Van Cleef and Arpels at the Cooper Hewitt Museum: Yesteryear's Glitter

Screen sirens, socialites, royalty and rogues: Van Cleef and Arpels created something for everyone.

By , Contributor

Keep those Chanel shades firmly affixed as you step through the portal of the Cooper Hewitt Museum. A megawatt exhibition of all things that sparkle is just a parlor away.

There's no bling in this bunch...just the exquisite precursor.

Van Cleef and Arpels - the name evokes the glamour and glitter of yesteryear. The exhibit Set in Style: The Jewelry of Van Cleef and Arpels (February 18-July 4, 2011) will take you on a journey through the evolution of this force in high jewelry throughout the twentieth century.

DuchessofWindsorzipnecklace.jpgSix themes illustrate the firm's extraordinary breadth and celebrated history as innovators and trendsetters. Transport yourself throughout the Carnegie mansion where well-heeled swans once roamed these ornate and cavernous rooms. Let your imagination wander to a time when women 'dressed' for the occasion and jewelry was their signature. Van Cleef and Arpels was surely their favored scribe.

Innovation met the needs of the upper crust with an elegant, red leather evening clutch featuring a watch clasp. Polite society would have the bearer, weary of her dinner partner, discreetly open the purse with a delicate glance for a peek at the hour. Oh, yawn!

We've come a long way from such politesse with our iPhones.

The advent of smoking as an acceptable pastime opened the creative floodgates for lavish receptacles. Gold necessaires, etuis and minaudieres laden with jewels, enamel and a particularly fabulous shagreen version harkened back to a more civilized time. Cigarette, anyone?

A perpetual calendar, cleverly embedded in a gold pen, was the gentleman's BlackBerry of the

HummingbirdboxVanCleefandArpesl.jpgVC & A's hallmark 'mystery setting' in which perfectly matched stones are placed in grooved channels create an undulating, glittering surface which inspired stylistic leaps. Stunning versions such as the Peony brooch (1937) and Ribbon bracelet (1942) were coveted status symbols. Love Art Deco? Their 1919 Deco-inspired jewelry pre-dated the term by five years.

Most impressive were the transformative pieces. The Dutchess of Windsor-inspired zipper necklace (1951) turned this everyday fastener into a gold and diamond marvel. Worn to grace a décolletage or seductively drape down the back, it converted to a wrist wrap with ease. You, too, can own this modern day transformer. VC & A has launched a new line of the zip. Audacious color combinations and creative mixing of stones bring it into the 21st century.

VanCleefandArpelpin.jpgPins that are all of a piece unhinge and become earrings, pendants and clasps. Brilliant micro-engineering was the prowess which set Van Cleef apart from the rest. The collection makes you want to just play with these jeweled miracles.The passe-partout ('go anywhere') necklace is a traveler's dream. Introduced to the American market in 1939, it can be used as a belt, necklace, choker, bracelet or brooches. Leave it to the Americans to require the best bang for their buck.

The Exposition Coloniale (Paris, 1931) cultivated a widening base of multi-cultural clients. The company experimented with non-traditional materials such as lacquer, coral and wood to create unique pieces that reflected the style of their exotic customer. A monkey clock (1926), Siamese head brooch (1970) and Japanese sword bracelet (1958) are just some of the commissions which filled the books and established their global reputation.

VC & A began in 1896 when collars were high and hems were long. They have kept remarkably apace as silhouettes evolved and tastes radically changed: Deco's geometry, '50s romance, '60s casual to the current cache of modern elegance. Round the last bend of the exhibit and you'll find the best representation of this elasticity.

Screen sirens, socialites, royalty and rogues: Van Cleef and Arpels created something for everyone.

Gracekellyvcandapearls.jpgGrace Kelly draped herself in signature pearls, Eva Peron dripped diamonds and Marjorie Merriweather Post loved her nature-inspired brooches. There are fabulous photos of Marlene Dietrich wearing her Jarretiere ruby and diamond bracelet - worn once and auctioned after her death. Jacqueline Kennedy, luminous in Givenchy with De Gaulle at her side, has diamond flame clips elegantly tucked in her hair.

There is less 'celebrity' exhibited here and more 'personality'.

How refreshing...

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Cynthia Carr Gardner is a free-lance stylist in New York, Los Angeles and Boston. She began her career at Glamour Magazine as a sportswear editor and arbiter of the famed 'Do's and Don'ts.' Her work spans 33 years incorporating feature films, commercials, and currently, personal stylist for ESPN Monday…

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