Women have been given jewels as tokens of love since the Stone Age. The precious stones with which Cleopatra dazzled Mark Antony must still exist, somewhere, today, and every few years one of the Duchess of Windsor’s jewels comes to auction, a sparkling reminder of a love that rocked the nation.
Throughout history, jewels have served as symbols of legendary romances. Elizabeth Taylor’s passionate love affairs (with both men and diamonds) resulted in her vast collection of jewels, the most lavish of which were famously gifted by Richard Burton, the man she would marry not once, but twice.
Now, one of his gifts, a gold, diamond and emerald Barquerolles Lion necklace, will form the centrepiece of a new Van Cleef & Arpels exhibition opening next week in Milan.
Designed in 1971, the necklace was inspired by Venetian door knockers, and depicts the head of a lion with a glittering mane that forms the collar. “I believe love is the most powerful energy in the world,” says Alba Cappellieri, professor of jewellery and accessory design at the Polytechnic University of Milan and the curator of the exhibition. Cappellieri has categorised pieces dating from 1906 according to three themes: time, nature and love. “Van Cleef & Arpels jewellery influenced some of the most legendary love stories of the 20th century with its symbols and gifts of love,” she goes on.
Another magnificent necklace included in the exhibition shines a light on the romance between the model Sarah Croker Poole and Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, who commissioned an exotic, Indian-style necklace using 745 diamonds and 44 engraved 18th-century emeralds for his bride ahead of their 1969 wedding.
Meanwhile, on her wedding day in 1956, Grace Kelly received a pearl and diamond set purchased by Prince Rainier III of Monaco at Van Cleef & Arpels in New York. 20 years later, the maison created the diamond diadem Princess Grace wore at the marriage of her daughter Caroline, a piece that’s also set to go on display in Milan.
Mythical love stories are represented, too, in the form of a pair of charming clips, which date back to around 1951. Their design includes a gold thread, ruby, sapphire and emerald Romeo on bended knee, with Juliet’s pearl head nodding towards him.
Creating these wonders is a complex art. There is a complicated balance to strike between the eternal and ephemeral in order to produce a piece of jewellery that will have a lasting impact while also reflecting fashion. Should the scales be weighted too heavily in one direction, the end result loses its emotional power and future potency. Therein lies the difference between the jewel as an art form, and as a trinket worn briefly and later forgotten. The most timeless pieces combine enduring beauty with the immediate allure of a moment in time. The 400 creations that make up the exhibition reflect how Van Cleef & Arpels has achieved exactly this.
Archival documents, gouache designs and sketches illustrate the creative process alongside the sparkling rose-cut diamond faces of ballerinas, a breath-taking 1937 mystery set ruby and diamond clip owned by Maria Callas, as well as modernist bracelets, which show the intersections of Van Cleef & Arpels jewels with other artistic disciplines such as architecture, dance and fashion. They manifest the spirit of the times that produced them. Case in point: the “Little Winged Fairy” clip made with emeralds, diamonds and rubies in 1941 for Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton. Even the privileged were subject to the dark days of the Second World War, and this first fairy was made to symbolise hope and joy.
Cappellieri’s favourite piece in the exhibition? The ingenuity of the iconic braided gold thread Zip necklace set with sapphires, emeralds and rubies. “It mixes the highest goldsmith craftsmanship with the functionalism of the industrial zipper,” she enthuses, “It was love at first sight.”
From British Vogue