Thomaï Serdari on Fine Arts & Luxury
“Van Cleef & Arpels: Set in Style”

Courtesy of Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum

Organizing the exhibition “Set in Style: The Jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels,” (February 18- July 4, 2011) must have been a delight for Sarah D. Coffin, Head of the Product Design and Decorative Arts Department at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. Who would not want to have to select among hundreds of precious objects (jewelry, timepieces, fashion accessories and objets d’art) to conclude on the final 350 items that best exemplify the relationship between Van Cleef & Arpels—the famed, century-old Parisian jeweler of Place Vendôme)—and its American clientele?

Arranged thematically around six concepts (Innovation, Transformations, Nature as Inspiration, Exoticism, Fashion, and Personalities), “Set in Style” occupied the entire ground floor of the museum. When so many beautiful objects of such small scale are assembled next to each other, the task of appreciating each one becomes daunting.  What could have been a mesmerizing narrative on jewelry design, gem setting, and lifestyle through the course of the twentieth century ended up being a survey of Van Cleef & Arpels’s design out of sequence and out of context.

To make things worse, everything was housed in an admittedly beautiful plexi-glass bubble of a curvaceous and fluid shape, perhaps the designer’s effort to make the exhibit more accessible. The enclosure did not hinder the flow of traffic, which might have been the case if a rectangular shape had been chosen instead.  And while the accompanying catalog with essays by Sara Coffin, Suzy Menkes, and Ruth Peltason hints at the curator’s efforts to bring into the exhibit items that would provide a contextual reference for the viewer (items such as ads from magazines of the time, or order sheets from the retail store etc.) these are so few that they are lost within the wealth and sheer number of otherwise dazzling pieces on display. Unless one reads the exhibition catalog, Sara Coffin’s point about Van Cleef & Arpels designing in the “Art Deco” style, even before Art Deco had been defined as such is sadly lost. But this is a major art history point, an argument for scholars to turn their attention to smaller scale objects of every day life and particularly to jewelry, that has been largely untouched by the scholar who aspires to lofty discussions and who often disapproves of the excesses of wealth. It is that persistent, modern view of the world again.

I don’t think there was one visitor who did not enjoy the exhibit. But it was very hard to actually absorb the pertinent information on each one of the objects, rather than perceiving them as yet another example under the assigned theme and quickly moving on to the next chapter of the exhibit.  Even if twenty drawings or complementary material are exhibited alongside the jewelry, they lose their impact because of the overwhelming number of precious material under that immensely sumptuous see-through bubble. In addition, the themes, as articulated by the organizer, developed over-time and not sequentially. As such, they consistently overlapped in terms of time of production and constantly forced the viewer to examine items from the 1920s and 1960s under one theme and then repeat the process under another.

What this reveals to me is that fine arts professionals, museum curators, and academics are uncomfortable treating items of jewelry as pieces of material culture with intellectual intent as important as this of painting and sculpture. It is not an accident that museums do not have departments dedicated to jewelry (with the exception of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), even though several collections own pieces of jewelry along with their Fashion or Decorative Arts collections. Perhaps the difficulty in dealing with jewelry as pieces of art derives from our modern and therefore democratic ideal world in which signs of excess have not found their place yet in our understanding of our own culture. Congratulations then to Sara Coffin for an excellent job in curating this exhibit and in daring to introduce the public to a different type of exhibit that may make the viewers uncomfortable at times.

©Thomaï Serdari