Premium

Grace Kelly's tiara and ballerinas galore: inside the new Van Cleef & Arpels exhibition at Milan’s Palazzo Reale

Grace Kelly tiara
A tiara worn by Grace Kelly is one of the star exhibits at Van Cleef & Arpels' first ever exhibition in Italy

Since it was founded in 1906, the high jewellery maison Van Cleef & Arpels has covered a lot of ground. From its iconic Zip necklace, first created in 1950, to all those twirling dancers worn as brooches, to the commercially brilliant Alhambra collection, the house has explored endless motifs and executed them with elegance and wit. But a new exhibition, Time, Nature, Love at Milan’s Palazzo Reale proves that as much as you think you know a brand, it will always have a few surprises up its sleeve. In this case, the exhibition is as much an education as it is something beautiful to peruse.

Curated by Alba Cappellieri, a renowned author and academic on fashion and jewellery, the exhibition (the first for the brand in Italy) is divided into three main themes, and further into sub-sections like Exoticism and Paris, and even further into quite niche, academic territory.

Drawing from beloved Italian author Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, a series of poetry lectures written for Harvard University in 1984, Cappellieri applies each of the six values to a certain piece. 

A secret watch from 1949

The value of ‘quickness’ for example, is applied to a secret watch bracelet from 1949 which conceals a dial behind two gold spring-loaded flaps, while ‘multiplicity’ is linked with the Curl Minaudiere from 1935, the origin of the bespoke luxury evening case bag designed to store all a woman’s ‘essential’ items. I had no idea until now that the term ‘minaudière’ was coined by founder Alfred Van Cleef in honour of his wife Estelle’s ‘airs and graces’, known in French as ‘minauderies’.

But regardless of all that there is to learn as you wind your way through the exhibition’s 14 enchanting rooms, designed by American designer/artist Johanna Grawunder to be a truly immersive experience, it is just as easy to simply marvel at the 400-plus individual items without necessarily delving into the accompanying literature. 

An Indian-inspired emerald necklace from 1971, originally owned by the Aga Khan’s wife

In the Exoticism section, for example, are pieces inspired by Chinese hats, pre-Colombian Aztec motifs, and Buddha. Deservedly under the spotlight is the Indian necklace from 1971, which was originally owned by the Aga Khan’s wife, a great beauty who was born Sarah Croker Poole. Replete with over 470 carats of engraved, 18th-century emeralds, it is nothing short of a spectacle, which transforms into a choker, two bracelets, and a clip.

Other highlights are many, and varied. A gouache of a wooden watch from 1932 had me begging the house’s President and CEO Nicolas Bos to put it back into production (no such luck), while a rose quartz ‘smoking set’ of six tiny ashtrays and six little stands (for cigars, perhaps?) was just the most beautiful thing to behold.

One of the earliest Ballerina clips, from 1945

Early 20th century lighters, encased in gold, enamelled and gem-set in the most remarkably modern colours (bubblegum pink and sky blue) were exquisite, as was the aviary of bird brooches, running the gamut from comical, winking owl to sweet trios of whistling sparrows.

Of course there are all the high jewellery creations you’d expect – the mystery-set roses covered in a blanket of square-cut rubies with no visible metal, the diamond bib necklaces created for Eqyptian royalty, and the fairytale-inspired pieces from recent high jewellery collections. The theme of Nature includes diamond Koala bear clips and Eucalyptus nuts wrought in gold and diamonds, while a parade of butterfly brooches are enamelled in Japanese-inspired patterns.

There are numerous examples of the brand's signature mystery setting

Whatever you take from Van Cleef & Arpels’ new exhibition – be it an entire education, a few absorbing facts, or just a renewed appreciation for the maison’s art – you won’t be wasting a moment by visiting it.

Time, Nature, Love is at the Palazzo Reale, Milan, until February 23rd, 2020; palazzorealemilano.it

Sign up for the Telegraph Luxury newsletter for your weekly dose of exquisite taste and expert opinion.