The Van Cleef & Arpels: Time, Nature, Love exhibition, held at Palazzo Reale in Milan, puts the universe of the High Jewelry Maison on display for the first time in Italy. More than 400 jewelry creations, watches and precious objects produced since the Maison was founded in 1906 have been gathered for the occasion. Archival documents, sketches and gouache designs – illustrating the first steps in the creative process – stand alongside precious pieces from the Van Cleef & Arpels Collection, as well as loans from private collections. Promoted by the Municipality of Milan, Culture Office and Palazzo Reale, and produced by Van Cleef & Arpels in collaboration with Fondazione Cologni dei Mestieri d’Arte, the exhibition is curated by Alba Cappellieri, Professor of Jewelry Design at Milan Polytechnic University and Director of the Vicenza Museum of Jewelry.

Drawing from Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Alba Cappellieri chose key concepts through which she interprets the Maison’s creations and their relationship with time. The initial section on Time extends over ten rooms, all focused on aspects emblematic of the period. The first room is dedicated to Paris, followed by Exoticism and the five values cited by Calvino: Lightness, Quickness, Visibility, Exactitude, Multiplicity. The next rooms highlight intersections with other artistic disciplines including dance, fashion and architecture.

The art of jewelry maintains a complex relationship with time, ever in balance between the eternal and the ephemeral, tradition and fashion. The exhibition demonstrates the prowess of Van Cleef & Arpels in thoroughly representing a fragmented age like the 20th century, embodying at once the timeless value of beauty and fleeting power of enchantment. Sorbet was offered an exclusive one-on-one tour of the exhibition by its curator.

Q: Let’s start with the title, Time, Nature, Love.

A: Those words were really the starting point for the exhibition – I tried to focus attention on the relationship with time, nature, and love that high jewelry has. While we are very familiar with the idea that nature and love are inspirations for high jewelry, the relationship with time can be controversial, because high jewelry is supposed to be timeless. I realized during these years studying the Maison that they have an incredible ability in combining the eternity with the ephemeral. So they imbue their jewelry with values that are able to pass from one generation to another, but also to represent their time.

Q: And I understand writer Italo Calvino was an influence?

A: The backbone of the exhibition is Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium. As I guess you know, he was a very famous Italian writer, and these writings date back to 1985, when he was asked by Harvard University to deliver that year’s Norton lectures, which are truly the most important in literature.

Q: But why did you choose him as your inspiration?

A: I chose him because these memos are values he wanted to pass on to the next millennium. So, in analyzing the relationship between jewelry and time, I realized that Calvino’s values could be effective not just for literature, but almost for everything, and I will demonstrate that to you.

Q: Amazing.

A: So, the Time section is divided into 10 rooms, then we have the big four columns in the Love room, and three rooms dedicated to nature with flora, fauna, and botanicals. To the five memos by Calvino [the author only completed five of the six] I added another five values that in my opinion well represent the relationship between the Maison and time. The starting point is Paris. Paris is not just the place where the story begins, but at the beginning of the 20th century, Paris was really the center for the arts – the place to be for architects, painters, sculptors, poets. Haute Couture is what defined the aesthetic of the century. Some of the most important artistic movements originate in Paris: Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Cubism, Surrealism, and so on. Van Cleef & Arpels has a very strong relationship with Paris, not just Place Vendôme in 1906 where Van Cleef’s story physically started, but also in terms of beauty. I love these Vendome column objects, and of course they are related to the place, but they are also a symbol. Place Vendôme was built under Louis XIV, so the idea was to marry the concepts of majesty and architecture as a representation of beauty.

Q: The scale of the exhibition really is astonishing.

A: This exhibition is the largest ever realized by the Maison. We have more than 500 pieces, from jewelry and precious objects to archived materials. For the very first time we have original drawings and sketches never shown before. From Paris as a physical place, the second room I’ve selected is dedicated to exoticism. I find the ability of the Maison to bridge different values extraordinary – eternal and ephemeral, local and global, tradition and innovation. And of course, this is not clear in the storytelling of the Maison because you are focused on this amazing high jewelry, but Van Cleef & Arpels is one of the most innovative jewelry companies of the century. I’m not just talking about aesthetical innovation, I’m talking about patents, copyright, scientific, and technological innovations. I think the exotic room has a very deep message, because we are living in a very difficult historical period, talking so much about nationalism. The word ‘exoticism’ derives from the Greek word exo, which means ‘abroad’ – something out of our world. And this room is the demonstration that beauty and culture come from the intersections with other worlds, very different worlds. This room is also the most innovative one, demonstrating the inspiration from Egyptians, for example. In 1922 Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb, and two years later, Van Cleef realized this stunning Egyptian bracelet, so elegant – so delicate, but also technically, incredibly well done.

Q: Are these parts of the patrimoine of the house, or they are owned by collectors, or is it a mix?

A: It is a mix – loans from private collectors, institutions, and, of course, the Maison.

Q: How is it that so many have never been shown before?

A: Because they were never selected. I am extremely grateful to the Maison, because it gave me the freedom to select whatever I wanted. And I realized that in the Maison there are different stories and that exoticism is one of the strongest.

Q: Was exoticism one of Calvino’s memos?

A: No, that is mine. Here we have the first of his memos: Lightness. It is the aesthetical language of the Art Deco period, based on white – diamonds and platinum. The second memo is related to quickness. Calvino says time passes too fast; that we need to stop for poetic time. The third is exactitude. For Calvino, exactitude was coming from the ancient Egyptians and is related to the man-made. It is the best craftsmanship coming from the Maison. Man-made craftmanship with incredible technical innovation. The first patent is from 1933, it was applied to flat surfaces.

Q: And I heard there are only three artisans in the world who do this today.

A: Yes, but then there was only one, and in 1936 we gained the second patent for carved surfaces, and we have the first masterpieces realized in 1937. There is no other maison with this ability in innovation. Visibility is the fourth memo. Calvino says fantasy is a place where it rains – fairytales, imagination – they are the paradigms of visibility, and they are key to the Maison. Our very first fairy was created in 1941, The Spirit of Beauty, realized for Barbara Hutton, the American millionaire. We have unicorns from the ‘40s and Pegasus, chimeras and griffins. Multiplicity is the fifth and final memo. For Calvino, multiplicity is one of the most interesting. We cannot consider time anymore as a single stream – our time is fragmented. So I reinterpreted multiplicity for the Maison as transformability – pieces you can wear in many ways, and also the ability to transfer a daily object to a precious object. The minaudière is a perfect example of transforming a functional object into a piece of jewelry.