A sparkling retrospective

2011-04-16 10:18

Once upon a time, famous women wore their jewels. They didn’t let someone else’s jewels wear them.

That is but one of many fabulous take-aways from the dazzling show, Set in Style: The jewellery of Van Cleef & Arpels, at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, on until June 5.

To lead with that notion is unfair to the show, its curator Sarah Coffin and Van Cleef because the exhibition is about so more than celebrity dazzle of yore.

Nothing fascinates quite like high jewellery. It evokes tales both cautionary and heroic; it represents variously depth of commitment and wanton consumption. High jewellery is also a vehicle for great design.

This breathtaking installation captures many of those themes in a show that, according to Coffin, was overdue. The museum last featured an all-jewellery show, Lalique, in 1998.

Coffin chose Van Cleef in part because of the house’s design-centric philosophy and its deep American connections.

In addition, Coffin was drawn to highlight 20th-century jewellery.

“As I looked at various firms and various periods, and certainly from a design point of view, there were a lot of innovations in the Art Deco period, and I kept coming back to the Van Cleef & Arpels jewellery,” she said.

Coffin notes that Van Cleef was at the forefront of the Art Deco era, with designs that pre-dated the movement’s nomenclature. She indicates several early pieces of the genre, one from 1919: “That certainly beats everybody. The exhibition that gave the style its name was in Paris in 1925.”

Coffin arranged the show around six concepts: innovation, transformations, nature as inspiration, exoticism, fashion and personalities.

Anchoring the “innovation” segment is Van Cleef’s famed Mystery Setting, patented in 1933 and on glorious display in a 1937 ruby and diamond peony brooch.

In Transformations, one finds elegant metamorphosis, including the zip necklace, the idea of which was brought to Van Cleef by none other than the Duchess of Windsor in about 1938.

As Coffin explains: “Not only does the necklace zip up, but when you remove the back piece, it becomes a bracelet.”

In other instances, big pieces dismantle into more sedate parts. One, a lavishly jewelled bird (that doesn’t look like a stork, but the same idea) set in yellow gold, transports one heck of a bundle of joy: a 95-carat yellow diamond that can be removed and worn as a pendant.

Piece after piece is gorgeous, and the installation itself is not without humour. Especially amusing is a feisty scarecrow pin in yellow gold with diamonds and cabochon ruby feet.

Nature features the obvious: flora, from gentle to gigantic; fauna, from loving birds and poodles to atmospheric wonders such as the 1948 yellow gold, platinum and diamond snowflake; and the hidden, a 1930s Art ­Deco-motif compact that opens to reveal a charming enamel landscape.

But we live in celebrity-obsessed times. As one loops through the grand rooms housing the exhibition, the last section is that dedicated to personalities.

It features remarkable pieces from a diverse line-up of women, among them Grace Kelly, Jacqueline Onassis, Maria Callas, Barbara Hutton and Elizabeth Taylor.

Coffin calls Grace Kelly “the ultimate Franco-American connection”. Her numerous pieces on display reflect “the formal and the rather informal”, she says.

Compared to some of the other women represented, her choices seem subdued; even the grand diamond tiara Princess Grace wore to Princess Caroline’s 1978 wedding to Philippe Junot was relatively simple in design.

“She liked pearls,” Coffin says. “Perhaps it was in her royal persona that there was a certain conservatism, but I think it reflected her slightly more understated, rather than flashy, elegance.”

Conversely, Taylor’s pieces reflect her taste as well as that of Mike Todd and Richard Burton. “She had two husbands with great jewellery taste, and herself,” Coffin says, “so there’s a real breadth in her collection.”

Discretion was not part of the range.

Taylor’s gems include a coral and amethyst bracelet with matching earrings Burton bought because, Coffin explains, “the amethyst matched the violet of her eyes, of course, very splashily”.

Indeed, Taylor once referred to herself as vulgar. Whether or not one accepts that cheekily harsh self-assessment, all would agree she was a woman who knew herself and adorned herself to reflect the delightfully showy reality.

Jewellery proved essential to the process.

The same can be said for all of Coffin’s subjects, that they wore jewellery the way it was intended to be worn – as that most personal of adornments that offered intriguing clues, albeit of the sophisticated toniest (best) sort, to their personalities.

In contrast, today’s stars hit the red carpet in sparklers they’ve either borrowed or have been compensated to flaunt.

Gems that may or may not feel in keeping with their personalities, or their attire for the evening or, in the case of the starlet set, look at all-age appropriate.

Nonetheless, gems that always, always get a hearty shout-out from TV personalities and the viewing masses.

And Elizabeth Taylor thought she was vulgar.

© The New York Times Syndicate 

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