Celebrated Place Vendome jeweler Van Cleef & Arpels collaborates with the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle (MNHN / National Museum of Natural History) in Paris to present to present the exhibition Gems exploring how precious stones formed from minerals in the depth of the earth are converted into pieces of jewelry of indescribable beauty through meticulous craftsmanship, taking approach that’s at once scientific and artistic. We sit down with Lise Macdonald, Heritage and Exhibition Director of Van Cleef & Arpels, and Francois Farges, Professor of the MNHN and Specialist in Environmental and Heritage Mineralogy, to discuss the exhibition.
Q&A wirh Lise Macdonald, Heritage and Exhibition Director, Van Cleef & Arpels
How did the idea for the Gems exhivition first come about?
Van Cleef & Arpels together with the MNHN decided to collaborate on a curatorial project interweaving art and science through gemology, mineralogy and jewelry. Our collaboration around the exhibition started in 2016 with the exhibition The Art and Science of Gems at ArtScience Museum in Singapore. Because the show is on display at the MNHN, the exhibition focuses on minerals, gems and the scientific angle more deeply, and we selected our creations to accompany and emphasize this angle. In this respect, the different collections echo one another consistently throughout the exhibition.
Why did you decide to showcase the link between science and artistic creation in this exhibition, and emphasize the close connections between mineralogy, gemology and jewelry?
The MNHN has one of the world’s finest collections of mineralogy and it is a privilege to be able to display the finest jewelry pieces of the Maison jointly with their collections. It was natural for the Maison to wish to share with visitors these extraordinary creations either from earth or from mankinf. You will see on display two different yet complementary perspectives: one based on stones, the other based on jewelry creations. Internconnections of arts and sciences provide fertile ground for common understanding, which both our institutions felt were important to display.
Describe the three different parts of the exhibition: ‘History of the Earth’, ‘From Minerals to Jewels’ and ‘Paris, Center of Knowledge’.
Gems opens with a section ‘History of the Earth, Histories of Savoir – Faire’ that explores the original formation of minerals and their use in society, tracking the development of skills and craftmanship over time. The second part, ‘From Minerals to Jewels’, offers insight into natural phenomena occuring within the depths of the earth that act stones, rocks and crystals before they are made into jewels by human hands. Their transformation comes to light in some 40 showcases, as well as through themed tablets, audio – visual displays and touchescreens interspered throughout the exhibition to preent each type of stone – diamonds, topazes, sapphires, aquamarines and more – in three different forms: as raw minerals, cut gemstones, and high jewelry pieces, thus following the path of each gems from nature to work of art. The third part of the exhibition looks back on the historic, scientific and artistic significance of Paris as a center of knowledge, futhering the development and spread of learning in the field of mineralohy, a phenomenon that continues to stimulate artists and lovers of beauty even today.
In the ‘Shared Perspectives on Jewelry’ section, what are some of the themes you’re featuring that define an era of style?
The thematics on display are reflections of the Maison’s universe. Visitors will be able to see how in our creations, since the early ’20s up to more recently, nature has been depicted alive, how couture motifs are captured in movement and how the Maison has invented a whole vocabularly around imaginary worlds.
Describe the unique jewelry object, Rock of Marvels, that the Van Cleef & Arpels workshops created specifically for Gems, on display at the end of the exhibition.
Composed of rough or polished stones and detachable jewels, this object had been designed as a mineral sculpture in which each self – contained element lives in harmony with the ensemble. Van Cleef & Arpels’ design studio, stone department and the workshops of Place Vendome have worked hand in hand to achieve the result. The Maison has imagined the object as a changing landscape, in which elements can be removed from the base to take on new life. It includes nine high jewelry creations that can respectively be worn as a ring, clips, a pendant, earrings and a bracelet. It took nearly two years to bring the object to life, along with its nine creations.
How does a Van Cleef & Arpels jewel go from raw mineral to a piece of fine jewelry, from nature to work of art?
There are several steps from the creation of a high jewelry piece, each of them following the rules of excellence and respecting the highest standards of quality. Depending on the work required for each jewelry piece, the following expertise can be implemented. It all starts with the selection of the best quality of stones according to Van Cleef & Arpels’ criteria, which are with no compromise on quality. Then the creativity of the Maison’s studio expresses itself through drawings and gouches. Once these are finalized, a step specific to only a few high jewelry maisons comes next: the mock – up. It offers a vision of the mock – up. It offers a vision of the creation from 2D to 3 D. The ‘mains d’or’ (master crafsmen) can then start the jewelry work, gem – setting, lapidary work, polishing and engraving, if needed. The patrimonial collection in the exhibition displays a wide range of examples of techniques from different eras. The first display case represents three stages around the ruby: the rough mineral, faceted gem and high jewelry creation (Fuchsia Clip, 1968, Van Cleed & Arpels Collection). The second section of the exhibition focuses on the cycle of minerals, displaying the same system of tripartite presentation.
Tell us about the in – house heritage collection owned by Van Cleef & Arpels, how additional vintage pieces are regularly added and how you selected which pieces would be exhibited in Gems.
Van Cleef & Arpel’s patrimonial collections was originally created by Jacques Arpels in the 1970s. It had since then been consistently enriched along the years. Today, the collection comprises over 1,600 pieces ranging from high jewelry and jewelry to timepieces and precious objects. It is our mandate to make sure this collection is studies, presented and well conserved for future generations. The pieces on display at the MNHN have been carefully selected in constant dialogue with the curators to reflect the stories that are told. What is very striking when visitors will visit the show of nature and humans are equally outstanding in their beauty and perfection. They express a world of poetry.
How does scientific knowledge and research on minerals lead to innovation and technological exploits, such as Van Cleef & Arpels’ Mystery Set technique?
The unique Mystery Set technique has been associated with Van Cleef & Arpels ever since the Maison patented it in 1933. It consists of setting stones in such a way that no prongs are visible. The level of expertise required makes the Mayestry Setting the exclusive preserve of a very small number of master jewelers. The technique is so intricate that producing a single brooch takes no less than 300 hours of work. Each faceted stone is delicately inserted into a thin gold net less than two – tenths of a millimeter thick. Once complemente, the gems appear to be entirely free – standing. Because of the complexity of the process, Mystery Set pieces are extremely rare. At first, the Mystery Setting was reserved for flat pieces such as the Minaudiere precious case. But as the technique developed, Van Cleef & Arpels began using it on more complex shapes and with varying degrees of thickness. Most recently, the Maison has begun to combine the Mystery Setting with marquise – cut gems for a few spectacular pieces. This latest innovation taken the technique to a new level: the buffed edges of the stones create the impression of a shimmering and velvety rendering highlighting the volume of the piece. The ruby, thanks to its exceptional hardness and clarity, is the perfect stone for the Mystery Set technique. Sapphires are also used in Mystery Set pieces. The emerald, a fragile gemstone, is less often used in Mystery Set pieces. On display in the exhibition, visitors will be able to see several highlights of the Mystery Setting, such as the Peony Clip of 1937 in the former collection of Her Royal Highness Princess Faiza of Egypt.
What were the main challenges of making this exhibition?
Creating exhibitions of this scale require a lot of organization, smooth communication and above all a clear vision of what we want to achieve. The project has been in all respects a true success of teamwork, where different expertises collided to give birth to the exhibition. The development of exhibitions implies multifaceted collaborations of professionals ranging from curators, researchers, scientists and art historians to architects, designers, technicians, registrars, art handlers and many other professions. Every exhibition involves a large amount of teams to complete a project. More than a challenge, it had been a joy to work jointly and share a common passion and vision.
Q&A with Francois Farges, Professor of the MNHN and Specialist in Environmental And Heritage Mineralogy
How do minerals tell the story of the brith of the planet and the history of the eart?
Minerals are unique testimonies of the formation and evolution of the earth, from its birth 4.6 billion years ago to the most recent gemstones formed, for instance, only a few hundred years ago, like pearls in oysters. Because pearls are biological minerals formed by living oysters, they are also included. Thanks to the diversity of geological processes, each period of the earth formation’ sees the formation of new mountains, while older oceans disappear. Whatever is slowly crystallizing in the depths or formed near the surface of out planet, the action of pressure, percolating magmas, circulating fluids including water and also oxygen, or even life, contribute to forming specific gemstones. Some rubines are billions of years old, while others are much more recent. Some diamonds are mined in former volcano chimneys; others are extracted from gravel. Every gemstone and every outcrop has a specific story. When combining the 200 gemstones of the exhibition all together with their unique geologies, one can trace a fairly accurate evolution of our planet’s convulsions since its birth. The MNHN in Paris has been a pioneering institution for discovering these aspects since the 18th century. The Rosetta stones of those early discoveries – that have never been exhibited before – are presented, like the first diamonds extracted in South Africa, tha amazing sapphires and rubies of King Louis XVIII, the original emerald from ‘Cleopatra’s Mines’ in Egypt, the world’s jadeite reference, the amazing pearl treasure of Emperor Bao Dai and so many others.
Why have minerals and gemstones fascinated civilizations and inspired artists, intellectuals, poets, scholars and researchers since the beginning of time?
I think gemstones, when discovered in nature, show beautiful colors, shapes, transparencies, lusters and all those properties making them so special. Flowers and animals do not often show such extraordinary optical properties. Also, gemstones cannot be raised or cultivated, so their production is limited: they can easily fit with power since the early times, whatever the cultural codes chosen by a culture. For instance, Mesopotamian cultures favored red as in cornelian, whereas the Aztecs considered green jade to be the blood of gods. Then, as instruments of power, they were set into the crowns of emperors and the superlative necklaces of opera divas. Soon, that was not enough: in the Middle East, they became objects of cultural interest and, ;ater in Europe, they also became scientific objects because gem trading required gemstones to be perfectly well – identified to promote trust during commercial exchanges. But gemstones were not yet objects of beauty until they were cut by a jeweler or analyzed by a scientist. Then, during the 20th century, thanks to Cubism and other abstract movements like Bauhaus, the apparent simplicity of natural crystals opened a new era of wonders: minerals became beautiful by themselves. So natural crystals were included in jewels and poetry took advantage of this renewed vision of art, in sharp rupture with previous codifications, which were too heavily restricted to a more constrained figurative representation of nature, like flora and fauna. This is how the Surrealists were amongst the first to celebrate the beauty of precious stones in their rough poetry in turn because of the proximity of Surrealist writers with contemporary poets. Little by little, everyone became inspired by gemstones, no longer just the powerful.
Who is the target audience of Gems?
Anyone! From youngsters to experienced museum visitors, from amateurs to specialists, from artists to scientists. The idea is to let the visitor become embraced by the colors, lusters and plays of light within the objects, wheter natural or manmade. Gemstones are precious in more ways than one: writers will find beautiful poetry, schientis will discover amazing analyses, kids will dream about treasures that they can finally see in real life, lovers will become inspired for their forthcoming wedding, historians will forsee an evolution of the future. Because gemstones tell how diverse we are, where we arrived from and where we are going. Those who need further explanation will find discreet information panels. And to go even further, there are three catalogs in French, English and Chinese, where the most essential information of the exhibition is illustrated by pictures of lasser – known objects of major importance.