All the Pretty Creatures

Jens Mortensen

The fairly divine story behind Van Cleef & Arpels's new high-jewelry collection

Zoomorphic baubles aren’t exactly new. Cartier’s panthers, Bulgari’s serpents, David Webb’s frogs, and JAR’s butterflies live on countless wrists, necks, and lapels. But an entire animal kingdom forged in precious gems and metals? That’s a feat of, well, biblical proportions. Van Cleef & Arpels’s 120-piece Arche de Noé collection brings to life some 60 animal species—specifically, those depicted in The Entry of the Animals into Noah’s Ark, a painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder that Van Cleef CEO and creative director Nicolas Bos viewed at the Getty Center in Los Angeles in 2009. Unto us, a high-jewelry collection was born.

“Noah’s ark is a universal story,” Bos says, “but it struck me as a beautiful painting with a lot of animals in different movements.” Bos began researching wooden toys that depicted Noah’s ark, including 19th-century German figures and sculptures by the contemporary Italian artist Ugo Nespolo. In 2013, he and his design team started working on the first pieces. “We spent quite a bit of time in the studio, trying to redefine the expression and style of the animals,” Bos says. “Not too realistic, not too cartoonish, very benevolent, very cute, but also something that could be an expression of high jewelry. The pieces had to have some majesty to them.” Bos also looked to the maison’s previous animal designs, many from the ’60s and ’70s, incorporating some of the original hard-stone-carving techniques in semiprecious materials like jasper, lapis lazuli, and malachite—an unlikely approach to high jewelry, which is usually expressed in precious gems such as rubies, emeralds, and sapphires.

Unlike previous such collections, Arche de Noé is made up solely of brooches in order to keep a toylike spirit and consistent scale, meaning that none of the ornate necklaces or intricate cuffs typical of Van Cleef ’s haute pieces are included. And just as the story goes, each animal comes as a couple (with the exception of a few fantastical, decidedly nonbiblical creatures), including pairs of zebras, one done in malachite, the other in lapis lazuli; peacocks sitting on a turquoise cabochon; and black-onyx and diamond rabbits with sapphire-and-emerald eyes—Bos’s favorite. The couplings might also justify Arche de Noé’s starting price: $120,000 per pair.

To debut the collection, Van Cleef is opting out of this year’s Biennale des Antiquaires, Paris’s jewelry mecca. Instead, it is staging a public exhibition this month in the Place Vendôme, working with theater director and designer Robert Wilson to create a Noah’s ark set in which the pieces will be displayed. Van Cleef will also hold lectures at its school in Paris, exploring themes like hard-stone carving, animal history—and, yes, biblical jewelry.