Big Bling: The Jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels
You probably won't ever have the chance to see another jewelry exhibition like "Set in Style: The Jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels." The Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum on Fifth Avenue in New York City is the dramatic home until June 5 of some 350 dazzling high-art jewelry. Billed as the most comprehensive exhibition ever organized of Van Cleef & Arpels' masterworks, it covers some 100 years of the company creations -- not just jewels, but timepieces, extraordinary cigarette cases and evening bags.
The show is organized into six themes starting with transformations such as in a zip necklace with a functional zipper created around the 1930s at a time when fashion designers were showing off the newly created zipper. VC&A has consistently through technical feats of craft and design created objects which can become something else such as a necklace becoming a brooch,
A striking example of this transformation idea is the Walska brooch/pendant with yellow gold, sapphires, yellow and white diamonds, The jeweled bird carries a 95-carat pear-form yellow diamond which can be worn on its own as a pendant.
The other themes --nature, exoticism, fashion, and personalities -- each with many treasures, but surely the last one is the most fun. Here's where you will see the glitzy jewels the Duke of Windsor chose for his American wife. As you might expect, nothing tops the tiara worn by Princess Grace of Monaco for the wedding of Princess Caroline in 1978. Several pieces worn by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis are absolutely timeless, especially a pair of Etruscan cuff bracelets.
The photos of various socialites and film stars like Garbo and Dietrich reveal that few of these luminaries believed "less is more." Among the "exotic" jewels, the designers were clearly influenced by the Egyptomania of the 1920s caused by the excavation of King Tut's tomb.
As Suzy Menkes writes in the lush, fully illustrated catalog: " Just as fashion holds up a mirror to changing times, so does jewelry, which has always followed the style of each century and the tone of the era..." The various designers at VC&A were immensely sensitive to the times. When women began smoking in public, they created stunning bejeweled cigarette cases often with a lighter on the side and many with a hidden clock. When women started dressing like flappers, the company made long skinny necklaces. Cuffs and bracelets followed in the 1930s when women began wearing sleeveless dresses. The romantic ballerinas, according to Menkes, were symbolic of the postwar 1950s when women wore full, bouncy skirts.
Does jewelry still follow fashion or is it the other way around today? Menkes writes that at the beginning of the 21st century, there's a resurgence of the cocktail ring. This, she writes, " can be seen as a response to the celebrity party era while the red carpet and its uniform of strapless dresses and unswept hair has brought the big necklace and bold earrings back into the limelight." Van Cleef & Arpels has been responsive to the great shifts in fashion and design Menkes describes --- not at all set in stone since its founding in 1906.
The Cooper-Hewitt is the only museum in the nation devoted exclusively to historic and contemporary design. It is located at 2 East 91st Street in New York City. Details at www.cooperhewitt.org