Time, nature and love—impossibly vast concepts that nonetheless serve as the narrowed focus and framework of Van Cleef & Arpels‘ latest exhibition of its archival jewellery and objects. The august Parisian jeweller has put on a heritage and patrimony exhibition of its archives at the D Museum in Seoul, highlighting and showcasing its creativity and savoir-faire. It’s in its fourth edition now, having made its debut in Milan at the Palazzo Reale in 2019, and with stops in Shanghai in 2022 and Riyadh early this year. In Seoul, expect to see over 300 creations of jewellery and precious objects, nine of which are being exhibited for the first time ever.
Curated by Alba Cappellieri—an Italian researcher, curator, author, head of the jewellery design programme at the Milan Polytechnic, and all around expert in the field—the show is structured according to these core tenets of the house’s creative output. That is to say, a conscious decision was made not to create a chronology of the house (that would have been too obvious), and instead survey and organise the ideas that are most dominant to Van Cleef & Arpels.
Cappellieri has devoted the majority of the exhibition to the section of Time, which itself has 10 chapters. Five of these are inspired by the seminal piece of writing Six Memos for the Next Millennium by Italo Calvino. Published in 1988, Calvino puts forth an utterly prescient set of literary principles such as lightness, exactitude and multiplicity that he thought ought to guide the future of writers and artists.
Cappellieri ran with and organised the show around these ideas. There are sterling examples of Van Cleef & Arpels designs used to illustrate these ideas. Mystery-set pieces—a groundbreaking invention the house patented in 1933, in which gemstones are set into rails of gold and held in place by simple tension to create a floating effect—convey Calvino’s precept of exactitude. Which makes perfect sense, because Mystery setting requires faultlessly precise lapidary work so that the emeralds and rubies (the gems most often used in such pieces) fit perfectly snug and hold each other in place. There are even archival documents like drafting sketches and the physical patent itself that outline the technique.
And in the section on lightness, Cappellieri pulled together a series of creations that exemplify the 20th-century fashion for white jewellery in metals like white gold and platinum, and set almost exclusively with white diamonds. Though physically heavy, Cappellieri joked at one point when showing the pieces, the clarity of the aesthetic gives the style its lightness. A standout example is a 1939 collaret made from platinum and diamonds that was originally owned by Queen Nazli of Egypt. It features 673 diamonds totalling 204.03 carats in weight, crafted in the garland style with flowing rivières and looped ribbon motifs so that it looks supple and weightless.
The other five chapters of Time delve into fascinating but less exacting concepts. A section on Paris, for example, gathers precious lifestyle objects like powder cases and lighters which feature motifs of the city like the Arc de Triomphe or the Place Vendôme’s recognisable column. The latter, as it happens, is an icon that the jeweller has embraced as its own, and these pieces are meant as a nod to the inescapable influence of its home in Paris. There are also chapters on subjects like dance—ballerinas are a favourite motif of the brand—and couture.
The latter showcases another of Van Cleef & Arpels’ most emblematic creations: the Zip necklace. Inspired by the rise of prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear) fashion, the jewellery house responded with an avant-garde by incorporating the quotidian zipper into high jewellery. Incorporate is, in fact, an understatement. Zip necklaces actually function as their name suggests, and in some cases can even be transformed into bracelets by closing the zipper up. Seeing one of these exquisitely technical beauties in the flesh is rare enough. There are at least three on show at Time, Nature, Love.
Much of the exhibition comes alive thanks in part to brilliant scenography by designer-artist Johanna Grawunder. According to her, she designs each edition of the exhibition with a sense of place. When it debuted in Milan at the Palazzo Reale, for example, her scenography built on the existing beauty of the building’s frescoed architecture.
Seoul’s D Museum, which was founded in 2015 and moved to the trendy Seongsu-dong neighbourhood in 2021, is more of a black box space. The vitrines and installations for the Seoul edition of Time, Nature, Love are designed with fluid gradients of colour with Korean references: the greens and blues of celadon pottery, and the shades of light on the waters of the peninsula. The different sections of the exhibition, spread across two floors, and curve around in circular shapes. A bird’s eye view would reveal, said Grawunder, an homage to the geometry of Hangul letters. But more functionally, she let on, they were designed to slow a viewer down to better enjoy and appreciate the treasures on view. If you’re visiting, give yourself at minimum a good half a day to take it all in.
Van Cleef & Arpels: Time, Nature, Love is on show at the D Museum in Seoul until 14 April 2024.