Journey to the Center of the Earth

The National Museum of Natural History in Paris invited an unusual guest: Jeweler Van Cleef & Arpels and its latest exhibition “Pierres Précieuses” which uses the house’s gems to illustrate a journey to the center of the earth. Curious? Hear it all from CEO Nicolas Bos who spoke to our Haute Joaillerie editor Evelyn Tye.

 

France is the country of heritage brands because it’s the only country in the world which allows its sacred halls of arts and science to mesh with its purveyors of luxury. Case in point, Van Cleef & Arpels (VCA) founded in 1896 in Paris and the revered Museum of Natural History, which dates back to 1793.

360 minerals, gemstones and objets d’art from the museum’s collection plus more than 250 jewelry creations from the heritage collection of VCA, as well as 50 very special loans from other institutions and private collections are at the core of the show.

The scenography, inspired by Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth” is divided in a three-part journey that guides through the history of minerals while highlighting craftsmanship and art and the perennial dialogue between science and creation. It opens with a section entitled “History of the Earth, Histories of savoir-faire”, followed by: “From minerals to jewels” and “Paris as a center of knowledge”.

The educational profile of the exhibition is not a total surprise. VCA has been unsparingly working on promoting jewelry culture, especially via L’École, a school of jewelry arts founded by the house in 2012. The key person behind all these projects is Nicolas Bos, President, CEO and Artistic Director.

The scenography of the exhibition “Pierres Précieuses” by design duo Patrick Jouin and Sanjit Manku. (Photo courtesy of VCA)

Achtung Digital: What does “Pierres Précieuses” or “Gems” represent for Van Cleef & Arpels?

Nicolas Bos: It is a great honor and pride for the house because the French National Museum of Natural History is one of the main institutions in the country and a highly respected destination in Paris. For many Parisians, it is where they discovered natural science, animals and minerals. For us it’s a very important chapter we try to write. A project that enables a wide audience, not only experts or amateurs of jewelry, but families, children, students, everyone, to discover what we feel is the magic of stones, of jewels, of decorative arts. It will touch many people because this museum is a highly visited place. I hope they will be enchanted and seduced.

AD: How was the idea of a collaboration between VCA and the Museum conceived?

NB: The idea has always been to work with major institutions. By nature, jewels are decorative art, stones are gemology and craftsmanship. For instance, for decorative arts we work with the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, for gemology and more scientific aspects with this museum and for craftsmanship we work with professional organizations and schools.

The dialogue has been present probably forever. There was an exhibition on pearls organized by the Museum in the past and some team members from the Museum staff, including the curator of this new show, François Farges, helped us at L’École with some of the early research projects. For example, they were doing research on historical diamonds from Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (the traveling merchant from whom Louis XIV purchased diamonds), an exhibition we did back in 2018. That is actually how we started working together.

Bruno David, President of the French National Museum of Natural History (left) and Nicolas Bos, President, CEO and Artistic Director of VCA (right) during the press preview opening of the “Gems” exhibition.

AD: Talking about the educational profile of this exhibition, VCA promotes jewelry education and culture through L’École and partnerships with different academic institutions. Which challenges remain visible when it comes to engage new generations in jewelry appreciation?

NB: It is a challenge. Jewelry is not the first thing you think about when you talk about art, culture and education. With this kind of exhibition we try to find ways to make that universe of jewelry and decorative arts appealing, relevant, meaningful. It is something we want to keep developing. It is about the quality of the project, the exhibitions, lectures, digital programs, podcasts that can catch the attention. Once you catch the attention and you raise some interest, people will come back and learn more. To catch their attention in the first place is something we need to achieve.

“Clip Fuchsia”, 1968, platinum, yellow gold, “Mystery Set” rubies and diamonds by VCA presented next to a ruby on marble, circa 30 million years, Mogok, Myanmar. (Photo courtesy of VCA)

AD: What part of the exhibition are you most proud of and why?

NB: I am very happy with the “stone by stone” presentation where you go from the raw stone to the jewelry. For me this is very spectacular, something that has never been shown in this way before. It is completely comprehensive: We have all the types of crystals represented.

AD: Which is your favorite piece from the exhibition? 

NB: The “Arbre aux Tourmalines” (“Tourmaline Tree” in English) created by Jean Vendome. I am very touched by it. I do not know if it is the most extraordinary piece of art ever but I think it is at the crossroads: objects, culture, jewelry and design. It is also very moving that this piece has been totally renovated for the exhibition by Jean Vendome’s son. It is a nice story.

“Arbre aux Tourmalines” by Jean Vendome.

AD: Let’s talk about “Journey to the Center of the Earth” by Jules Verne: If you were a character from the novel, which one would you like to be and why? 

NB: I would love to be the goose [laughs]. It is the real hero of the novel. I read it quite a few times because we did a collection on Jules Verne. The goose is leading the way, it is quite funny and it finds the way out.

AD: Or “Paris as a center of knowledge” and also your birthplace: If Paris was a pierre précieuse, which one would it be and why?

NB: There is this beautiful ballet by George Balanchine called “Jewels” that was originally inspired by his friendship with Van Cleef & Arpels in New York. In this trilogy of ballet, he pays tribute to Paris, New York and Moscow. I think it is very accurate the way he chose an emerald for Paris, a diamond for Moscow and a ruby for New York.

Claude Arpels and choreographer George Balanchine, co-founder of the New York City Ballet, in the 60s. (Photo courtesy of VCA)

AD: Do you remember your first visit to this museum?

NB: I think I was probably three years old so I do not think I remember the first one [laughs]. When I was a kid I used to live not very far from here. I often visited with my friends, with my parents, with my school. I remember when I was 12-13 years old I did a school project for which we made a movie, shooting the animals, trying to create a story. It is a very important location for kids and adults because of its collections, but it is also a place where you can spend time since it has one of the most beautiful gardens in the area [Jardin des Plantes]. It is not only a museum.

Grande Galerie de l’Évolution at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. (© MNHN – Agnès Iatzoura)

AD: It is interesting to read about the mineralogical research here, particularly the one on environmental focus. The “Gems” exhibition makes sense in the current climate of sustainability, ethical luxury, etc. What are VCA discussions and contributions here? 

NB: It is something we integrate in everything we do, and we did not wait for the debate to be public, the pressure to be there. What we do in respect to this dimension is not perfect but we are making a lot of progress. There is definitively a high level of attention.

I think this museum is able to have that discussion at the highest level because it is one of the key institutions in France and in the world when it comes to preservation, dangerous species, energy and sustainability. Director Bruno David, following the government’s mission, has created a specific fund for biodiversity. This exhibition is part of that ecosystem, of that philosophy.

 

“Gems” runs until June 14th, 2021.

Click on the gallery images to zoom in and read captions.