A Dictionary of Wonders:
Van Cleef & Arpels

Ballerinas, fairies and a zoo of friendly beasts are all part of the enchanting world created by jewelry Maison Van Cleef & Arpels. In author Fabienne Reybaud’s book A Dictionary of Wonders: Van Cleef & Arpels, published by Flammarion, the heart and soul of the Maison’s collections are revealed. What sets this book apart from others is that it is not a chronological timeline of events, but rather a studied look at how Van Cleef & Arpels (VCA) interacts with other art forms including dance, literature, art, theater, design and photography, yet still maintains its aesthetic coherence. The author also draws connections between jewelry that was created in the early part of the 20th century and how it remains relevant today.

The book is set up as sections, each relating to a letter of the alphabet that then contains stories that revisit the themes and codes of VCA. Discussing the origins of the heritage collection that Van Cleef & Arpels has curated, in chapter C, The Collection, Reybaud informs readers that during the 1970s Jacques Arpels began buying back VCA pieces “…that over time would brilliantly reflect the talent and artistry of our designers and jewelers…” The collection now boasts more than 2,200 objects dating back to 1906, the year the house was launched.  This book is based on that collection. The 360 page tome is filled with lush images of voluptuous jewels, many of which we automatically associate with the house, but then Reybaud takes us on a deep dive into each of the collections, its inspiration and relevance. Reybaud speaks to a number of people associated with the Maison including CEO Nicholas Bos and French choreographer Benjamin Millepied. Interviews with executives and others at the firm, both past and present, are quoted but remain nameless.

© A Dictionary of Wonders: Van Cleef & Arpels, by Fabienne Reybaud, published by Flammarion.

Founded on Love

A Dictionary of Wonders also takes a look at how love influences the Maison, noting that VCA was founded on love when Estelle Arpels and Alfred Van Cleef married in 1895. The house has created jewels to celebrate love ever since it opened its doors in 1906 with motifs that include lovebirds and cupid. And the Maison also counts some very famous lovers as clients including Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco and other high profile couples. The book looks at some of the famous couples and their “love” jewels.

Within the sections, Reybaud makes specific references to various motifs. She relates not only how the piece was made, but how it fit into the social ethos at the time it was debuted. In chapter A, a section is dedicated to the Alhambra collection, which Reybaud says “…must be one of the most famous motifs in the history of modern jewelry.” And she continues on to explain that the timeless design, which was introduced in 1968 “resonated with the freedom loving spirit of the times.” She also traces the evolution of this style from its introduction to its current iteration, something she does with all of the collections in the book.

Barquerolles choker, 1971. Transformable into two bracelets, detachable pendant clip. Yellow gold, emeralds, diamonds. Van Cleef & Arpels collection, p.293 ©Van Cleef & Arpels SA, from A Dictionary of Wonders: Van Cleef & Arpels, Flammarion.

Supporting the Arts

VCA has a history of supporting the arts, but one of the most famous dates back to the early 1940s. When New York City Ballet choreographer George Balanchine met Claude Arpels. Balanchine was enthralled with VCA jewels and Arpels was delighted by dance and so two beautiful forms of art were born: The  jeweled Ballerina Brooches created by VCA starting in 1941 and “Jewels” a trilogy of dances dedicated to diamonds, rubies and emeralds choreographed by Balanchine in 1967. Reybaud notes that in an effort to support contemporary dance and foster new choreography, VCA continues to support the NYC Ballet today along with choreographer Benjamin Millepied’s LA Dance project.

Cygne ballerina clip, white gold, yellow gold, yellow sapphires, emeralds, tsavorite garnets, diamonds. Figures Féminines Signature collection, p.60 ©Van Cleef & Arpels SA, from A Dictionary of Wonders: Van Cleef & Arpels, Flammarion.

Enchanting Exhibitions

A section is also dedicated to VCA exhibitions around the world. In that section VCA CEO Bos notes that the exhibitions are meant to enchant and educate people about the craft of jewelry. The house does not put new pieces in its exhibits, nor does it create pieces for the exhibit, instead it draws from the Van Cleef & Arpels Collection.

“It might seem ambitious but a characteristic of our collections is that they touch each person, whatever their origins,” explains Nicolas Bos in A Dictionary of Wonders. “We want our designs to sit within a broader artistic history from which we can draw inspiration on a deep level. Beyond the framework this gives us, it reflects the identity of the Maison. These collaborations and interdisciplinary encounters are always a rich source of inspiration. They stimulate our creativity and create bridges between different art forms.”

Featured image (top of page): p.64 ©Bernard Lagacé, Lysandre Le Cléac’h, from A Dictionary of Wonders: Van Cleef & Arpels, Flammarion.

Eléphant enchanté clip, white gold, rose gold, yellow gold, one rubellite of 14.84 carats, emeralds, colored sapphires, spessartite garnets, rubellites, white cultured pearls, diamonds. Peau d’Âne raconté par Van Cleef & Arpels High Jewelry collection, p.235 ©Van Cleef & Arpels SA, from A Dictionary of Wonders: Van Cleef & Arpels, Flammarion.

Authored by Amber Michelle