A pair of jewelled zebras nuzzle within a niche on the wall, bathed in serene blue. The delicate score floating in the background – Arvo Part’s Spiegel Im Spiegel – embraces the viewer, drawing them into the affectionate tableau. Suddenly, without warning, thunder crashes over the scene as the lights urgently flash on and off.
This was the emotive setting for Van Cleef & Arpels’ (VCA) latest high jewellery collection, inspired by the tale of Noah’s Ark. Presented at a recent exhibition at the Asia Society in Hong Kong, the L’Arche De Noe racontee par Van Cleef & Arpels is as much a story as it is a collection.
Acclaimed American scenographer Robert Wilson was engaged to visualise this narrative, with VCA’s finely-crafted clips at its centre. The result is an immersive experience. Light and sound conspire to make visitors feel like they have actually boarded the Ark, while a small, Inuit-inspired wooden boat hangs almost unobstrusively from the ceiling – a subtle yet suggestive symbol.
It is the Ark’s residents, of course, that are the stars, and indeed, Wilson illuminates them like twinkles in the night sky. A menagerie of paired animals, brought to life through a palette of precious metals and stones, invite us to scrutinise, and to imagine distinct identities.
As objets d’art, the pieces are the stuff of delightful fantasy. Here, a stag and hind carved of letterwood sparkle joyfully with yellow sapphires and spessartite garnets, while there, two pink-sapphire flamingos entwine in courtship on an intense blue turquoise.
The varying styles display a playful abandon of convention. The pink-and-violet-sapphire-touched ladybirds and the diamond-encrusted koalas could well trick you into believing they were real; however, a pair of elephants with lapis lazuli and malachite hides, and two owls decked in violet sugilite and chrysoprase, are endearingly toy-like.
Accompanying the animal couples in the collection are three mythical beasts, the only ones presented without a mate: a majestic unicorn with a sapphire coat; a phoenix flaming with rubies and mother-of-pearl; and the winged horse Pegasus, ruby body and coral wings on proud display. A nod to VCA’s history of depicting mythological creatures, each piece showcases the jewellery house’s Traditional Mystery Set, an emblematic technique from 1933 that enables stones to be set while leaving the metal beneath unseen.
The Hong Kong exhibition is only the second time VCA has staged the installation, which debuted in Paris last year. The intention, says VCA president and CEO Nicolas Bos, was to show the collection within the context of art.
“We believe jewellery is a very important aspect of decorative arts, and that they should be exhibited and seen. It is important to hold on to that, otherwise we become accessible only to a small group of people, and lose that connection with art,” he says.
Fittingly, the L’Arche De Noe collection has its beginnings in a painting – specifically, Flemish painter Jan Brueghel the Elder’s The Entry Of The Animals Into Noah’s Ark.
When Bos saw it at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, he was struck by its liveliness and strong sense of narrative.
“It was the first time I saw this type of representation of the Noah’s Ark story. It is one frame with the animals in pairs, but has such a strong storyline. It is as much a panorama as a story. Similarly, the L’Arche De Noé is a collection you should see all at once, a collection with a story,” he says.
At the same time, Bos was reminded of toy versions of Noah’s ark from his childhood, which could be opened and filled with figurines of animal pairs. Somewhere within the melding of these ideas, the inspiration for the current collection was born.
Moreover, the animal theme was also a way for VCA to pay homage to its past; for more than a century, the Maison has been fashioning jewelled fauna as wearable art.
“The collection allowed us to honour the patrimony of our House, by looking into our own archives for ideas and represent-ations of animals over the years,” says Bos.
When the 60-odd clips in the collection were ready, Bos wanted the perfect way to showcase it.
And in Wilson, Bos found someone similarly enamoured with stories. The two first met when Wilson was staging Alexander Pushkin’s Fairy Tales in Moscow, and Bos realised how passionate the theatre artist was about the worlds of fantasy and childhood.
“I was drawn to Wilson’s ability to tell stories, and his incredible attention to detail. When you think about visionaries in that field, he is one of the first to come to mind, and he was able to create this incredible atmosphere but without too much fuss or being too obvious,” says Bos.
In Wilson’s ark, two onyx-backed penguins huddle on an ice floe of diamonds and coral, as if hiding from the flashing storm. But in a breath of music and sea-blue waves, the thunder recedes, leaving the birds to glimmer with hope. Taking in the collection, the prosaic eye may only see intricately-fashioned pieces of high jewellery, but the dreamers and romantics will find a whole world of stories to disappear into.