Among the 360 striking creations on display at Van Cleef & Arpels’ When Elegance Meets Art exhibition at Beijing’s Today Art Museum, it is the Automate Fée Ondine that has been assigned to conclude a visitor’s visual journey through the jeweller’s 122-year history. Encompassing a large lily pad on which rests a fairy and two water lilies, the bejewelled automaton is neither the most recent nor most opulent produced by Van Cleef & Arpels. Yet, it is so — or most — prominently displayed; a parting memory of what the company has to offer.
“We wanted to leave the public with the master exhibit, a concentrated vision of what really symbolises Van Cleef & Arpels,” says curator Evelyne Possémé. Demanding all of 12 months to produce and unveiled in 2016, the Automate Fée Ondine was a collaboration with automaton maker François Junod and some 20 other craftsmen who also left their mark on this incredible work of art. Although its function is to show the time, its primary purpose is to surprise and mesmerise, as it does in an animated display at the quarter of every hour. Neither just a clock nor a piece of jewellery, this exquisitely created artistic masterpiece evokes Van Cleef & Arpels’ creative inspirations, while at the same time immortalising its regard for traditional metiers d’art.
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The Automate Fée Ondine is arguably most representative of Van Cleef & Arpels’ main objective for holding When Elegance Meets Art, a retrospective that details the evolution of the maison’s style and expertise throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. In addition to the opportunity to flex its might in the realm of high jewellery making, Van Cleef & Arpels’ intention is to link the world of high jewellery making with that of decorative art.
It’s a valid and logical association. Like art, jewellery is a reflection of time and society. “In most instances, jewellery follows the same trends as other forms of art,” Possémé says. “The evolution of jewels follows that of decorative arts and will therefore also take into account, in measure, historical and political events that were happening at different periods.”
First presented in 2012 at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, the When Elegance Meets Art exhibition is travelling to China for the first time and taking up residence at the Today Art Museum in Beijing until August 5. Working with long-time collaborators, interior designers Patrick Jouin and Sanjit Manku, a décor inspired by traditional Chinese brush painting was created to bring about a sense of mystery.
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Divided into three areas, the journey starts off in a room with jewels from the 1910s to the 1930s. The 1930s, in particular, was a pivotal moment when Van Cleef & Arpels adopted its signature style, giving rise to iconic creations such as the feminine minaudières, Mystery Setting and the Ludo bracelet. Bow-shaped designs and the combination of hard stones and diamonds were also swiftly adopted into the design language.
The second room is a showcase of Van Cleef & Arpels designs from the 1940s to 2016. Examples like Zip necklace (1950s), Alhambra necklace (1960s) and the annual thematic collections made in the 21st century since 2002, offer a peek into the jeweller’s creativity in the last 70 years. Although all pieces carry the same brand DNA throughout, here is where you see a drastic evolution in craftsmanship and technique, thanks in part to the adoption of modern technology. The development of the Vitrail Mystery Set technique that plays on the stones’ transparency (2014) and the combination of buff-top cuts and Mystery Set gemstones allow contemporary creations to take on more complicated forms.
Finally, the last room brings together 36 emblematic creations. Each worth far more than its weight in gold and gemstones, examples like the 96.62-ct Walska Briolette Diamond Brooch once owned by Ganna Walska, and an emerald and diamond art deco collaret that belonged to Princess Faiza of Egypt, represent some of the most enduring specimens of high jewellery expertise from one of the world’s most remarkable jewellery houses.
When Elegance Meets Art, April 21 to August 5, 2018, Today Art Museum, Beijing
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