Reviews Gems & Gemology, Spring 2017, Vol. 53, No. 1

Book Review: Van Cleef & Arpels: The Art and Science of Gems

Van Cleef & Arpels: The Art and Science of Gems Book Cover
By Alvin Pang, Laurence Mouillefarine, Bérénice Geoffroy-Schneiter, Adriano Davoli, Timothy Adams, Vivienne Becker, Alberto Cavalli, Laurence Benaïm, François Farges, hardcover, 295 pp., illus., publ. by Éditions Xavier Barral, Paris, France, 2016, $75.00.

This exquisite collaboration memorializes the bespoke mid-2016 exhibition of more than 400 pieces of Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry at the ArtScience Museum in Singapore, a collaboration with the French National Museum of Natural History.

Covering more than a hundred years of the maison’s jewelry prowess, the book is divided into sections on artistry, influences, abstractions, couture, precious objects, nature, ballerinas and fairies, minerals and gems, and icons.

Each section is introduced by one of the book’s nine contributors, comprising a formidable powerhouse of jewelry historians, curators, scientists, scholars, and writers. The editorial content, concisely organized using an expanded bullet-point structure, is crisp and coordinated. Each contributor illuminates the breathtaking images by providing historical context, scholarly sensitivity, and insight.

Integrated with stylistic consistency are the impeccable photographs by Patrick Gries and other contributors, dramatically casting the jewels against a black background laced with billowing, wispy trails of gray. Images from the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, a collection that demands inclusion on every serious gemologist’s bucket list of must-see treasures, provide a geoscientific core to the book, with Earth serving as a “giant atelier.” 

An appendix offers the essential chronology of the house, tracing the 19th-century family ties that led to its Place Vendôme founding in 1906, along with photographs of trailblazing members of the multigenerational families.

Most pages are filled with individual photographs of the maison’s jewelry in its splendor. Chosen from the collections of Van Cleef & Arpels and private collectors, the pieces glow in a peerless range of style, exoticism, and innovation. Magic, mystery, and mastery are all at work here, with clips, zip necklaces, bracelets, minaudières, vanity cases, and assorted objets d’art showcasing the house’s landmark mystery, or invisible, setting (patented in 1933); hidden watches; magic clasps; the transformable jewel known as the Passe-Partout; and novel materials such as Styptor, an alloy of pewter and silver.

The private collection includes jewels of towering significance, provenance, and fortune, whether commissioned by South Asian maharajas or royals hailing from the Middle East to Monaco. These remarkable pieces were collected by heiresses and magnates of the early 20th century, such as Daisy Fellowes and Barbara Hutton; others later adorned mid-century style icons Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and artists like Maria Callas. The house also inspired another type of enduring art—ballet—as in the George Balanchine and Claude Arpels–choreographed “Jewels,” another de rigueur experience for the gem-obsessed.

Jewelers, designers, historians, and aesthetes will treasure the mastery and magnificence of the works shown on these high-quality finely pearlized pages. Readers flocking to this book for its artistry and beauty will be amply rewarded, and the ingenuity and craftsmanship of Van Cleef & Arpels offer many happy returns, if not a degree of solace for missing the Singapore exhibit.

Matilde Parente owns Libertine, a fine jewelry salon at the Renaissance Indian Wells Resort & Spa in Indian Wells, California.