franco Cologni stated, “There are the jewellers, and then there is Van Cleef & Arpels.” He was referring to the Mains d’Or or The Hands of Gold. Handpicked by the Maison, they breathe life and soul into the jewellery. An example is the serti mystérieux. (Fig 5)
Only a handful of the Mains d’Or has the combined knowledge, experience and eye that require this exceptional skill. It takes at least ten years to master, and the elaborate process is still secretly guarded. The technique was patented in 1937, which was a remarkable and ingenious feat for that era. The idea was based on a system of rails that formed a framework visible only at the back. Stones were painstakingly selected and cut with absolute precision below the girdle. The gems slid onto rails and were precisely aligned. All the stones had to match in colour, hue and saturation. Today this is becoming more difficult. Rubies, sapphires and diamonds were the choice stones due to their hardness. However, emeralds were used as well. Emeralds are soft and brittle, and therefore the upmost skill was required when cutting and setting them. Can you imagine sorting through thousands of emeralds to ensure they all matched perfectly?
In the early days, serti mystérieux pieces were mostly flat, however, as the Mains d’Or become more experienced and boundaries were pushed, they were able to create serti mystérieux jewellery with curves and volume. (Fig 6)
Visibility represents imagination, fantasy and dreams. It is the creative images of fairy tale castles, unicorns, phoenixes and pixies that are brought to life in a bejewelled magical world of the impossible. (Fig 7)
Multiplicity refers to metamorphosis. This idea is intrinsic to the Maison. But how can jewellery be transformed, you ask? Let’s have a look at the Passe-Partout, which also happens to be one I find the most innovative. The Zip Necklace is my all-time favourite in case you were wondering! Passe-Partout was created in 1938 and it was the first transformative piece pioneered by the Maison. It is based on the Tubogas which translates to gas-pipe. The chain was created by interlocking a pair of gold strips that were wrapped tightly together, creating a flexible and hollow tubular chain. It required no soldering which also allowed it to be completely flexible. What is so novel about the design is that it can be transformed and adjusted to create a necklace, a choker, a bracelet or a belt. Two removable flower clips can be worn as brooches or ear clips. It was one of the Maison’s best-known pieces throughout the 1930s and 1940s and was aimed at the modern woman. One could say that it had a double transformation for not only was the jewellery transformable, but the wearer could adapt the piece to suit her style. (Fig 8 & 9)
Here I was on an early Saturday morning with my friends waiting patiently outside the Palazzo for Dimer. While shuffling from foot to foot to keep warm, I watched a wedding party congregate in the lower hall, also waiting patiently for the bride and groom to exchange their vows. Both groups equally excited but for different reasons.
As soon as I entered the first gallery, I knew the exhibit would not disappoint. Each room was an explosion of jewellery that sparkled and glittered, revealing exceptional craftsmanship and innovation that was only Van Cleef & Arpels.
Johanna Grawunder designed the exhibition layout. Her modern colourful light effect was an exciting contrast to the neoclassical interiors of the Palazzo. The showcases lit up in bright neon colours which gave a fresh and new perspective to the jewellery. (Fig 10 & 11)
The high players were all present such as the iconic Zip Necklace (did I mention that it was my favourite?) It was commissioned by Wallace Simpson in 1938 and finally produced in 1950. (Fig 12)
The emblematic minaudiere inspired by Florence Jay Gould and named after Estelle, the wife of Alfred Van Cleef Arpels for her mannerisms – or “minauderies”. (Fig 13)
The unforgettable ballerina brooches that span from 1940 to the present day danced across the display cases. (Fig 14)
It is also the smaller items that draw attention, as seen in the rooms dedicated to Nature. A brooch designed as a bird of paradise set with rubies, sapphire and diamonds, a set of pins depicting a family of coral ducks or a simple floral bouquet. (Fig 15, 16 & 17)
One of my favourite showcases was filled with butterflies. Their delicate wings comprised of exotic wood and expertly hand-painted by a Japanese master lacquerist, Junichi Hakose. (Fig 18 & 19)
Some pieces I had only see in picture books. So, when I saw the actual collaret worn by Queen Nazli of Egypt in 1939 and the diamond tiara belonging to Princess Grace of Monaco displayed in the Love Gallery, I was astounded. (Fig 20)
I was surprised by the small neck size of Barquerolles, the Lion Necklace, given to Elizabeth Taylor by Richard Burton when she became a grandmother for the first time. Hence the necklace was nicknamed the “Grandma Necklace”. However, while I was admiring it, an Italian lady beside me exclaimed, “Mama Mia!” To me, it is now the “Mama Mia Necklace”. (Fig 21)
The exhibition also displays beautiful gouache sketches. Beautifully rendered and detailed, they are like works of art. They too reveal the journey of an idea and how that thought became a classic story of Time, Love and Nature. (Fig 22 & 23)
And then, there is the gallery dedicated to objects. (Fig 24 & 25)
Calvino’s five memos link the artistry and craftsmanship of Van Cleef & Arpels through the themes of lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility and multiplicity. Cappellieri tells that story through 400 pieces in 14 rooms appropriately themed Time, Love and Nature. Johanna Grawunder gives the space a modern twist and the jewellery is viewed in a refreshing perspective.
There is so much to see and admire. There is also so much to learn and absorb. Van Cleef & Arpels will always hold a very special place for me even more so now as I had the opportunity to walk down memory lane and revisit so many designs that I fell in love with many years ago. I am still in love.
This exhibition is not to be missed.
Time, Nature, Love is at the Palazzo Reale, Milan, until February 23rd, 2020; palazzorealemilano.it