Van Cleef & Arpels’ recent exhibition A Journey Through the Poetry of Time included significant patrimonial pieces, some of which continue to inspire the maison. Allyson klass talks to Lise Macdonald, director of patrimony and exhibitions, about what it takes to curate the right artefacts.
Showcasing 198 high jewellery pieces and watches, A Journey Through the Poetry of Time celebrated some of Van Cleef & Arpels’ most emblematic sources of inspiration. Held at the Sands Expo, Marina Bay Sands in February, the immersive nine-day exhibition took members of the public on a journey through an elaborate set-up of Paris’ romantic streets and famous landmarks. Ranging from signature complicated timepieces to lavish high jewellery models, the maison’s watches took centre stage in four main themes: love stories, namely the Pont des Amoureux collection, ballerinas and fairies, Poetic Astronomy, as well as Enchanting Nature.
Displayed prominently at the front of the exhibition were 39 pieces from the Parisian jeweller’s patrimonial collection. From unique sterling silver cigarette cases with secret watches to quirky good-luck rings crafted in wood and precious gemstones to the emblematic Cadenas watch, the selection took the patrimony department more than two years to curate.
Lise Macdonald, Van Cleef & Arpels’ director of patrimony and exhibitions, explains the tedious yet fulfilling process of selecting showpieces from the maison’s expansive archive that best embody its history and beloved universes.
Why was it important for Van Cleef & Arpels to hold this exhibition in Singapore?
The maison has always been devoted to education and the imparting of information, which are all a part of its mission. It’s definitely a major part of the patrimonial department’s mission to conserve, curate, research, share and transmit to the audience and future generations as well. This includes the maison’s unique craftsmanship, its historical sources of inspirations and themes, which make up its DNA.
This isn’t the first appearance of Van Cleef & Arpels’ patrimonial pieces in Southeast Asia, and it’s important that we have a presence in Singapore. In 2016, the maison held a large-scale exhibition, Van Cleef & Arpels: The Art and Science of Gems, at the ArtScience Museum, which explored the art of mineralogy and exquisite jewellery-making.
For this event, we highlighted the importance of crafts and the maison’s historical roots by showcasing contemporary pieces, watches, high jewellery and also patrimonial pieces. The first two showcases as visitors entered the exhibition were linked to patrimony because until today, the maison’s creations are tethered to a narrative, techniques or references from the past.
Take us through the planning and execution process.
Planning for this exhibition began two and a half years ago and the concept has been deployed internationally. It’s a long process involving great teamwork and various collaborations with artists, designers and other external parties. The main challenge was to work in the period that we’re in now. It’s a little more complex with regards to logistics, so you need to be agile. Sometimes we had to replan, redo things or think differently. The challenges we faced are universal around the world, so for this event to happen is the biggest reward.
Tell us more about the various themes of patrimonial pieces.
There’s a mix of themes that are cherished by Van Cleef & Arpels. Of course, they cover Paris as you’ve seen from the backdrop. We also made selections linked to time and love, as we see in the Cadenas watch.
Couture and nature are two other themes that are dear to the maison and are featured in jewellery sketches or patrimonial pieces. We also featured some Asian-inspired pieces including a dragon, as well as a Chinese bird vendor clip. There’s a little perfume bottle that recalls Chinese hats, which is part of the section where we showcased the influence of the “elsewhere” because it’s an important subject.
From the ’20s to the ’70s, you’ll see that many designs drew from Asian, African or even Central American motifs. Lastly, there were Southeast Asian-inspired items that the Singapore audience could relate to.
How extensive is the maison’s archives?
We have a patrimonial collection of about 2,000 items, and they range from high jewellery to objects of art to watches that date back to the foundation of the maison in 1906. We continue to acquire pieces every year via auctions, private collectors and dealers. Although one person from our department sources for the pieces, we discuss the selection as a team and decide if an item should be acquired.
How do you curate for a showcase from such a vast inventory?
We always ask three questions: Who are you talking to; what’s the objective of the exhibition; and what should the audience take away from the exhibition? Simple yet crucial, they help guide us through the creative process. These core questions will always steer our boat back in the right direction if we’re lost. There’s also a lot of letting go in the entire process.
Are there any pieces that made their debut in Singapore?
Yes. Noteworthy ones included the gold and onyx Love bracelet from 1973, a 1942 Buttercup wristwatch and Couscous watch from 1989. There’s also a Domino watch on a base that slides out to reveal the time. When closed, it looks just like a domino tile. The dragon clip and perfume bottle mentioned earlier hadn’t been presented in Singapore too.
Any pieces on display that belonged to famous personalities?
There’s a small, adorable table clock in yellow gold and jasper on a mini easel from 1969 that was presented to Pablo Picasso by the French government. There’s also a large 1970s marine chronometer (a precision timepiece that determines longitude at sea or the exact measurement of time) in a wooden box that was gifted to Helene Rochas – the former CEO of fashion house Rochas – by Maria Callas, one of the world’s most renowned opera singers, who’s also known to be an avid jewellery collector.
Do you have any favourites?
The Cadenas watch is significant as it merges a motif of modernism, the shower hose, with a cadenas (padlock), which is a love symbol. There were two very different pieces on display: a 1937 gold model and a 1972 leather and wood version. It’s so sleek and contemporary, yet it was created in the ’30s. It bridges time, modernism, as well as love and luck (in the wood version). The timepiece is one of the most important creations in the maison’s history as different variations are still produced until today.
This story first appeared in the April 2022 issue of Prestige Singapore.