Van Cleef & Arpels launch The Art & Science of Gems exhibition in Singapore

Science and art are strange bedfellows – one world is precise and ordered, the other chaotic and creative – but a priceless international exhibition is uniting the two like never before.

One of the world's leading jewellery 'maisons', Van Cleef & Arpels, is unveiling its largest heritage exhibition ever at Singapore's striking ArtScience museum next month, marking the start of a busy period of growth for the French brand.

The luxury jeweller is also opening its first Australian store on Melbourne's Collins Street in May, with another launching in Sydney by the end of the year.

A hidden world

Nicolas Bos, president and CEO of Van Cleef & Arpels, told 51698009 that the exhibition fulfils a long-held mission for the company. "Since the very early days of the house, the purpose has been to bring the world of jewellery and the creative arts to a wider audience," he says. "From the 1920s, [the family] has had a presence at exhibitions and fairs, not only in stores, but working with museums and institutions, displaying pieces of jewellery as a representation of the arts."

The Art & Science of Gems is a landmark exhibition featuring over 400 pieces of jewellery presented alongside 250 rare minerals from the French Museum of Natural History. Visitors will follow the precious stones and metals as they go on a 4.5 billion year journey from the depths of the earth to becoming modern creations worn by stars such as Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor and Cate Blanchett.

When something comes up, it may not come up again for 30 years, so in my job you must be [like] Sherlock Holmes.

Catherine Cariou

"It's a very important project for us," says Bos. "We happen to be one of the references in the world of high jewellery and we feel it's really a mission to try to inform and educate and open the doors to a world that it sometimes very, very secret, not well known and really is fascinating."

Making a masterpiece

The exhibition includes an avalanche of diamonds, emeralds, rubies, opals, sapphires, gold, silver and platinum, in an array of unique designs including the house's signature 'mystery' setting (a meticulous cut where the stones appear to be set without a visible mounting).

The exhibition is split into seven themes: couture, abstractions, influences, precious objects, nature, ballerinas and fairies, and icons. At the centre of it all is a staggering 'masterpiece' featured as the signature of the exhibition: a jewelled bird carrying a 96.62 carat briolette-cut yellow diamond in its beak.

"Sixty of the pieces come from private collections all over the world, from Dubai, Kuwait, Monaco, England, the US, Italy, Switzerland, everywhere," says Catherine Cariou, Van Cleef & Arpels' heritage director. "It is a long process but generally speaking private owners are inclined to loan for a retrospective because they are very proud to lend because we do such beautiful retrospectives."

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Several pieces have been underground for decades before being rediscovered by Cariou and her team, who follow rumours and chase leads across the globe to gather historic pieces. "It's a big adventure to try and find pieces from private collections and auctions," Cariou says. "I have a list of 50 [lost] pieces I would still like to recover for the museum, so you must have open eyes, open ears, you must be everywhere so you don't miss something important.

"When something comes up, it may not come up again for 30 years, so in my job you must be [like] Sherlock Holmes."

Undisclosed sum

When pressed about the value of the pieces in the exhibition, the V C & A team was reluctant to disclose any monetary figures. But just one of the 400-plus pieces would enter into the tens of millions – if they were for sale. 

"There's is always a difference between price and value," says Bruno David from the Museum of Natural History in Paris. "Like the Mona Lisa for instance, what's the price? There is no price. There's a huge value, but no price … it's stupid to fix a price for the Mona Lisa. And some of the things [in this exhibition] are exactly the same because of the depth of history behind them. It's a priceless exhibition."

Click through the gallery above to see highlights from the exhibition.

opens April 23 at the ArtScience Museum, Singapore.

The writer travelled to Singapore as a guest of Van Cleef & Arpels.