When it comes to luxury, some categories seem so unattainable that I simply ignored them for a long time: Haute Joaillerie, for example. Items of jewellery with prices starting at 100,000 euros were unimaginable and therefore impossible to desire. Since living in Paris, however, things have been somewhat different. The city opens your eyes to beauty, sophistication and wonderfully staged splendour, taking observers beyond the realms of mediocrity and revealing unexpected horizons to those looking for more. My appreciation of luxury jewellery was completely turned on its head when I met a Chinese monk at the Biennale Paris antiques fair many years ago. Wallace Chan, a zen master and one of the most virtuoso jewellers of our time, placed a necklace worth 56 million euros around my neck and asked me to take an innocent look at his work of art and the jewels it contained. At first, I was unable to do so and instead felt very dizzy, but we then had a long chat in which I learned just how much humility and patience, art and talent, light and shade and even spirituality go into creating such gemstone and precious metal masterpieces.
An impressive insight into how and why gemstones and jewellery have been fascinating humans throughout the ages can now be gained at “Pierres Precieuses”, a joint exhibition hosted by the jewellery company Van Cleef & Arpels and the Museum of Natural History in Paris. The exhibition takes visitors on a symbolic journey deep into the heart of the Earth, guiding them through a dark tunnel that leads to a glowing red-orange light. The elliptical route full of alternating colour and light effects allows visitors to experience the geological genesis and cultural history of gemstones up close and in person with more than 750 exhibits, 250 of which are masterpieces from the Heritage Collection of the renowned jewellery company. Crown jewels that are rarely displayed or have never been seen before and historical jewellery from the Aztec period to the Italian Renaissance and right through to the French royal family take their place alongside minerals and spectacular untouched gemstones, for example a 2.5-billion-year-old ruby crystal from India weighing 15 kilos.
We learn why gemstones are precious in many different regards and how they reflect the Earth’s 4.6 billion years of history – with every precious stone still providing an insight into a cosmic dimension in the present day. We also find out that the sparkling jewels we know and love today weren’t actually invented until the 17th century in France, when artisans of the Sun King developed the faceted brilliant cut. Although precious stones have played a role in virtually all cultures and eras, initially as objects of religious cults and then as a symbol of secular power, they were previously used in a round, matte and opaque form. After adding the bling-bling effect, French jewellery went on to create a new style on an international level – and Paris became the global capital of jewellery artistry. Be prepared for a truly dazzling experience! Take an innocent look at a world of luxury.
Open until 14th June 2021, “Pierres Précieuses”, La Grande Galerie de l’Evolution, 36 rue Geoffroy St-Hilaire, 75005 Paris, www.mnhn.fr
© Eric Sauvage