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Van Cleef & Arpels exhibition in Beijing: A story of feminism, resistance and hope in the 20th century

Power to the people

At Van Cleef & Arpels' patrimonial exhibition — 'When Elegance Meets Art' — in Beijing's Today Art Museum, we learn how jewellery has helped women through pivotal moments in the early 20th century

"Jewels give out a bit of yourself," reflected Catherine Cariou, Van Cleef & Arpels' heritage director. We were in conversation at the top floor of Today Art Museum in Beijing, where its current exhibition, 'When Elegance Meets Art', runs below. After collaborating with Singapore's ArtScience Museum in 2016 and Kyoto's National Museum of Modern Art in 2017, the maison is partnering with China's first non-profit museum. Housed in Beijing's up-and-coming art and foodie hood, Shuangjing, you can't miss artist Yue Minjun's self-portraits, which taunt and tease the entrance to the museum's box-shaped structure.

While the spring air was ablaze with dust and pollen that's typical of the season, a mystifying, meditative space awaits inside. First presented in 2012 at Paris' Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Van Cleef & Arpels' 'When Elegance Meets Art' exhibition comes to China, the brand's most mature market in Asia. Over 360 high jewellery creations from Van Cleef & Arpels are encased in glass domes, surrounded by drapes of thread in an exhibition designed by Patrick Jouin and Sanjit Manku of Paris-based Jouin Manku Agency. You begin at 1906, journeying through decades of movements and trends curated in chronological order, before ending your time travel by marvelling at contemporary pieces. The overall mood is one of discovery and mystique, reflecting the exhibition's new home. Inspired by the misty effects and landscapes specifically done by Chinese ink, guests wind through an enveloping, moody space.

'When Elegace Meets Art', exhibition design by Jouin Manku Agency

"This is my personal cat that belonged to my grandmother and then mother," Cariou continued, when asked about a Van Cleef & Arpels piece that she holds dear. "My parents always said I was a bit mischievous and malicious," she recalled as she showed off the small feline figure, which bore a grin that suggested it was up to no good.

Cariou isn't musing on anything new — alike fashion, jewellery has existed as a strong self-portrait of ourselves and the times we live in. But she comes backed with an inside knowledge of just how those bling rings have kept up. As the maison's heritage director, Cariou enriches their private collection of accessories and jewels, travelling the world to find pieces from auctioneers, dealers and private collectors. Purchasing jewels that tell stories, key items have made their way to Beijing, bringing with them the traumas and triumphs of their time.

Walking through the exhibition, you can't help but notice how fiercely female Van Cleef & Arpels has been. Through the choice of materials, technological innovations and bursts of inspiration, the jeweller has allowed women of the 20th century (and beyond) to be heard. Here's how.

VCA

Women were able to roar, as loudly as they could
Ah, the flapper girl. An icon of independence and debauchery that will forever be immortalised by F. Scott Fitzgerald and of course, one too many Halloween parties. The Roaring Twenties gave women the right to vote and a wantonness that had them frequenting jazz clubs and speakeasies. Then came the stock market crash of 1929 and following that, the Great Depression. While the makeup trends of the '30s were more refined, women still relied on makeup to keep their spirits up — a 1934 Cutex advertisement even posed the question: "Do bankers' wives wear the right Cutex Coral Cardinal Ruby Nails?" Even though the economy took a turn for the worst, the beauty industry saw a boom. Max Factor invented the first lip gloss in 1930, while Helena Rubinstein created the first commercial waterproof mascara in 1939.

A minaudière by Van Cleef & Arpels

Enter the minaudière in 1934, a hard-case evening bag by Van Cleef & Arpels that allowed the modern woman to include her lipstick, powder case, lighter and cigarettes in one compact, beautiful box. An alternative to the handbag, it was invented by Charles Arpels, who was inspired by how his socialite friend Florence Jay Gould used a Lucky Strike cigarette tin to store her essentials. In a time when women needed to look glamourous (whether for themselves or their husbands), the minaudière was a technical advancement from the humble vanity case.

Women were able to escape, dream and hope
"The influence of expos and the increasing trend of travel had an impact," said Cariou of the '20s. "Airlines were increasingly developing and we had a lot of Chinese and Japanese merchants who settled down in France, bringing with them colour combinations such as red with black." Additionally, the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon in 1922 inspired Van Cleef & Arpels to create pieces that reflected such pursuits. The allure of China, Japan, Persia and Egypt came alive as cherry blossoms, dragons, scarabs and sphinxes adorned the delicate wrists and curvatures of necks. Inspired by exotic escapades and adventurous expeditions, the designs dared women to dream.

Dragon

The jewellery of the late '30s painted a different story. Because of lesser tools, materials, fabrics, and of course, money, jewellery that came out of Van Cleef & Arpels was bigger to counter the fact that women lacked variety in clothes. Yellow gold was used as a way to highlight your outfit. The use of flowers as motifs was also popular in this period as people looked for hopeful and joyful representations.

Another symbol of hope was the dancer, who first appeared in the '40s. One of Van Cleef & Arpels' most recognisable motifs, it debuted after Claude Arpels befriended George Balanchine, co-founder of the New York City Ballet. The maison's relationship with dance still continues today. Last year, 'Hearts & Arrows' — a collaboration with Benjamin Millepied's (also known as Natalie Portman's husband) L.A. Dance Project — was staged in Singapore.

Van Cleef & Arpels 'Dancer' clip, 1947
Women were allowed the space to transform and be flexible
Transformability is a signature of the maison, reflected in the multiple ways women can wear one piece of jewellery. In 1939, the same year World War II broke out, Van Cleef & Arpels created the Passe-Partout pieces. A multi-functional item that could be worn as a necklace, bracelet, choker or brooch, it catered to a woman's changing role in society. Because it was a social faux pas for women to publicly check the time, a secret watch was made so that women could display two sides: One of femininity, and one of practicality. Today, secret watches still intrigue — 'Le Secret', a collection Van Cleef & Arpels launched at the summer Paris Couture show last year, is an ode to the secret watches of yesterday.

Margot Robbie wearing the iconic 'Zip' necklace at the 2015 Oscars

Transformative pieces continue to define Van Cleef & Arpels well into the '50s. Inspired by the pants zipper, the iconic 'Zip' necklace was born in 1951. Worn two ways (open as a necklace or closed as a bracelet by sliding up the tassel), it was an example of how its versatility gave women the freedom to transform and be flexible according to their moods and wishes.

Women were able to take a stand and show their resistance
Resistance pieces debuted in Van Cleef & Arpels' collection in the '40s during World War II. While activity at the workshop slowed down, the maison worked at pieces of art that imitated life. An example is the 'Fourragère' pieces inspired by military decorations. Clips were also designed with themes of liberation in mind, such as one that depicted a caged bird poised for flight. Created in 1945, it was released the same year the Second World War ended. In the exhibition, you can also see rings, bracelets and necklaces that compose of red, blue and white Forget-me-not flower bouquets in ruby, sapphire and diamonds. Those colours weren't a coincidence — a sign of resistance from France, the collection became popular after the war and was worn for remembrance.

Forget Me Not

Women were flying high, and recognised for it
In 1951, Jacqueline Auriol became the fastest woman in the world when she flew 818km per hour over a 100km course — just a year after she earned her military licence and qualified as France's first female test pilot. Auriol also became the first European woman to break the sound barrier. In 1956, French aircraft manufacturer Marcel Dassault offered her the 'Mystère IV' necklace, a work of art made of gold, platinum and diamonds. Inspired by the jersey knit, the thin and flexible mesh takes the shape of the Dassault MD.454 Mystère IV fighter-bomber aircraft's course, leaving a trail of diamonds. The year of its release also marked the delivery of the 225th jet ordered by the United States as part of a NATO agreement. 

Van Cleef

Van Cleef & Arpels 'When Elegance Meets Art' exhibition is running at Today Art Museum in Beijing till 5 August.

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Text: Adibah Isa

  • Image:
    Van Cleef & Arpels Collection,
    Getty Images

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