Poetry of Time: Van Cleef & Arpels Celebrates Watchmaking in London

For its inaugural London-based watch exhibition, French Maison Van Cleef & Arpels will take us right back to 1906 for a journey through its archives of timepieces and métiers d’art. The showcase will meander through six chapters of luxury, including nature, astronomy and ballerinas that exemplify the themes of the heritage house. Although the seconds never stop ticking, let’s pause for a moment to uncover some of the haute horological treasures that we can expect behind the doors of Cromwell Place in May and early June…

Being able to see multiple creations in one place is a useful way to get under the skin of a brand, especially one with the history of Van Cleef & Arpels. Its upcoming exhibition in London will be a feat of high watchmaking infused with some of its most sensational, one-of-a-kind timepieces and feats of craftsmanship. The theme – Poetry of Time – is a reference to the fact that we’ll be taken on a journey from the early 20th century up to the present day, skipping across themes like chapters in a book. Plus, the event will be supported by L’ÉCOLE, School of Jewelry Arts, who will host a series of talks and children’s workshops to inspire the next generation of haute horologists and collectors.

Van Cleef & Arpels watches are typically floral, pretty, whimsical and colourful. They are designed to be noticed and admired, not only for their aesthetics but their internal mechanisms and automations. All this will be supported by the décor of the exhibition itself, including an ‘enchanted forest’, Art Deco-inspired interiors, and live watchmaking demonstrations, which sounds like a good opportunity to feel inspired.

The Van Cleef & Arpels Lady Arpels Ballerine Musicale Rubis watch in 18k white gold with diamonds and rubies, to be showcased at the Poetry of Time exhibition in London

The first chapter in the ‘Poetry of Time’ is Astronomy, centring on the representations of the sky and the cosmos that have been a constant theme throughout the history of Van Cleef & Arpels. In addition to the Lady Arpels Planétarium watch, new iterations of the Lady Arpels Jour Nuit (38mm) and Lady Jour Nuit (33mm) watch will light up this section. Both track the movement of the sun and the moon with a 24-hour rotating disc decorated with glittering aventurine glass, diamonds, mother of pearl, and yellow sapphires or guilloché yellow gold in a white gold case. The introduction of these models required three years of patient work, allowing Van Cleef to take the typical moon phase complication to a whole new level.

Next, the exhibition will touch upon a ubiquitous high jewellery theme – nature – focusing on the “constant metamorphoses of flora and fauna” alongside butterflies, gardens, petals and much more. Here, we will see the results of the Heures Florales project, which is the result of a partnership with botanist Carl von Linné, who imagined a time-telling garden miniaturised to fit the wrist. Highlights include the Lady Arpels Heures Florales 38mm watch with a miniature painting in shades of blue, purple, violet, green and brown atop mother of pearl and sculpted gold, and a second Lady Arpels Heures Florales Cerisier watch with pink sapphires, yellow and white diamonds, mother of pearl and a similarly detailed miniature painting. But that’s not all. Both of these precious timepieces are built around a mechanical movement, fitted with a module that opens the flowers on each of the 12 hours – a complete day of blossoming flowers and closing blooms, requiring 166 moving parts.

There’s more of note in this chapter, too, including the Lady Arpels Brise d’Été watch with mother of pearl, tsavorites, spessartite garnets, miniature painting, plique-à-jour, champlevé and vallonné enamel. In this piece, an on-demand automation allows butterflies to flutter and stems to shudder as if caught in an imaginary wind. The Lady Arpels Papillon Automate watch is a beautiful mix of diamonds, blue, mauve and purple sapphires and mother of pearl, boasting butterfly wings that beat to the wearer’s steps and randomly flapping wings depending upon the power reserve.

Finally, there’s the Éveil du Cyclamen automaton – a non-wearable art object – with a bowl of purple jade, two green aventurine structures, and fluttering butterflies decorated with diamonds, emeralds, lapis lazuli and plique-à-jour enamel. These emerge from a bouquet of cyclamens that opens and closes to tell the time, complete with a bespoke melody for a whimsical finishing touch.

The journey through Van Cleef & Arpels’ ‘Poetic Complications’ continues with two of its most iconic motifs – fairies and ballerinas – and then shifts into the theme of ‘Love’ inspired by the marriage of Alfred Van Cleef and Estelle Arpels. The Lady Arpels Pont des Amoureux watch, for example, presents a young woman who travels across a Parisian bridge with the passing hours, reaching her beloved in the middle at noon and midnight. The scene is decorated with diamonds and grisaille enamel, set in white gold for the truly romantic among you. The slightly different Midnight Pont des Amoureux 42mm watch was reworked to enhance the urban feel of the cityscape, while also making the male and female characters bigger to fit the male wrist.

The exhibition will conclude with two sections – Couture and Golden Bead. The former will present high jewellery timepieces, notably the belt-like Ludo secret watch and pieces from the archives. Examples include a yellow gold, platinum, emerald and diamond timepiece from 1965 and an Art Deco bracelet watch with onyx and diamonds in platinum, dated 1925. The latter references the ‘golden bead’ bracelet watch style that now decorates the Perlée collection, which the brand describes as offering a ‘second skin’ feel.

Upon finishing its poetic journey, Van Cleef will have taken visitors on a complete journey, starting in the early 1990s and ending in the present day. No matter your personal tastes, there are elements of horology, craftsmanship and métiers d’art to evoke wonder and have you wishing for a wrist upgrade. If you are London-based, this is a snapshot of watchmaking culture that is not to be missed.

The Van Cleef & Arpels Lady Arpels Ballerine Musicale Diamant watch in 18k white gold and diamonds, to be showcased at the Poetry of Time exhibition in London

Van Cleef & Arpels' ‘The Poetry of Time’ exhibition will take place at 4 Cromwell Pl, South Kensington, London, SW7 2JE, from May 26 to June 9, 2024. Guests can visit from Tuesday to Saturday between 11 AM and 6 PM and from 11 AM to 4 PM on Sundays. Entry is free of charge.

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