The school’s old premises on Place Vendôme were too small to hold large exhibitions and after a three-year search, the new venue is opening in former offices of Van Cleef & Arpels, the Parisian jewellery house that has sponsored L’Ècole since its inception.
Nicolas Bos, president of Van Cleef & Arpels, enjoys the contrast between the mansion’s discreet façade and the bling inside.
“This part of Paris,” he notes, “is also associated with jewellery makers and stone merchants.” As well, of course, with theatre, opera and the venerable auction house Drouot.
At L’Ècole, there are spaces to study gemology and other aspects of jewellery. Benches with microscopes now sit within high-ceilinged gilded salons. There are courses and podcasts on jewellery history as well as hands-on opportunities to explore the craft – its savoir-faire. There will be a serious library for researchers, a street-front bookshop, and dark blue galleries where treasures – genuine and theatrical fakes – glimmer out of the inky darkness.
The new, larger space, with elaborate ceilings similar in design to those at the nearby Palais Garnier, offers opportunities to show entire costumes and artworks depicting the displayed jewellery.
One large oil shows a painting of the tragic Greek princess Monime in Racine’s Mithridate, who tried to strangle herself with her necklace. The offending item lies abandoned on the floor at the hem of her elaborate gold dress.
Exhibition creator Agathe Sanjuan is director of the Comédie-Française’s museum. She explains that wardrobe became an established theatre profession only from the late 19th century; previously, to the irritation of Voltaire, audiences were interested not simply in the acting but in the elaborate costumes and jewels, which the actors might have commissioned themselves. Many plays featured the same pieces, such as daggers and a massive ceremonial golden fleece necklace worn in various male roles.
Comédie Française actor François-Joseph Talma, an intimate of Napoleon, was thought to have given the emperor hints on how to strut across the European theatre of war. In return, Napoleon gave him a gilded circlet of laurels modelled on his own – now among the items on show.
Rachel’s jewels, including tiny bangles for her tiny wrists, take centre stage. Alongside these are crazily ambitious jewelled ensembles for that monstre sacré of French theatre, Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), as well as a (genuine) gold and emerald broach given to her that’s the size of a side plate. More delicate is a preserved floral crown thrown on stage by an appreciative Queen Victoria when Bernhardt was touring England.
A highlight is an orientalist headpiece in aluminium, faux gems and stonework created by Lalique for Julia Bartet (1854-1941). The most recent item is a crown made in 1987 by theatre designer Jean-Pierre Barlier for a staging of Racine’s Esther, comprising gold chains, coins, beads and lapis lazuli sourced from historic Comédie Française components.
Van Cleef & Arpels paid for the restoration of items in the Comédie Française holdings in exchange for their temporary display at L’École. The next exhibition will be devoted to pearls.
The aim of L’École, says its director, Élise Gonnet Pon, is to share “jewellery culture” with everyone. “You don’t have to be a specialist, but everything is based on research. It fulfils our mission to encourage jewellery to be seen as a decorative art, influenced by all art forms. We aim to be scientifically accurate as well as beautiful.”
Of the new Paris venue, she adds: “Nothing like this exists elsewhere, to our knowledge.”
Need to know
- L’école Des Arts Joailliers is opening soon (date to be announced) at the Hôtel de Mercy-Argenteau, 16 bis Boulevard Monmatre, Paris.
Diamond Week makes its Australian debut in Sydney from October 31-November 4, when Van Cleef & Arpels will welcome guests to private L’École classes and talks.
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