Museum visit: Van Cleef & Arpels at Cooper-Hewitt

Last Saturday our group of gemologically inclined girlfriends went uptown to check out “Set in Style: the jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels” exhibit at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. We were very excited, especially because when we were taking the Jewelry Design class, our lovely teacher Patricia took us on a little field trip to Van Cleef’s workshop and store. Cool huh??

So the exhibit was incredible, lots of fantastic jewelry and gemstones. Here’s a little recap (pictures are from the exhibit guide; please excuse the wrinkled pages):

“Exoticism. The lure of exotic travel and a burgeoning base of international clients led VC&A to produce objects inspired by all parts of the globe. From King Tut’s tomb and the Ballets Russes to Asian lacquer and the dazzling colors of Hawaii, myriad influences have been shaped by VC&A into signature designs and forms.”


“Mystery-set Peony brooch. Paris, France, 1937. Rubies, diamonds, gold, platinum. VC&A collection. This tour-de-force brooch, which can be worn either way up, was purchased in 1946 by Mahmoud Fakri Pasha, Foreign Minister of Egypt in 1923 and first ambassador to Paris, having married Princess Fawzia Fuad, daughter of King Fouad I of Egypt.”


“Snowflake brooch. Paris, France 1948. Yellow gold, diamonds, platinum. (…) The snowflake has been one of VC&A’s most popular motifs. This example takes full advantage of the contrast of gold and diamonds to create a fanciful, stylized effect of a snowflake.”


“Walska brooch/pendant: New York, NY, 1971. Yellow diamonds (briolette 95 carats), sapphires, white diamonds, yellow gold. Courtesy of private collection. This piece transforms in a variety of ways: the wings come off to form earrings, the tail comes off to form a brooch, and the pendant can be detached and worn separately.”

It was very interesting to see the “Personalities” section of the exhibit, in which jewelry pieces were credited to the collections of famous ladies like Elizabeth Taylor, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, Princess Grace of Monaco, and Eva Perón, among others. They noted somewhere that these ladies most often acquired the jewels for themselves (ie. they didn’t hint heavily around their man to get it for their next anniversary??).

A note on Mystery setting:

“Among the most notable examples [of technical advancements by VC&A] are the groundbreaking Mystery Setting,  in which matched gemstones are grooved and set in channels so the setting is invisible.”

Approximately 50% of the stone weight is lost during cutting, and the color and intensity must be matched perfectly. Each stone is cut to fit perfectly in the metal structure; if it doesn’t fit, it is recut or used for another piece. If you would like to learn some more about this technique, head over to the VC&A webpage where they have a video on the process.

*All images property of Van Cleef & Arpels.


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