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Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum Presents "Set in Style: The Jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels"
Installation View, Set in Style: The Jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels. Photo: Matt Flynn, © Smithsonian Institution.

NEW YORK, N.Y.- Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum presents “Set in Style: The Jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels”. The exhibition examines the renowned jewelry firm’s significant historical contributions to jewelry design and design innovation, particularly during the 20th century. Organized by Sarah Coffin, curator and head of the Product Design and Decorative Arts department, the exhibition open from Feb. 18 and runs through June 5, 2011.

Since its 1906 opening on the Place Vendôme in Paris, Van Cleef & Arpels has played a leading role in style and design innovation. Pioneering techniques and designs, combined with an attention to craftsmanship, are at the core of Van Cleef & Arpels’ jewelry and small precious objects.

The exhibition features more than 350 works, including jewels, timepieces, fashion accessories and objets d’art by Van Cleef & Arpels, drawn from numerous private collections and institutions, as well as the Van Cleef & Arpels’ museum collection. These objects, many of which were created exclusively for American clientele, are supplemented with design drawings, commission books, fabrication cards and imagery from the firm’s archives.

“As the nation’s design museum, Cooper-Hewitt is delighted to present the work of Van Cleef & Arpels,” said Bill Moggridge, director of the museum. “This is the first exhibition to approach the work of Van Cleef & Arpels from the perspective of a design museum and focus on the establishment of the design house in New York and the role of American style and taste in the market.”

“Set in Style” is organized by six principal themes: Innovation, Transformation, Nature, Exoticism, Fashion and Personalities.

Special commissions have made up an important part of Van Cleef & Arpels’ design history from its earliest days, often combining the imagination (and sometimes gemstones) of the client with that of the designer.

The most notable technical innovation perfected and advanced for curved surfaces by Van Cleef & Arpels is the “Mystery Setting” technique in which the setting does not show between the stones, creating a solid field of color. This technique requires a highly skilled craftsman and a specialist in stones, as the stones need to be cut exactly to fit the designs and their channel settings and need to be matched to exactly the right color. Extraordinary examples include the 1937 “Peony” brooch with mystery-set rubies and the 1959 “Boulle” ring with mystery-set sapphires.

The earliest known existing Van Cleef & Arpels object, circa 1908, is the “Varuna” bell push for the butler, a minutely detailed model of a yacht on a sea of choppy-waved jasper, which is thought to be commissioned by the yacht’s owner, the American Eugene Higgins. The work required the skills of artisans acquainted with the age-old techniques of enameling and stone carving.

Another stylistic innovation was the bracelet with a buckle closure known as the “Ludo,” a nickname for the firm’s founder Louis Arpels, who inspired its design.

Objects that transform themselves into other objects, such as a necklace with a pendant that can become a brooch, are a hallmark of Van Cleef & Arpels. A highlight of the transformative works on view is a bird brooch wherein the bird’s wings can become earrings and its tail becomes a brooch. The brooch, commissioned to celebrate the owner’s first child, features the stunning “Walska” 95-carat yellow diamond suspended from the beak of the bird.

Another celebrated technical innovation Van Cleef & Arpels developed is “Zip” jewelry, where the necklace is zipped together to create a bracelet. The technical difficulties in producing this work are evidenced by the length of time it took between its conception in the late 1930s, when the Duchess of Windsor proposed a piece of jewelry that zipped, and its production in 1951.

The theme of transformation also refers to the transformation of a Parisian firm into the U.S. market. With the move of the family to New York at the outbreak of World War II, the idea of an American style took hold and the principles of high-quality execution were transferred to objects that reflected American taste.

The firm’s whimsical designs are stylized to celebrate the spirit of the natural world rather than reality, and as such, its roses will never appear with thorns and its birds have no claws.

Works on view in this section include the 1937 “Bouquet” brooch, which shows the color combinations of stones to their best advantage without worry about botany, as well as the 1948 “Snowflake” brooch, which captures in gold and diamonds what is a fleeting moment of bright sparkle in the natural world and exemplifies Van Cleef & Arpels’ fanciful style.

Butterflies are a recurring design motif throughout the history of the firm, and the insects’ wings have been rendered in a host of materials from mother-of-pearl to enamel. The museum’s conservatory is home to a flutter of butterflies made of precious metals, some with Japanese lacquer, applied in Japan by traditional techniques.

The lure of exotic travel and an ever-widening international base of clients inspired Van Cleef & Arpels to produce objects inspired from all parts of the globe.

The Egyptomania of the 1920s, caused by the excavation of King Tut’s tomb in 1922, was put to use immediately at Van Cleef & Arpels, and again in the 1970s when the travelling King Tut show came to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Among the works on view isthe 1924 “Egyptian” bracelet, with a soaring bird rendered in emeralds, sapphires and rubies.

With maharajahs as clients, Indian style was not forgotten, and the Maharani of Baroda commissioned Van Cleef & Arpels to design a refined and streamlined necklace based on centuries-old jewels with an Indian cut and feel.

China and Japan produced the sources for the use of lacquer and jade in cigarette boxes, as well as inspiration for jewelry designs, including the “Chinese Hat” necklace, ring and bracelet set; the “Japanese swords” bracelet; and the “Chinese magician” pocket watch.

From its establishment in the early 1900s, Van Cleef & Arpels vaunted accessories at the highest level, such as the necéssaire and later the fitted-out clutch, called the “Minaudière,” which contained compartments for items such as a compact, lipstick, comb, mirror, calling or dance-card holder, pill box, space for money or a handkerchief, cigarette case, often with lighter hidden on the side, and many with a hidden clock. An invention of Van Cleef & Arpels, the Minaudière paired well with the clean lines of Chanel and other designers at the height of their popularity in the 1930s.

Other works on view in this section include the “Bronx Cocktail” bracelet, proclaiming the popularity of the cocktail during the 1920s and 1930s, which contains charms of all the ingredients used for the drink, as well as various evening bags, cufflinks and other accessories.

Concentrating on those with an American connection, the exhibition shows the impact of trendsetting American women. Objects on view include a tiara worn by H.S.H. Princess Grace of Monaco, along with her engagement set; the “Manchette” emerald bracelets, owned by Daisy Fellowes, which could be transformed to become one necklace; Elizabeth Taylor’s amethyst, coral and diamond bracelet and pendant earrings; a bracelet and necklace owned by Eva Peron; “Etruscan” cuffs similar to the ones worn by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; and the “Jarretière” bracelet owned by Marlene Dietrich, which she wore in the movie Stage Fright.

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