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Van Cleef & Arpels:

TIME TO DAZZLE
by Brook S. Mason
 
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Versace may have whipped today’s fashionistas into a fever for silver zippers -- but Van Cleef & Arpels beat the designer to the punch more than 50 years ago, even ratcheting up the metal meshing motif with precious metals and gems. The 104-year-old Paris-based jewelry firm’s ingenious “Zip” necklace from ca. 1955 is but one highlight of  “Set in Style: The Jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels,” Feb. 18-June 5, 2011, at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum up on East 91st Street and Fifth Avenue.

“In fact, the zip necklace was commissioned close to 80 years ago by the Duchess of Windsor, demonstrating Van Cleef’s early leadership in the marrying of innovative design and exacting craftsmanship,” says Sarah Coffin, the Cooper-Hewitt curator who organized “Set in Style.” For the show, Coffin has categorized the firm’s pieces according to use and design, and the necklace, which miraculously turns into a bracelet when zipped up all the way, has been assigned to the “transformable” section. It’s just one of more than 350 jewels, timepieces, fashion accessories and objets d’art that are on view. 

Including loans from private collectors like Iris Cantor (of the Met Museum’s Cantor Roof Garden) and Lisa Marie Falcone (who gifted $10 million to the Meatpacking district’s High Line), the exhibition features archival material from Van Cleef’s design drawings and commission books in addition to sparkling gems from the company collection. About 60 percent of the show comes from Arpels, with the rest from private owners.

“Innovation is ingrained in our history,” said Van Cleef CEO Nicolas Bos, adding that the firm has made a practice, throughout the years, of looking to its heritage for inspiration -- and then pushing the boundaries for new designs.

In 1906, Van Cleef opened its doors for the first time on Paris’ swish Place Vendôme, and only two years later, it was turning out jewelry and objets d’art that rivaled the work of Faberge. “Set in Style” presents a number of important works from this period, including the earliest known Van Cleef & Arpels object, dating from circa 1908: a “Varuna” bell push, which looks like a model yacht set on a sea of pale green jasper and was used, it seems, to summon the butler.

Familiar with Art Deco? Well in 1919, Van Cleef produced a sleek, geometric diamond-and-emerald brooch, whose design presaged that signature 1920s style movement. The Paris firm also mined the art world as a source from early on, capitalizing on Egyptomania, the reigning trend of the moment, by producing an Egyptian-themed diamond bracelet in 1924 that bears the design of a Pharonic-era female creature in profile, for example. Over the years, the firm has consistently drawn on sources from the past to inform its modern designs, from the traditions of early Japanese lacquer to the tobacco-brown and coral palette utilized by Paris designer Jean Dunand.

Talk about innovative techniques. Take Van Cleef’s acclaimed “mystery” setting, embodied marvelously by a 1937 Peony Brooch of crimson rubies and diamonds, in which the gemstones’ settings are somehow invisible and they appear as a solid block of color. “The stones must be perfectly matched in color, tonality and size to appear as a single field,” explained Coffin. Other not-to-miss items include brooches of gold and diamonds that have been laced together, like dainty collars, into a fine, gilted mesh.

Van Cleef jewels that were plucked up by the likes of Grace Kelly, Greta Garbo, Eva Peron, Jackie Onassis and assorted Maharani have been assembled together for the first time, reports Van Cleef curator Catherine Cariou. Even consummate collector Andy Warhol sported Van Cleef and his 1938 Cambodian-inspired brooch in gold flecked with rubies is stunning.

“After studying Van Cleef & Arpels’ formidable output, their design prowess is supreme, whether creating novel minaudières (trim pocketbook-like containers only in gold and diamonds), buckles, or charm bracelets with dangling cocktail ingredients,” proudly declared Coffin.

Those who long to acquire a contemporary version of the magnificent “Zip” necklace need not despair --  rumor has it that Van Cleef is working to update and re-release that specialty item. “The latest version incorporates new combinations of gems, like turquoise and jade,” said Bos -- yet another testament to the firm’s historic passion for the joining of old and new.(The exhibition is sponsored by the jewelry company.)


BROOK S. MASON is U.S. correspondent for the Art Newspaper, and also writes for the Financial Times and other publications.