It has taken Catherine Cariou, heritage director at Van Cleef & Arpels, some 15 years to amass the Maison’s 850-strong private jewellery collection. Composed of accessories, jewels and objets d’art from 1907 till the 1970s, these creations were sourced from auction sales, dealers and private collectors.
“When you work in the patrimony department, you learn that it is impossible for everything to be done very quickly. You must wait, source the pieces and then track them down. This process can take many years,” Cariou explains.
Typically kept safely away in the VCA Gallery at Place Vendôme, some 450 pieces have made its way to Singapore for the Van Cleef & Arpels: The Art & Science of Gems exhibition being held at the ArtScience Museum until August 14. Read on for Cariou’s 10 most memorable acquisitions, in no particular order.
1 Dragon Mysterieux clip in gold with garnets, emeralds, Mystery-set rubies, sapphires and diamonds, 2013
“From the very beginning, we were inspired by faraway countries such as China, Africa, Japan, Persia and India. In Asian-inspired jewellery, we used carved jade and stones in the colour combination of red and black. This Chinese-inspired dragon, made from Mystery setting, is one piece that I really love.”
2 Hat pins in platinum with rock crystal and diamonds, 1925
“These were created in the 1920s and they are designed in the typical art deco style. I tracked them through the archives so I knew of their existence. I think it took me 10 years before I found the first one; about three years after that, I found the second one from the same auction house.”
3 Peony clip in platinum and gold with Mystery-set rubies and diamonds, 1937
“The Peony clips were a pair of double clips that were made in 1937 as a special order for Princess Faiza of Egypt. Van Cleef & Arpels had close ties to the Egyptian Court from the 1920s to the 1940s. These clips were separated in the 1970s and we have one of them, the closing flower, in our private collections. The other clip, which shows the flower blooming, is somewhere in the Middle East and it has proven to be very difficult to track down. I’ve been working at the Maison for 15 years and my aim is to find this second clip.”
4 Giraffe clip in gold, platinum and enamel with diamonds, 1969
“In 1954, Van Cleef & Arpels created many small clips depicting cartoonish whimsical animals. There is an incredible one showing a giraffe with very small legs and long lashes. All these were created until the end of the mid-1970s. My aim is to try to recreate an advertisement from the 1950s that show nine of these clips; I already found eight and there is a missing puppy yet to be found.”
5 Egyptian inspired bracelet in platinum with sapphires, rubies, emeralds, diamonds and onyx, 1924
“Tutankhamen’s tomb was discovered in 1922 and in 1923, Van Cleef & Arpels created many pieces inspired by Egypt. This bracelet that I discovered at an auction is one example that features the vocabulary of the ancient Egyptians: It’s an incredibly beautiful bracelet made of different hieroglyphs that are normally found on tombs.”
6 Zip necklace in platinum and yellow gold with rubies and diamonds, 1954
“One of the Maison’s most emblematic creations is the Zip necklace. It was inspired by the Duchess of Windsor in the 1920s, but the Maison only managed to produce it years later because of its complex construction. Its versatile design also epitomises Van Cleef & Arpels’ craft. The idea that a client could be wearing a necklace on Monday and the same jewel as a bracelet on Tuesday is really part of Van Cleef & Arpels’ DNA.”
7 Bird cage in gold and glass with lapis lazuli, coral, beryl, agate, enamel, wood, rubies and sapphires, 1935
“This cage was commissioned by a maharaja in the mid-1930s for his pet frog, Hortense. After the frog died, the Maison modified this design to include a pair of lovebirds made of rose quartz. This is an example of the extravagant orders from the maharajas during the 1920s and 1930s. They commissioned many jewels and precious objects from Van Cleef & Arpels and were crazy about French history and art.”
8 A matching set of necklace and earrings in platinum and gold with turquoise and diamonds, 1955
“I came across this necklace and matching ear clips from a New York dealer a year ago. I was sure I had seen its drawing somewhere in the archives and when I looked at the clasps, it was engraved with the brand’s name, along with ‘New York’ and a serial number. I remember holding my breath for a few seconds and verifying these numbers by my assistant who was in Paris at that time. She confirmed that the jewellery once belonged to the Duchess of Windsor. Had the dealer known this valuable piece of information, the price would have been vastly different. We are currently looking for a picture of the Duchess wearing them.”
9 Op Art pendant brooch in yellow gold with malachite, onyx and diamonds, 1974
“This piece really epitomises the Abstraction gallery in the exhibition. When I first looked at the engraving on it, I thought to myself: ‘I don’t think it’s possible that Van Cleef & Arpels created something like that.’ But it was made by the Maison! I think this exhibition enlarges the Van Cleef & Arpels universe to reveal new themes that go beyond our DNA of flowers and Mystery setting.”
10 Model of the Varuna yacht in gold, silver, jasper, wood and enamel, 1907
“The history of this boat is incredible. Eugene Higgins was an American billionaire who owned a boat where he entertained royalty such as the Tsar of Russia, King of Sweden and Queen of Austria. He engaged Van Cleef & Arpels to create a replica of this boat and equipped it with an electrical breakfast bell. I found this in a small watch auction in Geneva about 12 years ago, which is strange considering that there is no watch on this object.”
Watch our video interview with President & CEO Nicolas Bos