Taking a much needed break from Fashion week, The Shophound took yesterday morning off for a special preview of "Set In Style: The Jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels", the exhibition opening today at The Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. running through June 5th. You don't have to simply be a jewelry fan to appreciate the more than 350 dazzling works on view throughout the museum's ground floor. While there are plenty of sparkly treats for the eye, the exhibition also focuses on the legendary jeweler's technological advances and groups the objects by themes including Innovation, Transformation, Nature, Exoticism, Fashion and, of course the famous Personalities who have been prominent customers over the past century. Extensive materials from the firm's vast archive such as orders and sketches help to give context to remarkable pieces such as an iconic "zipper" necklace that converts into a bracelet (at left) which was originally commissioned by the Duchess of Windsor and took nearly 20 years to perfect.
The exhibition is something of an innovation itself, however featuring special magnifying displays as well as a holographic presentation that allows the painstaking workmanship of some tiny pieces to be viewed three-dimensionally. A Special Order book from 1938 is reproduced digitally, to be perused through a touch screen. There are informative videos throughout the installation, but most striking is a special iPad app as elegant as anything in the show. It allows visitors to access additional content on the objects as they browse. The free app should be available in a couple of weeks from the iTunes Store, but for those of us who remain without a personal iPad (and there are still plenty of us), the museum has 50 of them that visitors can borrow while inside the exhibition.
But all of this tech simply support the main attraction which is a ton of gorgeous baubles to marvel at. The show makes the point that unlike many famous jewelers, Van Cleef & Arpels as a design force is less about great big diamonds than using gemstones as an element of extraordinary design. Designer Patrick Jouin of the firm Jouin Manku used the Cooper Hewitt's own opulent home as an inspiration for the exhibition design, with a long table set with jewels in the dining room, and a vitrine of flying enameled butterfly brooches in the conservatory. The exhibition ends with choice items from its most famous clients, from early supporters like Daisy Fellowes and Florence Jay Gould to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Eva Perón, Marlene Dietrich and, of course, Elizabeth Taylor (pictured above), culminating in the engagement and wedding jewels presented to Grace Kelly as she became H.S.H. Princess Grace of Monaco. Jouin managed to keep the show from feeling like a jewelry store, or maybe he just made it like the best jewelry store ever.
After taking in the show, The Shophound retired to a press tent for refreshments that nearly rivaled the exhibition itself in its lavishness. It turns out it was doing double duty after hosting the museum's gala the night before, and as we left we were presented with a copy of the exhibition's sumptuous catalog which, even if you can't get to the Cooper Hewitt, will be a must-have for serious jewelry customers and fans alike.
Set In Style: The Jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels through June 5th at the Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, 2 East 91st Street at Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side