Showing It Off
Showing It Off
Not just diamonds dazzle in "Set in Style: The Jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels," on view from February 18 through June 5 at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. Through more than 300 objects from the museum’s collection, the exhibition charts the company’s history from its first boutique, on Place Vendôme, in Paris, in 1906, while also tracking the 20th-century trends its designs mirrored and in some cases instigated: Art Deco; Japonisme; the Egyptian style that was all the rage following the unearthing of King Tut’s tomb in 1922.
There is technical brilliance — Van Cleef pioneered the invisible "mystery" gem setting, enabling the creation of an unbroken field of color, in its circa 1937 ruby Bouquet brooch — but there is sly imagination, as well, in the Transformation section of the show, which features morphable jewels and objects. Chief among these is the slinky Zip bracelet proposed by the Dutchess of Windsor, which can be opened into a necklace. "It was invented in the 1930s, when zippers were just coming into use," explains the show’s curator, Sarah Coffin, "so they were something fashionable to be shown off." The firm’s signature invention, the Minaudière clutch, combines a sparkly, evening-appropriate finish with the precise organization of an assassin’s tool kit, containing compartments for powder, lipstick, and comb, cigarettes and lighter; and a pop-out clock to discreetly alert the carrier to the Cinderella hour.
Also explored is the influence of Van Cleef’s U.S. clients, including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Grace Kelly, and Elizabeth Taylor, whose tastes drove the company in a new direction after it opened in New York in 1939. According to Coffin, the Americans preferred "gutsy" gold baubles to the more delicate Parisian fare, especially designs featuring a kind of denatured nature.
Delving into the company’s archives revealed another facet of the firm’s past. "I found that Greta Garbo bought herself a 10-carat diamond ring, and Barbara Hutton, in spite of her seven husbands, seems to have bought all the jewelry herself," says Coffin. "These are women who could afford large rocks, but they were attracted to Van Cleef’s rare technique and leading design. It’s amazing how many of these purchases were made by strong women buying for themselves." -Sarah P. Hanson
"Showing It Off" originally appeared in the February 2011 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's February 2011 Table of Contents.