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Cartier Bracelet Screwdriver Fashion History in ‘Van Cleef Arpels’

Art Deco was the last of the great styles in which artists sought to design every element of life, from the facade of a building to what a woman would wear visiting it.

“The Art of Van Cleef Arpels,” a small, tastefully mounted exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through June 17, celebrates the work of the noted French jewelers during the palmiest days of the style.Along with Cartier, Van Cleef Arpels set the standards for excellence in design and workmanship for Art Deco jewelry.  The crisply elegant lines of these bracelets, brooches, earrings will delight anyone interested in the history of fashion. Others will be struck by the way the show summarizes Art Deco design in miniature.

If the arches and triangles atop the Chrysler Building shrank to thumbnail size, they would resemble a small 1925 pin inlaid with precious stones.The stylized flowers and peacocks on two ’20s lapis lazuli vanity cases could easily expand into murals for the salon of an ocean liner.

The period’s taste for Oriental exotica in the decorative arts reflects in a “mystery clock” (so called because the dial seemed to have no connection to the movement) of crystal, onyx, agate and diamonds. Modeled after the portico of a Japanese temple, it looks like a tiny gong from the lobby of Grauman’s Chinese.

Exquisite enameled vanity boxes with mosaic scenes in mother of pearl suggest miniature Coromandel screens in Deco frames. A delicate platinum and diamond bracelet with figures copied from hieroglyphics in colored gems recalls the mania for Egyptian motifs triggered by the discovery of Tut’s tomb in 1922.

The heyday of the firm’s designs ended with the decade. During the ’30s, sleekly elegant bracelets and pins thickened and spread, like a dancer who stops exercising. Delicate Egyptian and chinoiserie ornaments were replaced by Boule bracelets and “padlock” watches cable like chains that end in big, convex chucks of precious metals and gems. The Jazz Age was coming to a close; the lighthearted revels of the flappers drawn by John Held Jr., were giving way to the Depression era adventures of “Little Orphan Annie.”

Later pieces lack the self assured grace of the Deco jewelry: ballerina pins from the ’40s and ’50s, or the “Zip” necklace, based on a diamond studded gold zipper made for the Duchess of Windsor. A maharini’s bejeweled gold box with a portrait of Empress Eugenie and her ladies in waiting represents the flamboyant meeting of East and Western kitsch.

The one impressive modern piece is a silver and paste replica of the fantastic crown made for the coronation of Empress Farah of Iran in 1967. (The original presumably remains in Tehran, where its 36 rubies, 36 emeralds, 105 pearls and 1,541 diamonds help back the Iranian currency.)

Fashion Designer Jewelry • August 5, 2016

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