April 24, 2024

Who doesn’t love a pretty piece of jewelry? Yet the recent retrospective of Van Cleef & Arpels at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum makes it as clear as a cabochon that there’s a lot more to those bright and shiny baubles than just a cut ‘n’ polish. Founded in fin de siecle Paris by brothers-in-law Alfred van Cleef and Salomon Arpels, the prominence of inspired design as a cornerstone of the company’s philosophy provides a unique opportunity to view the evolution of 20th century jewelry in the context of decorative arts. (For instance, some of its Art Deco-style jewelry anticipated the official initiation of the Art Deco style by more than five years.) Many of VC&A’s innovations were both technical and stylistic, with advancement in one area often leading to leaps in another. Among the most notable are the groundbreaking Mystery Setting, above, in which matched gemstones are grooved and set in channels so the setting remains invisible; and the Minaudiere, a ladies’ vanity case the size of a small clutch which was patented in 1934. Innovative use of materials, methods and motifs has made the company a significant force for over a century, creating transformative works of art far greater than the sum of their parts. Like the stunning Walska Brooch, pictured below: the wings come off to form earrings, the tail comes off to form a brooch, and the pendant can be detached and worn separately. Who’d have thought that pretty could be pretty practical, too?

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