Watches + Jewellery

The Art & Science of Gems: In conversation with Catherine Cariou of Van Cleef & Arpels

Diamonds as big as the Ritz


By Cai Mei Khoo

The Art & Science of Gems: In conversation with Catherine Cariou of Van Cleef & Arpels

With over 400 pieces of jewellery, watches and precious objects on display, Van Cleef & Arpels: The Art and Science of Gems is the maison’s biggest exhibition to date, with about 370 pieces being showcased from their private collection, including some that have never been exhibited before. Complementing the jewellery pieces are some 250 gems and minerals from the French National Museum of Natural History, which include a meteorite containing peridots and the largest quartz crystal ever found, weighing in at more than 800kgs.


We sit down with Van Cleef & Arpels Heritage Director, Catherine Cariou, who takes us through the key pieces of the exhibition:

Van Cleef & Arpels Heritage Director, Catherine Cariou


Tell us about the exhibition?

Catherine Cariou (CC): It’s the biggest we’ve ever done, with 420 pieces of jewellery, watches, and objects of art, alongside minerals and gems, which come from the French National Museum of Natural History in Paris. As we’re showing at the ArtScience museum of Singapore, I think it’s a great idea to showcase Van Cleef & Arpels pieces together with these gems and minerals.


The exhibition is divided into 7 themes – Couture, Abstractions, Influences, Precious Objects, Nature, Ballerinas and Fairies, and Icons.


The icon of the exhibition is the Bird clip and pendant that you see on the poster of the exhibition, which was created in the 70s. For us it was obvious that this jewel should epitomise the exhibition. In the mouth of the flying bird is an incredible 96.62 carat briolette-cut yellow diamond. Here, ‘art’ is symbolised by the bird, while ‘science’, by the spectacular yellow diamond. This is a totally versatile piece – its wings detach and can be worn as earrings, the body as another pin, while the yellow diamond can be worn as a pendant.

Bird clip and pendant with 96.62-carat briolette-cut yellow diamond, Van Cleef & Arpels


What are the key pieces in this exhibition?

CC: Within the Couture gallery, it would have to be the Zip necklace. Van Cleef & Arpels has always been inspired by the world of fashion since its beginnings in 1906 – lace, embroidery, bows, knots, ribbons and zips. Suggested by the Duchess of Windsor at the end of the 30s, the Zip necklace was finally made in 1950. It’s such an extravagant idea – traditionally the zip has to be hidden, but now it’s become a Surrealistic idea and it can be worn open as a necklace or closed as a bracelet.

Watch how the Zip necklace transforms into a bracelet:

The Abstractions gallery is something we’ve never shown before. Van Cleef & Arpels have been inspired by artistic movements like Bauhaus, Le Corbusier and Op Art so you’ll see unexpected pieces like an Op Art clip made of malachite and diamonds. It’s unexpected because when you think about the brand, you immediately think flora and fauna so I think it’s interesting to show Van Cleef & Arpels’s art in a different way.


Influences is one of my favourite galleries. Since the 1920s, Van Cleef & Arpels has been inspired by faraway places like Cambodia, Japan, China, and Mexico. There are vanity cases made of red lacquer and onyx, dragons, Aztec and Indian-inspired jewellery.


In the Precious Objects gallery, you will find minaudières, which Van Cleef & Arpels created in the early 30s, with compartments to hold everything a lady needs. There is also a small yellow gold champagne swizzle, which you use to create more bubbles in your champagne.

Wild rose minaudière in gold with mystery set rubies, 1938

Nature is the biggest gallery in the exhibition. There you will find our ‘mystery-setting’ flowers, wooden jewellery like poppy clips made of ebony and rosewood, and a lot of coral pieces, including the Rose de Noël or Christmas Rose.


In the Icons gallery, you’ll see some stunning pieces, some exhibited for the first time, like a necklace created for Her Majesty Queen Nazli of Eygpt. We bought it at an auction last November. It was created on the occasion of the wedding of her daughter, Princess Faiza of Egypt, and it really is a royal necklace. There’s also a turquoise set with yellow gold and diamonds that belonged to the Duchess of Windsor.


The last gallery is dedicated to Ballerinas and Fairies. Van Cleef & Arpels created them from the 1940s. Louis Arpels loved opera and ballet and gave this inspiration to the jewellery designers. The fairy brooches are very rare. We currently only own 2 fairy clips in our private collection. They are very sought after by collectors.


Your favourite pieces?

CC: I love the Zip. I think it really epitomises the Van Cleef & Arpels style because it’s a couture inspiration and a really remarkable piece of craftsmanship. It really is a work of art, creating a jewel so that is so supple and which functions as a real zip.

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How do you go about purchasing items for Van Cleef & Arpels’s private collection?

CC: At auctions, vintage jewellery fairs and through private clients, which I find the most interesting way of buying vintage jewellery. At an auction, it’s almost anonymous but through private clients, they relate stories behind the jewellery. Recently, a charming old lady visited me at my desk and she showed me two beautiful Art Deco bracelets from the 1920s made of diamonds. Along with the bracelets, she brought a black and white photograph of her mother wearing these bracelets in the 1930s. Her mother wore them on her upper arm as it was a trend back then. When you purchase at auctions, you don’t have stories like these.


How is Van Cleef & Arpels different to other jewellery brands?

CC: When you compare us to other maisons, what is really distinctive is our femininity. Everything is poetic. Since the beginning, we’re proud to have the best stone cutters, gemologists, lapidaries… Van Cleef & Arpels is famous for the quality of the stones we use. We talk about ‘character’ of the stone, preferring a smaller stone with character to a bigger one with no character.


What’s your personal jewellery style?

CC: I’m a fan of Art Deco but I what I really love is jewellery from the 1970s. They are very vivid, colourful, and full of happiness. I love wood, and coral jewellery – the Christmas Rose, made of coral is perfection. I also love the Alhambra as it’s timeless.


Outside of jewellery, what are your other passions?

CC: Art. When I can, I travel outside of Paris to visit art exhibitions, galleries and art museums. I also enjoy travelling, discovering new cities and meeting new people.

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Van Cleef & Arpels: The Art & Science of Gems is on now till 14 August 2016 at the ArtScience Museum in Singapore. Click here for more information and here to buy tickets.


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