On a grey afternoon in late June I arrived at the Cooper Hewitt museum in the hopes of being dazzled and enlightened by the NYC pop-up of L’Ecole Van Cleef & Arpels. I’d first read about the Paris-based school in a jewelry trade publication a few years back, when it opened in 2012.
The school promised to “welcome the public into the world of high jewelry and watchmaking,” offering classes in production, art history, diamonds and gemstones. All of this in the City of Lights! How I longed to go. It struck me as a brilliant concept, too, that a brand with the reputation and status of Van Cleef & Arpels would create a space to engage with and educate passionate enthusiasts about the art, form and function of jewelry.
Alas, a trip to Paris wasn’t in the cards. So imagine my elation when I heard L’Ecole would bring a traveling campus to NYC in the Spring of 2015. I signed up immediately. Out of the 12 classes they offered, I had to pick just one. So I quickly jumped into the class that seemed perfectly aligned with my personal beliefs about jewelry: ‘The Story of Talisman Jewels’, a course offering insight into the symbolic meaning of fine and ornamental jewels.
I arrived at the home of Cooper Hewitt Museum of Design at around 1:30 pm. With a magnificent Art Nouveau canopy and iron doors at the entryway, the stately Carnegie Mansion provided an ideal backdrop to the New York version of L'Ecole’s elegant offerings. The class gathered for refreshments in a chic sitting room and library created for the L’Ecole experience. The décor was refined yet modern with cozy areas of white leather seating, orange pillows and brightly hued flower arrangements decorating the glass tables. Sketches of historic pieces decorated the room. I took in the impressive collection of jewelry books on every facet of the industry—from design to famous collectors. Since I was a little early I had time to settle into one of the cozy nooks with a cappuccino and flip through one of the many books on Van Cleef & Arpels.
I was joined by 11 other students, who appeared to hail from all over. I struck up conversations with a man who was in the early stages of making a career shift to jewelry designer, a trade publisher whose family had been in the watch business for generations, and an estate jeweler who’d flown out all the way from California to attend this class. One of the attendees was so decked out in Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry, I was sure she must be their most dedicated client.
Our instructors for the afternoon were Inezita Gay, a Princeton educated art historian with experience at the great American jewelry houses, and Gislain Aucremanne, who got his master’s degree in art history at L’Ecole du Louvre. Yes, THAT Louvre. As far as experts go, they were not too shabby!
We were whisked behind the scenes of the museum, through a non-descript black door that led down back-of-house hallways to a stairway. This certainly added to the excitement and intrigue of what we were about to experience. After all, we were about to learn the secret powers of talismanic jewels, n’est pas? The route was decorated with photography of the entire jewelry making process and when we reached the top of the stairs we found ourselves at L’ecole Van Cleef & Arpels. The rooms that had been designated for the school are not open to the public which explained our unconventional travel route.
After a quick stop to visit the light-filled jewelry workshop that had been set up for a different class, we arrived at the Carnegie library, our studio. The wood paneled walls had tasteful flourishes; the fireplace was marble and gilt, and from floor to ceiling the built in shelves were lined with leather bound books. Of course there was a grand crystal chandelier hanging like the crown jewel of a bygone era. It was hard not to feel as if you’d been transported to the early 20th century, when the house was one of a few on “Millionaire’s Row” boasting Central Park as their front yard.
The next four hours of the course itself packed so much in; it could have very well stretched into a semester on the subject. Since the dawn of humanity people have been using objects as talismanic ornaments. Today, we view jewelry as adornment or accessory, but in ancient times the most common reason to wear a talisman was as protection. In fact, the majority were created to protect children, who in those days were susceptible to sickness and death at young ages.
In the Renaissance period talismans were used mainly for prosperity. That evolved into talismans to influence happiness in the early 20th century while in the late 20th century the purpose of a talisman was most popularly love. And what better example of a gift of passion than the Cartier-designed Taj Mahal diamond, which Richard Burton gifted to Elizabeth Taylor on her 40th birthday. In presenting it to her in 1972, Burtn famously quipped: “I would have liked to buy her the Taj Majal but it would cost too much to transport.” From Gay and Aucremanne, we learned that the 17th century diamond was originally a gift of Shah Jahan to his favorite wife, Mumtaz and when she died he built the Taj Mahal in her honor. It’s important to note that the diamond itself is a glyptic--a term which refers to the ancient art of carving and engraving stones for specific meaning (linguistically similar to “hieroglyphics”). Carving natures hardest mineral specimen is a feat of craftsmanship that bears highlighting.
We discussed how every culture -- from Middle Eastern countries to the Americas has historic symbols represented by jewelry. In ancient Greece, for instance, the snake was a powerful symbol of good fortune, fertility and eternity. Bulgari, the jewelry house that features slithery watches and jewels has its roots in Greece. The Bulgari family members were originally goldsmiths who later became jewelers in Italy. The snake watches are highly symbolic, forever linking the serpent figure with the element of time. The allure and longevity of this talisman is undeniable, as the Bulgari Serpenti collection has remained one of the most highly sought after status symbols in the world.
Adding an element of fun, we were given an activity of matching talismans with origins and orientations.
At the end of the class, we turned our attention to the great design houses including Chanel, Cartier, Dior and Van Cleef & Arpels’ use of talismanic iconography in their designs. I loved learning about the personal meaning behind some of the symbols’ use in widely recognized jewels.
Coco Chanel, for instance, was a great believer in luck and astrology, which led her to create jewels that depicted five-pointed stars and her sun sign Leo, the lion. Louis Cartier moved his workshop into number 13 and that became the house’s lucky number. And the lucky it was, attracting clients like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who marked every occasion with a Cartier-designed cross.
My favorite story was about the aviator Jackie Chochran, who commissioned a charm necklace by Cartier filled with symbols that most considered unlucky--number 13, upside down horseshoes, a witch riding a broom--under the rationale that she of all people should appreciate the ability to make her own luck. After all, she was born impoverished and went from being a beautician to a world-class, decorated aviator (a woman in a male-dominated field, no less) and successful entrepreneur. Now there’s a woman after my own heart.
Last but certainly not least are the collections of Van Cleef & Arpels. References to the belief in symbolism are rife in the brand’s history. The Alhambra collection incorporates many of the talismanic elements we unpacked in class: the four-leaf clover, gemstones’ spiritual and healing properties, and color symbolism. The designers have incorporated wood, an element of nature, into collections throughout its history. One of the earlier examples was from the 1920s when Jacques Arpels designed “Touch Wood” lucky jewels, rings carved and set with gemstones. It’s no secret that the superstition of “touching” or “knocking on” wood for luck is a universal superstition. However, perhaps Jacques Arpels put it best when he said, “To be lucky you must believe in luck.”
I have always believed in the potential of jewelry and the power of objects and intention. This class further ignited my passion to learn more about iconography, symbolism and talismans. Filled with wonderful visuals, activities and facts ‘The Story of Talisman Jewels’ surpassed my expectations. As a woman who believes that nothing has the capacity to communicate fondness, friendship or love like a gift of jewelry I wholly agree with something Ms. Gay said at the close of class. “If you buy something, for yourself or someone else with positive intention, you infuse it with the power to create a talisman for any true cause, be it protection, guidance, love, happiness or any other quality of life.”
I hope you have the opportunity to join in a class at the L’Ecole Van Cleef & Arpels, ideally in Paris and with me at your side!