Jewelry & Watches

A Conversation with Catherine Cariou

When Catherine Cariou took over as Heritage Director at Van Cleef and Arpels around 15 years ago, there were merely 200 pieces in the private collection. Today, there are more than 850 pieces – fashion accessories, vanity cases, jewelry, bags and objects of art – which Catherine Cariou has enriched and increased, with her incredible knowledge and immeasurable expertise, over the years. Curated by the heritage director, the exhibition ‘Unchanging Nature,’ at Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva, threw the spotlight on exquisite bejeweled floral pieces, birds and animals. An ode to Van Cleef and Arpels’ earlier creations and inspirations, while celebrating the Maison’s distinct design ethos, the show unveiled myriad breathtaking jewels. Azyaamode caught up with Catherine Cariou at the exhibition for a quick chat.


As Head Director, what is your vision for the Maison?

Van Cleef and Arpels is a very recognizable jewelry brand with a distinctive style. When we purchase for a private collection, we buy pieces that epitomize our style and craftsmanship that draws upon nature, flowers and animals. I am always on the lookout for such pieces.

Do you seek out private sellers at auctions or do they come to you with the vintage jewels?

Private sellers come to me; sometimes, I go to them. One of the very last purchases for the private collection was at an auction sale in November at Sotheby’s New York. We purchased a gorgeous necklace that belonged to Queen Nazli of Egypt, who wore it at her daughter Princess Fawzia’s wedding. We bought this historic piece in a public sale for a million US dollars, as it was very important for us to get it back. When the Queen wore this piece, she also wore a tiara. Our aim is to acquire it; I think it is going to be quite a story trying to find that tiara.

How do you validate the pieces?

We are the only ones that are able to authenticate our jewelry. We have a very important card that helps us track the piece. The backside of the card features the ‘DNA’ of the jewel – total carats, provenance of the stone, workshop details and date of creation. The year of manufacture, unique number and engraving on the jewel, drawings and the name of the first purchaser, all help validate our heritage pieces. Sometimes, I can tell it is a Van Cleef and Arpels piece just by looking at it, but at times it can be difficult.

What, then, is the way forward?

When there is no engraving, there are a lot of different ways to authenticate it. On occasions, I fall back upon my knowledge of the Maison, my feeling, the craftsmanship and the quality of the stone. If the craftsmanship is bad it just cannot be Van Cleef and Arpels.

Do you have any personal favorites?

Of course, I do. I love art deco because it is one of the most beautiful pieces. I also love pieces from the seventies. Van Cleef and Arpels created beautiful long pieces worn with Paco Rabanne and Yves Saint Laurent kaftan dresses. What I love about Van Cleef and Arpels in the seventies is the mix of different colors, a mix of rubies and haematites, emeralds and turquoises, pearls and hard stones, and precious stones. For me, someone who epitomizes this very vivid and colorful style is Elizabeth Taylor. We have a piece that belonged to her – a choker with a lion motif wherein the lion is both a clip and a pendant; the choker is removable to form two bracelets.

How did secret watches become integral to Van Cleef and Arpels?  

Van Cleef and Arpels created a lot of secret watches because in the twenties up until the forties, it was considered very impolite for an elegant lady to look at the time. The minutière had a retractable watch as well as a lipstick topped with a small watch – and while doing a quick touch-up, the ladies could discretely check the time.

What is the design ethos behind Van Cleef and Arpels’ transformable jewels?

One such Van Cleef and Arpels’ jewel that epitomizes this versatility is the Zip necklace, inspired by the Duchess of Windsor in the late thirties. The idea is that when you wear a zip, it always must hide something. The Duchess of Windsor was very eccentric; she was a close friend of Salvador Dali and wanted a zipper that everyone could see. Finally, we created the zip in the beginning of the fifties because it was very difficult to achieve. It works exactly like a zip – crafted in yellow gold, platinum and set with diamonds, rubies and sapphires – and is very extravagant.


Smitha Sadanandan

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