What (Exactly) Does It Take to Curate a High-Jewelry Exhibition?

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Photo: Courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels

At first blush, an exhibition entitled Time, Nature, Love based upon fairly obscure memos written by Italian writer Italo Calvino right before his death seems like a stretch. In fact, we were initially skeptical of the compatibility of these disparate mediums before seeing the first ever high-jewelry exhibition by Van Cleef & Arpels in Italy.

Calvino’s Six Memos on the Next Millennium (which are actually five as he passed away before the sixth could be written) provided a road map for understanding and preserving important literary themes as we headed into the 21st century. To read them is to trip and fall down dozens of rabbit holes of thought, each more compelling than the last.

In a single paragraph, he might reference Roman poet Lucretius, philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, and astronomer Galileo Galilei. He ponders the modality of the alphabet, the influence of the moon, and Guido Cavalcanti’s philosophy of love. He might send your thoughts in a thousand scrambling directions, but he ties everything back together and relates it back to one of five values: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity.

In order to understand how Calvino’s memos – along with the maison’s longstanding pillars of time, nature, and love – fit into the design of the overall exhibition, we must turn to its curator. Not only is the phenomenally brilliant Alba Cappellieri a professor of jewelry design, but she’s also one of the world’s most respected thinkers when it comes to jewelry’s contributions to culture. Her field is so specific and her knowledge so vast that she was a natural choice for Van Cleef & Arpels when it came to curating Time, Nature, Love

Cappellieri’s approach is philosophical in nature. Although she spent years in the Van Cleef & Arpels archives, her initial idea was abstract at first, building the exhibition around concepts and then finding perfect harmonies and parallels of them within Van Cleef & Arpels’ patrimony. The academic metaphor of Calvino’s value of lightness, for instance, was made literal by a room filled with delicate feather clips suspended so that they appeared to be hovering in the air. Time, Nature, Love is thoughtfully presented inside the stunning Palazzo Reale in Milan, the baroque interiors of which are cleverly lit in order to pick up and elevate the themes enshrined in each room.

The idea was to create a dialogue between the exhibition space, the high jewelry, and the theme. In keeping them separated into sections, conjoined by wide open doors, you’re invited into a labyrinth where conceptual ephemera becomes a fully realized jewelry experience. In an exclusive interview with Savoir Flair, Cappellieri shares the intricacies of Time, Nature, Love, which is free and open to the public in Milan until February 23, 2020. Journey down the rabbit hole with us.

Alba Cappellieri | Photo: Courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels

Why did you choose the academic study of jewelry?
Well, I got a degree in architecture before moving to the US, where I wrote a book on Philip Johnson and was the correspondent for Domos on skyscrapers. Then I moved to Milan and went to the Polytechnic University of Milan. Pier Carlo Crova was one of the most important jewelry manufacturers in the industry, and he was coming to the university. He asked for a collaboration and the dean had no idea how to match his request, but he said to me, ‘We are very sorry, but we do not have any skyscrapers here, so you should try to find something different. You can try to collaborate with a jewelry company.’

I was coming from a PhD in the history of architecture, as well as having written a book on Philip Johnson and the Domos skyscraper book. I had no idea about jewelry. I told the dean that jewelry was something very far from my studies. I cried for six months, then said, ‘Okay, let’s try to understand what jewelry can give to me and what can I give to jewelry.’ It ended up being a very lucky event for me because, at the time, there were many architects and architectural historians, but nobody was able to create the match between the industry and the design culture.

And Milan was the perfect place for this unique union to happen?
Yes, it is the international center for fashion, design, and manufacturing. This all happened in the 90s and, at the time, Italy was the major producer of jewelry in the world. More than 70 percent of the global jewelry was manufactured in Italy, but there was no link between the design approach and the jewelry industry. That’s what I did and how I started, and it was very important for me.

You’ve referred to this moment before as a ‘sliding door’ – where one decision can affect the rest of your life, but you don’t know it at the time. 
I used to mention this to my students: be open-minded to whatever life will bring to you, every day. It was the luckiest event of my life because I was the only one matching the design culture with the jewelry culture. I think that innovation comes from the intersection of worlds and of context. That’s what I tried with this Van Cleef & Arpels exhibition. 

When you were first approached to curate the exhibition, what were some ideas you had right away?
My first idea was not to show the best gems, the best jewelry, the biggest pieces, but try to write a different story. Van Cleef & Arpels is the most innovative jewelry company from this perspective. After studying in its archive for three years, I realized there are so many pieces you’ve never seen, so many stories you don’t know. It’s a pity to only show the masterpieces. 

Moreover, my idea and my objective was to demonstrate the ability of the maison to understand and represent its time. It’s very difficult for jewelry to be timeless – to represent past, present, and future. Coming from a design culture, where every object must represent its time, I realized that the ability of the maison is in bridging sometimes controversial aspects. In Van Cleef & Arpels, you find alternative and ephemeral, you find global and local. You can find the details and the big gems. You can find beauty in terms of ornamentation, and you can find science in terms of innovation. That’s the story I tried to tell through this exhibition.

Photo: Courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels

What came next?
The title was the very next step. Splitting the concept into time, nature, and love, with time being the biggest part. We dedicated 10 rooms to time and to the ability of the maison to represent a fragmented time, like the 20th century. The theoretical backbone of the exhibition is an homage to Italo Calvino and his Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Calvino is a very important Italian writer. In 1985, he was invited to take part in the Norton Lectures at Harvard University. Unfortunately, he never went there because he passed away, and he left us not six, but five memos to be transmitted for the next millennium.

How did you tie in Calvino’s memos with the jewelry in the exhibition?
The memos were supposed to be literary values, but I realized that they’re very effective, even for jewelry. These are some of the values I would transmit to my kids for allowing them to understand the 20th century. To the five values by Calvino – lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity – I added another five values that I consider as seminal for Van Cleef & Arpels. These are: exoticism, dance, fashion, architecture, and – of course – Paris, the home of the maison.

Talk us through the layout of the rooms, and why they are designed the way they are.
The tour starts with Paris. It’s not just a city, it’s what I like to define as the epicenter of the arts. It’s the place where architects, poets, writers – all the best intellectual people – were at the beginning of the 20th century. Paris is also the place where the main artistic movements started. Think of Impressionism, Cubism, Art Deco – they all started there. 

From my perspective, Paris has a double-value: on one side, the link with the Parisian spirit of Van Cleef & Arpels and, on the other side, being the center of culture for the 20th century. We paid homage to Van Cleef & Arpels’ home at Place Vendôme, which was represented in many unusual and amazing ways, like the ‘Column’ lighter from 1950 and the engraved cigarette case depicting the square.

What comes after Paris?
After Paris, we have exoticism. Once again, the idea is local and global, demonstrating the ability of the maison to look closer from a single place like Place Vendôme to the rest of the world through the lens of exoticism. With exoticism, I wanted to demonstrate another thing. There’s a political message because, right now, there are politicians and leaders who want to close our world, but the world has always been open to culture and beauty. Exoticism derives from exo, the Greek word for ‘abroad’, ‘outer’, and ‘outer worlds’. 

Van Cleef & Arpels has always been open to the beauty of other cultures from every age and period. In the ‘Exoticism’ room of the exhibition, we begin with Japanese influence. Then we move to Egypt, China, Persia, and Africa. They’re all places of incredible inspiration – not just for gems and color, but also design.

I especially loved the exoticism room and the one that came right after, which focused on Calvino’s value of lightness.
For Calvino, the most important of the values to be transmitted for the next millennium was lightness. Lightness, as defined by him, matches perfectly with the masterpieces by Van Cleef & Arpels. The idea of the white jewelry in platinum and diamond is a bridge between beauty and science. Take for instance, the collar belonging to Queen Nazli of Egypt. It is a perfect design that brings together baguette and round diamonds, as well as platinum settings, which are very hard to work. There is a story of innovation in terms of technique and science, as well as the story of beauty in terms of design, in every piece.

Photo: Courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels

The exhibit is also a bridge between the figurative and the literal. When Calvino is talking about lightness, it’s figurative. He’s exploring Ovid and Dante, and comparing those poems to the concepts he’s referring to. For Van Cleef, lightness is literal. It defines the physical lightness or weight of the pieces. Take the feather pieces, for instance – how they sit on your body is actually a figurative idea made literal, which I thought was brilliant. 
You’re super right. This is even clearer in the second value that is quickness. Calvino said that in our age, time passes by too fast. We do not have the quality of time. We should consider time as a poem, and Van Cleef talks about poetic time. 

I’m curious as to whether Calvino’s memos were already in your mind when you were approached to curate the exhibition or whether you chose to use them as inspiration after research?
Yes, they were already in my mind. His memos are one of my backbones in terms of values. I love Calvino, he really is one of my favorite writers from the very beginning. He bridges high culture with daily culture.  

After the rooms that showcase the concept of quickness, there are those dealing with time, which – as you said – is hard to capture for a jewelry brand. How did you capture this difficult concept?
We present the idea of time via the incredible variety of Van Cleef & Arpels watches. We have pocket watches for men, we have wrist watches for women. We also have the history of costume. At the very beginning of the century, it was considered very rude for women to look at their watches, so another invention by the maison presented the watch in a way that only the wearer could see the time. It’s brilliant, and it’s so iconic because it is both a precious bracelet and a timepiece. It also happens to relate to another of Calvino’s values – that of visibility. Calvino says, ‘Fantasy is a place where it rains.’ The idea of considering imagination is very fertile ground. Visibility is the world of fantasy and imagination. Van Cleef always considered fairytales as a big source of inspiration.

Van Cleef’s fairies are a central part of its archives, and also beautifully presented in the exhibition.
Yes, in this magic world by Van Cleef & Arpels, we perfectly matched the visibility idea by Calvino to these fairytale elements. 

So, you’re weaving together your own values with Calvino’s throughout the exhibition, with each room leading organically from one concept to another while addressing a broader theme of time, nature, and love. What is meant by the value of exactitude and how it relates to Van Cleef’s designs?
Calvino says that exactitude is one of the most important gifts of men. Exactitude is created by human hands. I think it’s perfect for the craftsmanship of Van Cleef, but also for its ability to innovate. We dedicated the Exactitude Room to one of the most important innovations in the history of jewelry of the 20th century: the famous ‘Zip’ necklace. 

It is fantastic not just because of the beauty of its matching stones, but because it is innovative. Van Cleef got two patents for it, the first in 1933 and and the second in 1936. What’s more is that it is functional in that it actually zips – you can’t imagine how hard it is to do that – which is why it speaks to exactitude. It’s also subversive because it takes an element originally found on workmen’s uniforms and transforms it into the most incredible piece of high jewelry. It’s both beautiful and meaningful, and it’s my favorite piece by Van Cleef & Arpels.

Where does multiplicity come into the equation?
I interpreted multiplicity according to a principle for the maison: transformability. The majority of the pieces of jewelry are transformable; they can change like the ‘Zip’ necklace, but also like the ‘Passe-Partout’ collection with the two gold strands that you can fix as you like. Some necklaces can become earrings, others can be turned into pendants. They offer a multiplicity of forms, you see?

One thing I kept thinking while going through the exhibition was that Van Cleef & Arpels high jewelry was like a prism, allowing different perspectives on culture. Other topics or values included love, dance, architecture, and flora and fauna. Do you think that the public will see the reason for curating the collection according to these values? Do you think they’ll understand the depth of that thought?
I hope so, of course. I find your metaphor of the prism perfect. Exactly like a prism, everyone can see what belongs to him or to her. We even have leaflets that help kids see elements of the exhibition by asking them to find different shapes in the jewelry. The exhibition is free and for everyone. However, some people will view things differently.

A jewelry specialist will see it differently than a jewelry enthusiast. Then, there are special people like you, who have the ability to capture the inner meaning. I don’t think this will be evident to everyone, but my purpose is to stimulate the understanding of something different. For example, if they have the ability to establish a link between Calvino’s value of lightness and the lightness of Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry creations, I can say we succeeded.

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