Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels – time from two different perspectives

This year, Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels gave two examples of how they interpret their past and their heritage. This look back at time is a way of projecting their image into the modern age.

Jewelry houses certainly have some fabulous stories to tell. Their past, history, heritage, styles and know-how all intertwine with the beauty and the extreme rarity of the precious stones, which they themselves are purveyors of legends.  Drawing from a seemingly endless number of stories, these jewelry houses build their contemporary history through creations and exhibitions. They invent a new vocabulary, fuel the imagination, and give birth to completely new ideas and ways of conveying their identity.

They create new stories with their own slice of magic.

Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels gave two examples this year of how they interpret their past and their heritage. This look at time – their time, with its symbolism and meaning, is a way of projecting their image into modernity.



Beijing, the Forbidden City from June 1 to July 30, 2019

© Cartier



Milan, Palazzo Reale from November 20, 2019 to March 31, 2020

© Van Cleef & Arpels


Cartier has exhibited for a long time in China, both in Beijing and many other cities, such as Shanghai (several times), Taipei at the National Palace Museum which houses treasures of Chinese jewelry, Shenyang, and Chengdu.

Ten years after its first exhibition at the Forbidden City in Beijing, Cartier returns to this mythical and memorable place. The restoration by its workshops of six movements of English-made watches and clocks, belonging to the collections of the Forbidden City, was an opportunity to highlight these creations.Gravity clock, circa 1910, Nils Herrmann, Cartier Collection © Cartier

The Beijing exhibition was also the perfect way to celebrate the relationship between the jewelry house and China. In 1870, Cartier designed its first pieces inspired by Chinese art. In all, 800 pieces from the Palace Museum dating from the 14th century to the present day, and creations from Cartier’s heritage, international museums or private collections were exhibited. Where does this unusual marriage between East and West come from?

Exoticism inspires a new style

At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, international exhibitions in Paris, travel, and openness to distant cultures forged a new taste for exoticism and revolutionized the Western approach to art. Louis Cartier, fascinated by the wealth coming from India, Persia, Egypt, Japan, and China conceived what would later be known as Asia Imagined.

Engraved lacquers, coral and jade inspire the creations of the House, with a new aesthetic using inventive know-how. New motifs appear, such as dragons, phoenixes, chimeras, carp, turtles, and plum flowers. Mythical creatures and animals, gardens, and characters in traditional dress make a refined artistic expression bloom. The colorful plumages unfold majestically, the gardens dear to Chinese culture reveal exotic plants, and the haughty attitude of the characters lets you admire the elegant flow of their clothes.

Chinese vanity case, Cartier Paris 1928. Gold, platinum, mother-of-pearl, coral, sapphires, turquoise, onyx, aventurine, jade, emeralds, diamonds, black enamel. Nils Herrmann, Cartier Collection © Cartier

Painted porcelain serves as a model for making vanity cases in lacquered or inlaid gold. The know-how of engraved jade and burgauté lacquer plates (lacquer encrusted with mother-of-pearl) gives rise to a new way of making jewelry, clocks and objects to sublimate this precious exoticism.

Pendulums, clocks and time-reading instruments take up a large section of the Beijing exhibition, highlighting the sublime exotic inspiration of Cartier. The clocks, in particular the mysterious clocks, with their astonishing floating hands, highlight a technical inventiveness from which Cartier still draws inspiration today.

Large Mysterious Portico Clock, Cartier Paris, 1923. Gold, platinum, rock crystal, diamonds, coral, onyx, black enamel.

Marian Gérard, Cartier Collection © Cartier

In the models on display, they are adorned with details specific to Chinese culture (patterns, styles, engravings, materials, colors). The technique of superimposing the dazzling turquoise feathers of the kingfisher, typical of Chinese ceremonial jewelry, was used by Cartier for its clocks, in the tradition of Chinese craftsmanship.

Everything inspires, and everything exudes a subtle elegance in these decorations which are closer to delicate prints than jewelry. The 1920s, at the height of the Art Deco period, would go on to make Asia Imagined a symbolic signature work of the Jewelry House.

Exoticism – inseparable from Cartier’s image heritage

This interplay between Cartier and Asia was highlighted through other events, such as the exhibition Asia Imagined, in the Baur and Cartier collections, in Geneva in 2015-2016, which brought together more than 160 Cartier creations and around a hundred belonging to the Baur Foundation. If the collection of oriental pieces of this Geneva foundation is one of the most beautiful in the world, Maison Cartier has a real affinity with this magnificent heritage. Louis Cartier collected Egyptian earthenware, Persian miniatures, Japanese burgauté lacquered plates, Chinese porcelain and engraved jade. He constantly encouraged his designers to study old pieces rich in history to inspire their drawings.

Chinese dragon vanity case, Cartier Paris, 1927. Gold, platinum, enamel, emeralds, onyx, diamonds.

Nils Herrmann, Cartier Collection © Cartier

  The exhibition at the Musée Guimet Jade, from Emperors to Art Deco in 2016-2017, devoted to the symbolic representation of jade in Chinese culture, featured, at the heart of historical pieces, 26 exceptional Chinese-inspired creations by Cartier. Among them was Barbara Hutton’s famous necklace made of magnificent jade balls, transparent as emeralds. Cartier only produced the clasp in calibrated rubies and diamonds, but the necklace is so magnificent that it clearly enriches its image related heritage.

Necklace that belonged to Barbara Hutton, Cartier Paris, special order, 1934. 27 balls of jadeite, platinum, gold, diamonds, rubies.

Marian Gérard, Cartier Collection © Cartier

The exhibition also allows us to rediscover another essential facet of Cartier’s past – its status as official supplier to the princes and kings of Europe and India. The one King Edward VII once nicknamed Jeweler to Kings, King of Jewelers could not be more deserving of his title. The Jewelry House has designed a number of crowns and tiaras, breathtaking ceremonial jewelry for Maharajas, necklaces and ornaments for the elite of all kingdoms, such as Russia, England, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Romania, etc.

After the industrial revolution, wealthy artists and industrialists came to complete and then replace this prestigious group. Special orders, new requirements, working with new materials (platinum, crystal), changing fashions and styles dictated by this emerging upper class are shaping a new art of jewelry. The evolution of styles reflects that of Cartier’s clientele, a society on the rise.
Bracelets that belonged to Gloria Swanson, Cartier, 1930. Platinum, diamonds, rock crystal.

Marian Gérard, Cartier Collection © Cartier

 Emphasizing this expression of power and success through symbols, Cartier draws a parallel with the marks of distinction of the emperors of China, in particular with a seal and with a sumptuous ceremonial robe. Its embroideries, inspired by cavalry and archery, represent the symbols of power of the Qing (1644 – 1912). The Qing Manchu dynasty opened up China to a new artistic blossoming, initiating unprecedented economic and cultural exchanges, which were so fruitful for art and jewelry in Europe.

More than 500,000 people visited the Cartier exhibition in Beijing.

In 2021, Cartier and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs once again tapped into the rich heritage of the Parisian jewelry house with the Cartier and the Arts of Islam  exhibition. 



Milan, Palazzo Reale from November 20, 2019 to March 31, 2020

In perpetual balance between the timeless and the ephemeral, between tradition and fashion, the art of jewelry maintains a complex relationship with time. It is this vision that Van Cleef & Arpels shares with us in Milan where they exhibit more than 500 pieces and archive documents. Jewels, watches and precious objects are gathered in a prestigious setting – the Palazzo Reale in Milan.

Van Cleef & Arpels explores its imaginary worlds around three ideas, Time, Nature and Love.

The exhibition “Van Cleef & Arpels: Time, Nature, Love” was conceived by Van Cleef & Arpels and Alba Cappellieri, curator of the exhibition, through the original prism of thought of the Italian philosopher writer Italo Calvino. In his 1985 essay American Lessons: Six proposals for the next millennium, Calvino studies five symbolic values of our time: Lightness, Speed, Visibility, Accuracy and Multiplicity. The timelessness of beauty confronted with style, mirror of an era, lightness of life and passage of time, visible and invisible… all these themes addressed by the writer find resonance in the world of jewelry.

Subtly mixing the symbolic values of Calvino and those of Van Cleef & Arpels, the exhibition devotes spaces that bear witness to the intersecting worlds of jewelry with other artistic expressions: dance, couture and architecture.

The exhibition also explores the themes of love and nature, are central at Van Cleef & Arpels. Although it does not always give rise to figurative collections, love is a permanent backdrop to the House’s artistic expression. As for nature, in perpetual rebirth, benevolent and generous – another expression of love – it has been abundantly interpreted over the years by the Parisian jeweler.


Lightness, Speed, Visibility, Accuracy and Multiplicity

In jewelry, lightness is a fundamental notion. Technical progress, new stone sizes, introduction of platinum, enameling, and articulations paved the way for more complex creations from the beginning of the 20th century. The versatile and articulated jewelry structure, which can be seen on the 1928 Collar entirely set with diamonds, allows the jewel to rest perfectly on the neck, with a light strip of fabric. Lightness also in the refined creations of the Art Deco period which underline the fluid and slender silhouettes invented by Jeanne Lanvin and Gabrielle Chanel.

According to Italo Calvino, speed is inseparable from the notion of time. Mastering the expert touch requires years of learning. The execution, both concise and precise, is the result of long-term observation. In her approach to the notion of speed, Alba Cappellieri has chosen that which announces the “century of motorization” and makes the measurement of minutes and seconds, precision, indispensable, in watches, clocks and timepieces. The exhibition unveils jewelry and decorative watchmaking: pendant watches that were worn as a necklace or a brooch, secret watches whose dial is hidden in a jewel, precious objects concealing a watch case, or even wristwatches, and the most recent inventions.

Ludo watch bracelet with claps, 1949 – Van Cleef & Arpels collection

The theme of visibility, questioning the border between the visible and the invisible, has a particular resonance in the context of this exhibition. Indeed, the world of Van Cleef & Arpels, on the border between magic, dreams and tales, lends itself particularly well to this theme which brings together beliefs and legends from all eras. Griffins and phoenixes, unicorns, winged horses and magical worlds have always nourished the House’s fabulous and colorful imagination. The fairy, in particular, whose graceful silhouette recalls that of the ballerina, another emblem of Van Cleef & Arpels, embodies this enchanted world.

Spirit of Beauty fairy clip, 1941 – Van Cleef & Arpels collection

Accuracy is beautifully illustrated by a virtuoso jewelry technique from Van Cleef & Arpels: the Mysterious Set. This complex method, patented by the Parisian jewelry house in 1933, consists of sliding the stones one by one on gold rails. The stones thus completely cover the surface of the piece without any visible scratches. The Mysterious Set is one of the jeweler’s hallmarks. It allows the curvature of the petals, the movement of the leaves and the ribbons to be reproduced. On the Pivoine clip, the barely open curved corolla seems to blossom before our eyes.

Peony clip, 1937 – Van Cleef & Arpels collection

For Italo Calvino, multiplicity is inseparable from our way of accessing knowledge and art. Our ways of looking at a work of art are diverse, influenced by our sensitivity and knowledge. The multiplicity is also interpreted in the perceived functionality of the adornment or the object. Van Cleef & Arpels has produced many transformable pieces, such as the ingenious Passe-Partout jewel which alternately becomes a necklace, a bracelet or a belt thanks to its flexible gold chain. The Minaudières is where the useful and the precious meet. These are both gold boxes and evening bags, designed in the 1930s to offer elegant women somewhere smart to store their accessories.

Curl Minaudière, 1935 – Van Cleef & Arpels collection

Temporal and timeless

In the 14 rooms of the Palazzo Reale exhibition, there is a perfect balance between the temporal and the timeless. The temporal is the reflection of the eras we are going through, imagined with new shapes, materials and colors that reflect a world in perpetual metamorphosis. The timeless is an identity, a vocabulary, a recognizable trail through time.

The exhibition reveals the creative inspirations that have built the poetic, refined and delicate timelessness of Van Cleef & Arpels.

Paris first. The house celebrates the city of light through precious objects and poetic jewels that illustrate the symbols of Parisian life: gardens, monuments and famous avenues such as the Champs Élysées, the Arc de Triomphe and the Opéra Garnier. Paris reflects a society always on the move. Writers, painters and architects met there, contributing to the bubbling of new ideas in art and literature.

Arc de Triomphe powder compact, 1945 Yellow gold, rubies, emeralds, diamonds

Next, exoticism, which marks a major turning point in the history of decorative arts and jewelry, among other artistic fields. Egypt, Persia, Japan and China reveal themselves as unprecedented sources of inspiration, introducing colors, styles and patterns that upset the aesthetic language in the West.

The crossing of artistic disciplines is part of the creative genius of jewelers, such as jewelry and dance for Van Cleef & Arpels. It was in 1941 that the first ballerina clips of the house were designed, which went on to be reinterpreted in many ways. Their graceful pose, their rose-cut diamond face, their meticulously worked clothing in gold tulle or precious stones illustrate the poetic universe of the house. Partnership with L.A. Benjamin Millepied’s Dance Project is another sign of Van Cleef & Arpels’ strong attachment to the world of dance.

Ballerina clip,1945 – Van Cleef & Arpels collection

Element of adornment, the jewel bears witness to an era and the fashions, with which it evolves. Fabrics, ribbons, ties, knots or trimmings naturally constitute models for jewelry, such as the emblematic Zip necklace, modeled on the zipper. This masterpiece of ingenuity, which can also be transformed into a bracelet, is undoubtedly one of the centerpieces of the exhibition.

Zip necklace 1951, transformable into a bracelet – Van Cleef & Arpels collection

Another witness of its time, architecture is also a teeming source of ideas, styles and patterns for jewelry, which lends itself remarkably well to it. Metals and precious stones compose perfect geometric, straight and curved figures, through games of contrasting colors, shapes, textures on the metal, matt and shiny polishes. Thus, minaudières, clips, necklaces and bracelets made by Van Cleef & Arpels in the 1920s and 1930s bear a striking resemblance to the sculptural rigor of Art Deco.

Finally, the themes of love and nature. About thirty creations illustrate the theme of love, all of them timeless, through delicate lovebirds, flowers, messages engraved in gold or even Romeo and Juliet brooches. Adornments, objects and gifts bear witness to a poetic expression of the love and ties that the house has forged with certain legendary couples of the 20th century. Van Cleef & Arpels was born from a love story – that of Alfred Van Cleef and Estelle Arpels, who together founded the Jewelry House in 1906, following their marriage.

Finally, nature is a major theme which occupies several rooms as its place is so important in the heritage of the jeweler.

The genius of jewelry is also to know how to breathe life into the mineral, animal and vegetable world. The multitude of shades of stones allows the reproduction of the prodigious variety of nature, a privileged territory of expression for jewelry. Amazed by the constant metamorphoses of nature, Van Cleef & Arpels reflects the blossoming of spring, the frost of winter and the luxuriance of gardens into their jewelry. In an abundance of diamonds and colors, materials and patterns, leaves and flowers, buds, wild ferns and clover come to life in the expert hands of the House’s artisan jewelers, known as the Mains d’Or.

Bird of Paradise clip, 1942 – Van Cleef & Arpels collection

The animals captured in full motion, their posture full of vivacity and poetry, the flamboyance of the plumages and coats are magnificently reproduced by Van Cleef & Arpels. Between the slender-winged diamond birds of the 1920s, the cheerful animal clips of the 60s, the flamboyant birds of paradise or the Lucky Animals clips of today, composed of mother-of-pearl and hard stones, time has passed, styles have changed but the approach of a benevolent and generous nature has remained the same, recognizable among all.


In this exceptional heritage exhibition, the literary and philosophical approach is innovative and rare, because it is immaterial. It brings another vision of jewelry, conceived as an piece of art that reflects its time. It allows you to take a step back from eras, events, styles, to connect them, and to understand them. Time is a Value for Jewelry Houses that know how to perpetuate their signature while capturing the spirit of the times. Which house could demonstrate this better than Van Cleef & Arpels?

Isabelle HOSSENLOPP – January 2020

Front page photo: Alba Cappellieri, curator of the Van Cleef & Arpels exhibition in Milan

The photos are the property of Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels

Any reproduction of photos and texts is prohibited.