Books: In Praise of Hands:
The Art of Fine Jewelry at Van Cleef & Arpels

Delphine Leblanc
June 25, 2014
In Praise of Hands - The Art of Fine Jewelry at Van Cleef & Arpels
By Franco Cologni, 199 pp., hardcover, illus., publ. by Marsilio Editori, S.p.a. Venice, 2012, $90.00.
Van Cleef & Arpels, born from the matrimonial alliance of two prominent Dutch jewelers’ families in 1895, opened their boutique in Paris’s Place Vendôme in 1906 and quickly gained international acclaim. Over the years, the maison created iconic jewelry pieces, such as invisibly set floral brooches, fashionable minaudières and cigarette cases, Ludo Hexagone bracelets, and zipper necklaces. One of the forces behind the firm’s meteoric rise was its excellence in design and craftsmanship. As part of its public relations and branding strategy, Van Cleef & Arpels emphasizes quality craftsmanship and respect for traditional techniques. In Praise of Hands embodies this branding effort. This luxurious book, titled in honor of art historian Henri Focillon’s 1943 philosophical essay on how hands shape art, celebrates Van Cleef & Arpels’s Mains d’Or, or most skilled craftspeople.
 
The book’s first eleven chapters correspond to various specialized crafts: “The Designer,” “The Mock-Up Maker,” “The Jeweler,” “The Setter,” “Mystery Setting,” “The Stone-Cutter,” “The Diamond-Cutter,” “The Polisher,” “The Smelter,” “The Sculptor-Engraver,” and “The Boîtier.” Each explains, in great detail, a given stage of the design and manufacturing process. Some chapters are of particular interest for jewelers, such as “The Designer,” “The Smelter” and “The Polisher.” These craftsmen are instrumental in creating and giving shape to all jewelry pieces, so it is important to have them featured. For gemologists, “The Stone-Cutter” and “The Sculptor-Engraver” are extremely informative, providing great detail on both processes. The most stimulating and revealing chapters to jewelry enthusiasts are “The Mock-Up Maker,” “Mystery Setting,” and “The Boîtier.” These allow the reader to uncover some of Van Cleef & Arpels’ manufacturing secrets and better fathom its high level of craftsmanship. For instance, the systematic use of mock-ups, made of alloy and rhinestones, demonstrates the utmost attention to detail and practicality. This rendering technique is poles apart from today’s abstract 3D CAD/CAM projections. It allows design and production teams to spot potential technical problems and even provides for price estimates of jewelry pieces at an early stage.
 
One of the book’s strong points is its display of artful color jewelry renderings. Given the Place Vendôme’s world of secrecy, it is worth noting that some of the sketches feature serial numbers, names of patrons, and details on gemstone costs and corresponding vendors. This type of information is useful to anyone involved in jewelry pricing.
 
The book is selectively illustrated with three categories of photos. The first type consists of original color sketches with corresponding magnified shots of antique pieces, many of them from the jewelry house’s archival collection. The second type consists of black-and-white photos, using the chiaroscuro technique, of the Mains d’Or craftspeople at work. The third type, appearing at the end of each chapter, features a general shot of a recent piece alongside a detailed photo (showing individual gemstones in some cases). The opening and ending chapter photos are well suited to the chapters’ topics, proving that the craftsmanship inherent in past masterpieces is still alive.
 
On the down side, there is a relative disconnect between the photos of artisans’ hands and the contemporary jewelry pieces shown at the ends of sections. There would have been greater impact if the book had shown the same piece twice, once between the hands of a jeweler during its making and once completed. The photos of jewelers’ hands, though certainly a strong homage to their skills and dedication, are a superficial representation. At best, these pictures convey the contrast between rugged hands and delicate jewelry components in various stage of completion, as well as the artisans’; strength and dexterity. Yet focusing on their hands is too restrictive, and does not convey the physicality involved in jewelry making. The process is not limited to the hands; rather, it is a constant connection between hands, eyes, and brain, which is difficult to capture in photos. The concluding chapter, “The Crafts,” presents photos of all the craftsmen’s hands. This allows the reader to envision the actual handling of a piece through the different steps.
 
The text is extremely informative and detailed on all the phases of jewelry manufacturing. It does not shy away from technical descriptions—including an impressive list of tool names—while remaining inviting and accessible. It gives way, however, to the repetition of clichés, such as the poetic vision of the maison’s single-minded pursuit of perfection, beauty, and total control over its whole manufacturing process.

Despite these few shortcomings, the book is a must-have for jewelry students, bench jewelers, and gem experts who wish to become more familiar with this exclusive brand. Cologni describes a level of craftsmanship and organization that is almost extinct in the industry today. Van Cleef & Arpels’s variety of inspirations, design creativity, and manufacturing quality are among the very highest, and this opus is a beautiful tribute.

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