The prompting of Louis Arpels, a great lover of ballet and opera, led to the creation of the first Van Cleef & Arpels ballet dancer clips. The clips, set with diamonds and a multitude of precious stones of many colours, shimmer and glow as though the dancers were in motion. They were an instant success and, to the public, were closely associated with the French jeweller.
Claude Arpels, a nephew to Louis, shared his uncle’s passion for ballet. In 1967 this passion brought together Claude and choreographer George Balanchine, co-founder of The New York City Ballet. Balanchine loved gems as much as Claude loved the ballet. It led to the ballet Jewels that was said to have been inspired by the rubies, emeralds and diamonds on display in the window of the Van Cleef & Arpels store on Fifth Avenue. The choreographer made note of the store as he walked past. The three-act ballet has no plot, but is generally considered one of Balanchine’s best works. It will be 50 years old this year.
Van Cleef & Arpels current chief executive and creative director, Nicolas Bos, also shares a passion for ballet. “I first discovered the world of dance through contemporary choreographers involved with the contemporary art scene in the 1990s, whose aesthetics I appreciated,” Bos says. His appreciation led him to study in greater depth ballet techniques and the evolution of styles in modern and classical ballet. He recites a long list of dancers and choreographers he admires: “Petipa, Nijinsky, Cunningham, to Mathilde Monnier, Pina Bausch and of course, Benjamin.”
The last, Benjamin Millepied, is the French founder of the LA Dance Project and a recent figure in the arts to collaborate with the jeweller. The house is continually looking for ways to reinforce its ties to ballet and so worked with Millepied to create the second ballet that celebrates gemstones. The ballet is called, appropriately, Gems.
“Gems is a modern trilogy inspired by the classical Balanchine one,” says Bos. As with Balanchine’s ballet, each of the three acts – Reflections, Hearts and Arrows and On the Other Side – have been performed around the world. Examples of Balanchine’s work were among excerpts of the classical repertoire performed in November at the International Ballet Gala at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing.
The excerpts were performed by stars that included Yuan Yuan Tan, the principal dancer of the San Francisco Ballet; Friedemann Vogel, the principal dancer of the Stuttgart Ballet; and Megan Fairchild and Gonzalo García, both principal dancers of The New York City Ballet.
The jeweller endeavours to support ballet talent and promote international cultural exchanges. That the house made a contribution to the gala in Beijing represents the importance it attaches to the Chinese market.
Beijing was chosen as the city to debut Van Cleef & Arpels’ Ballet Précieux collection, offering the 25 pieces of high jewellery to potential buyers in the mainland before anyone else.
Bos says the collection is inspired by the classical ballet repertoire and was designed under his close supervision. Swan Lake, Le Pavillon d’Armide, Le Spectre de la rose and Les Sylphides are among the inspirations.
Diamonds and other precious stones, being some of the hardest materials in the world, are difficult to work. But expert craftsmen applying their skill in the house’s mystery setting technique give the figurines fluidity and motion.
“The maison is faithful to its original style and the approach of dance remains close to its first designs of ballerinas,” Bos says. “Classical dance steps and figures, pas chassés or arabesques don’t change over the decades,” says Bos. “The maison just figures them with a fresh and modern eye.”
The pièce de résistance is the Esprit de la Rose ballerina clip, a representation of a dancer viewed from above. The ballerina is playing Gloria, a character from Le Spectre de la rose. Gloria comes home from a ball with a rose that turns into a handsome prince when she falls asleep. As represented by the clip, the dancer’s tutu looks like a rose in bloom, and a gradation of rubies, pink sapphires and diamonds emphasises the waviness and flexibility of the skirt.
Two other highlights of the collection are inspired by Swan Lake. The Cygne Blanc ballerina clip represents Odette, the object of Prince Siegfried’s impossible love, who turns into a swan each day. The clip represents her in a soaring posture, her rose-cut diamond face turned toward the sky. Her tutu is a fan of coral and diamonds, each carefully selected, re-cut and matched to ensure a perfect fit. The Cygne Noir ballerina clip represents Odette’s nemesis, who is rendered in pear-shaped diamonds and baguette-cut black spinels. The spinels, re-cut in situ, make the dancer’s skirt appear to billow around her in graceful folds rather like feathers.
The Ballet Précieux collection also includes rings, earrings, necklaces and bracelets. The Enveloppé earrings represent whirling tutus during the ethereal dance of the sylphs in Les Sylphides with a mesmerising gradation of yellow and pink sapphires and spessartine garnets. The Corps de Ballet necklace represents ballerinas as seen from above, the design referencing a Van Cleef & Arpels necklace made in 1949. The prima donna in the masterpiece is engraved on a clear and opaque Sri Lankan sapphire.
Even stage sets and props are turned into works of art. The Plume Oiseau de Feu clip displays the incandescent colours of the scenery and the costumes of The Firebird. The feather-shaped brooch has a pear-shaped spessartine garnet of 6.4 carats fringed with rows of rubies, yellow and pink sapphires and more spessartine garnets, as though it had a halo of flame. In the Jardin d’Armide clip, the garden setting of Le Pavillon d’Armide is represented by a 26.22-carat black opal hanging from a diamond and pearl tree overlooking an arched bridge made of turquoise. Three baby butterflies of diamonds and emeralds complete the miniature stage set.
The night after Van Cleef & Arpels unveiled its Ballet Précieux collection, the dancers of the International Ballet Gala performed enchantingly, leaping and bounding, sinuous arms outstretched, tutus shining through the darkness in a blur of vivid colours. They danced the Rubies pas de deux and the Diamonds pas de deux from Balanchine’s Jewels, and drew roars of approval with their performance of excerpts from Don Quixote and Onegin. They captivated the audience with part of the modern Spiral Twist, choreographed by Russell Maliphant, and then moved them with parts of Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet. For two hours, they were the miniature dancers of the Ballet Précieux collection writ large and brought to life.