Art of Jewels at Bowers

History, beauty and the finest quality of craftsmanship come together in the Van Cleef & Arpels heritage exhibition at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.

Courtesy of Bowers Museum

Courtesy of Bowers Museum

“A Quest for Beauty: The Art of Van Cleef & Arpels” features over 200 jewelry pieces and artworks from the private collections of the world-renowned French Place Vendôme High Jewelry Maison.

“We have a history of exhibits relating to jewelry and gemstones  the president of the museum has an interest in that, so I think [this exhibition] was a natural relationship that evolved [from that],” said Julie Custer, a docent for the Bowers.

The history of the Maison began in 1895, with the marriage of Estelle Arpels, the daughter of a gemstone merchant, and Alfred Van Cleef, the son of a lapidary and diamond broker.

11 years later, the pair partnered with Estelle’s two brothers to open a jewelry boutique at 22 Place Vendôme in Paris, where it still stands. Today, Van Cleef & Arpels has 101 boutiques located around the world.

As guests enter the exhibition, they are faced with a timeline outlining the history of the Maison as a statement to its longevity and rich back story.

The sizable exhibition is sleek, and the walls are distinctly dark  all lighting and attention is focused on the jewelry.

There are four distinct rooms in the exhibition, each dedicated to themes that have inspired and continue to inspire the designs of the Maison: nature, elegance, exoticism and femininity.

“They’ve grouped these pieces into these themes that the Maison really thought reflected their values and what they try to put out into the world, and I think it’s [effective] so you’re not just caught up in looking at all these pieces and getting overwhelmed,” Custer said.

In the Nature room, the jewelry takes the distinct forms of flora and fauna, such as a gold giraffe pin and an elaborate bird clip inlaid with diamonds, coral, and turquoise, dating from 1963.

The Maison’s Parisian roots relate it closely with fashion and couture, and the Elegance portion of the exhibit focuses on Van Cleef & Arpels’ innovation in its aesthetic.

Most distinct were the minaudières, which the brand is credited with inventing. These sleek cases with different compartments allowed women to store necessary items  a testament to the Maison’s marriage of practicality and beauty.

For Exoticism, the pieces on display were clearly influenced by Eastern culture. Inspiration from the Chinese had its own section within the room, with displays of pieces intricately decorated with enamels, lacquers and jade.

Arguably the most awe-inspiring pieces were on display in the Femininity section of the exhibition, which boasted jewelry and accessories owned and worn by some of the world’s most alluring women.

“It’s hard to imagine someone being able to wear some of these pieces just walking outside, but [these women] did, and they wore them beautifully,” Custer said.

A glass case containing pieces of Princess Grace of Monaco’s private collection, such as her wedding set, radiates an aura of glamour and profound history.

Along with these four themed rooms, there is the Savoir-Faire section, in which visitors can catch a glimpse of the amount of painstaking dedication that goes into the creation of each piece.

A theater room screens a loop of short films where viewers can watch different Van Cleef & Arpels employees explain their positions within the Maison, and briefly experience the behind-the-scenes labor.

While it may become easy to get lost in simply admiring the displayed jewelry for its aesthetics, “A Quest For Beauty” ensures that visitors become aware of the history and skill behind each work of art.

A self-proclaimed jewelry fanatic, visitor Rebecca Ohl was impressed beyond her expectations with the exhibition.

“The history and name [of the Maison] is a big draw for a lot of people,” Ohl said. “I don’t think any of this has to do with vanity. I think it has to do with the appreciation for beauty, for craftsmanship and artwork, for someone else’s eye [for] translating raw material into an incredible piece.”

“A Quest For Beauty: The Art of Van Cleef & Arpels” will be up until February 15.