Categories: Jewellery

Inside the fantastic universe of Van Cleef & Arpels

There are jewellers who make jewellery for women and there are jewellers who celebrate femininity in both form and spirit. Zhuan Lee delves into the enchanting world of Van Cleef & Arpels, where the feminine form is embraced like no other.

The universe of Van Cleef & Arpels is built upon the three main elements of fantasy, wonder and poetry. Through spectacular creations that evoke a sense of magic and mystique, the revered French jeweller has also long celebrated the beauty of the feminine form through its unforgettable fairies and ballerinas.

During and after the war in the 1940s, the maison began incorporating fairies into its artistic universe. Possessing magical powers, this imaginary race was believed to evoke hope and healing, which were both much needed in those turbulent times. As Van Cleef & Arpels creations have long revolved around the theme of fantasy and poetry since its beginnings, fairies were a natural extension of its jewellery repertoire.

The Van Cleef & Arpels Sous les Étoiles Fée des Astres clip draws from a 1940s theme

The dainty, sprightly, delicate and mystical characteristics of fairies were never easy to express through the art of high jewellery. However, together with its team of Mains d’Or (the term by which Van Cleefs & Arpels’ master craftsmen are lovingly known as), the house successfully dreamt up lifelike, expressive and soon-to-be iconic fairy clips reimagined in the feminine form.

Meticulously sculpted by master artisans, Van Cleef & Arpels’ fairies and ballerinas emulate the curvaceous female form in the most naturalistic way. It is said that the maison’s artisans spend significant amounts of time observing ballerinas in action to observe how their bodies are angled with every graceful movement.

Lithe silhouettes of dancers and fairies are then depicted in realistic sketches. Next, the feminine figures are brought to life by sculpting their bodies in green wax, which enable the Mains d’Or to follow every curve and movement of their forms as closely as possible before they are shaped in gold. If you look closely, many of these fairies and ballerinas often have faces crafted out of a rose-cut diamond, adorned with a headdress festooned in a myriad of gemstones.

Celestial Beings

The constellation Cassiopeia is portrayed in the Fée Cassiopée white gold clip with blue and mauve sapphires, and diamonds set in star-shaped motifs

For their latest high jewellery collection titled Sous les Étoiles, Van Cleef & Arpels drew inspiration from the mysterious cosmos and presented a series of creations based on stars and planets. The collection also celebrates the feminine form with several fairy clips. This time, they are realised as graceful déesses or goddesses of the celestial realm in the form of Déesse Mercure, Déesse Neptune and Fée Cassiopée clips, which are all unique pieces.

The Mercury goddess clip features a 5.1-carat white opal cabochon representing the planet complemented by rays of yellow gold, as well as diamonds, rubies and pink sapphires set in tiered gradient, deftly mimicking the graceful twirl of the goddess’ dress.

The Neptune goddess and Cassiopée fairy clips are resplendent in shades of blue and white. The former features lapis lazuli with an intense blue shade, in the form of a disc as well as cabochon, and sapphires in gradated tones highlighted by yellow gold contours. The latter, a majestic personification of the constellation Cassiopeia, has her entire dress set with blue and mauve sapphires that mingle with diamonds set in star-shaped motifs.

Over the past year, the jeweller also added seven new fairy clips to its creations, all of which draw from nature and literature. Staying true to its faithful interpretation of the female physique, these novelties transport beholders into the magical world of legends and myths through their graceful and fantastical forms.

On the model is the Caresse d’Éole white and rose gold fairy clip with Traditional Mystery Set sapphires and diamonds, and Boucle platinum solitaire ring with sapphires and diamonds

Flights of Fairies

Beyond high jewellery, Van Cleef & Arpels remains dedicated to its poetic view of life by instilling the dimension of dreams and emotions into the art of haute horlogerie. A masterful blend of fantasy and inventiveness is the maison’s measurement of time – as an invitation to roam and revel in our imagination.

Since its inception in 2007, the Féerie collection of timepieces has wowed many by depicting dainty fairies as the guardians of the maison’s Poetry of Time. Launched earlier this year, the Lady Féerie timepiece presents a new take on Van Cleef & Arpels’ love for the celestial beings.

On its dial is a scene straight out of a fairy tale, where the mystical being, dressed in a diamond and sapphire gown, marks the passage of time with her magic wand against the night sky. The dreamy blue sky is meticulously crafted out of guilloche mother-of-pearl, while the fairy’s wings are decorated using a combination of plique-à-jour and grisaille enamelling in matching hues – the first time the maison has incorporated the two challenging techniques on a single motif. In the form of the gently radiating moon is a window featuring jumping hours at 6 o’clock, nestled among white mother-of-pearl clouds.

The magical 33mm Lady Féerie white gold watch with grisaille and plique- à-jour enamelling

The minute hand takes the guise of a magic wand, which points to a set of retrograde minute display in 10-minute intervals, because when one is immersed in a world of fantasy, it is probably not imperative to know the time precisely by the minute.

The back of this stunning timepiece includes an oscillating weight engraved with a full moon accompanied by clouds and stars. Featuring a self-winding mechanical movement, the jumping hours and retrograde minutes module developed exclusively for Van Cleef & Arpels, the Lady Féerie is sized at a petite diameter of 33mm and has a power reserve of 36 hours.

Poetry in Motion

The maison also celebrates the feminine form through dance, another theme close to the heart of the founding family. In the early 1900s, co-founder Louis Arpels frequented ballet performances at the Opera Garnier in Paris, which was a stone’s throw away from the Van Cleef & Arpels boutique on Place Vendôme. The avid ballet fan also often had his young nephew, Claude Arpels, in tow.

Sketch of a dancer T clip circa 1940 to 1950 from the maison’s archives

This fascination for ballet continued after the family moved to New York City in the early 1940s, where Claude Arpels befriended renowned choreographer and New York City ballet co-founder, George Balanchine. Drawing inspiration from the world of ballet and channelling his passion for dance into the maison’s jewellery resulted in the birth of the iconic Van Cleef & Arpels ballerina clips, which materialised about the same time as the fairies in the early 1940s.

In addition to fashioning the fairies’ and ballerinas’ outfits out of creased gold, the choice of gemstones and other precious materials used on each fairy and ballerina clip are reminiscent of celebrated ballets such as Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Les Sylphides and so on. Much inspiration has also been drawn from famous literature, including William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, L’Atlantide by Pierre Benoit, as well as Twelve Dancing Princesses by the Brothers Grimm.

When music and dance meet

The 1993 Dancer yellow gold clip with diamonds; and Reverso clip from 1957 that mimics a swirling dancer’s skirt
Reverso clip from 1957 that mimics a swirling dancer’s skirt

Since the launch of its very first ballerina clip, Van Cleef & Arpels has never forgotten its love for dance. Its artisans have transposed dancers’ movements, the lines of their fluid costumes in motion and even the fabrics used to create them, such as lace or tulle, through graphic and abstract bejewelled interpretations on earrings and clips.

The jeweller brought the art of movement and harmony into its poetic timepieces this year with the collection of Ballerines Musicales. First conceived 10 years ago, the incredible trio of masterpieces marks the first time in the maison’s watchmaking history where music and dance cross paths in a timepiece.

To fully reflect the marvel of ballet, the house recreated an astounding three-dimensional setting of an actual theatre stage on a tiered dial, complete with curtains created with miniature painting. Each named after one of the three acts of Jewels, the famous ballet choreographed by George Balanchine, the three watches in the Ballerines Musicales – Lady Arpels Ballerine Musicale Émeraude, Lady Arpels Ballerine Musicale Rubis and Lady Arpels Ballerine Musicale Diamant – scintillate in tones of green, red and white respectively. An upper dial crafted in engraved white gold and set fully with lines of diamonds represents the resplendent chandeliers overlooking the stage.

The Lady Arpels Ballerine Musicale Diamant white gold watch with diamonds

When the curtains open, the spirit of ballet comes to life as five ballerinas appear, dancing to one of three tunes associated with each act from Jewels. These include extracts from themes by composers Fauré, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, originally used by Balanchine for this iconic triptych. The addition of music to the Ballerines Musicales timepieces was a feat in itself that took seven years to develop in partnership with luthiers and acoustics experts. Renowned Swiss pan flautist, Michel Tirabosco, helped to simplify and adapt the three originally complex melodies into tunes that could be expressed using just two instruments within the manually wound movement housed in the Ballerines Musicales watches – the tiny music box and carillon.

Each of these numbered timepieces also features an engraved bas-relief illustration on the caseback, which portrays a ballerina dancing in front of the Van Cleef & Arpels boutique on 5th Avenue in New York City. Incidentally, this was where Claude Arpels hosted Balanchine for a private viewing of the maison’s creations in 1966.

Colours take centre stage

Epitomising dance in a different manner are the maison’s latest additions to its Extraordinary Dials collection. Marrying the art of marquetry, gem-setting and miniature painting, the Lady Danse and Lady Danse Duo watches present a contemporary and colourful take on two significant moments in a dancer’s career – the point right before entering the stage and during the performance.

The new Lady Danse Duo watch; the Lady Danse watch

On the Lady Danse timepiece, the dancer’s costume reflects the colourful styles of the ’50s and ’60s – with a dress set with rubies and hemmed with gold. She twirls in preparation to enter the stage against the backdrop crafted from three-dimensional marquetry using mother-of-pearl, turquoise and chrysoprase. The delicate lightness of the dancer in movement is highlighted by her silhouette, which is sculpted in relief. The back of the watch depicts a poetic interpretation of dance in an extension of the performance from the dial.

A combination of rare materials chosen for their intensity and evenness of colour takes shape as the backdrop of Lady Danse Duo. This timepiece portrays a group of dancers performing in a setting that is reminiscent of the architecture of New York City. While their costumes are created using miniature painting, the steps that lead to the stage are crafted in lapis lazuli strips, assembled on varying levels to create an illusion of depth on the 33mm dial. Above the deep blue steps are panels of turquoise, chrysoprase and white mother-of-pearl arranged alongside a white gold building set with diamonds. Depicted on the caseback of the timepiece are two dancers taking a break between acts.

(All images: Van Cleef & Arpels)

This story first appeared in the Nov 2021 issue of Prestige Singapore

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