Sunday, June 19, 2011

Field Trip! Part II - Innovation at the Van Cleef & Arpels Exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum


Today we are taking a look at another category of jewelry from the Set in Style, The Jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. Today’s subject is “Innovation,” and who better to analyze than an original famewhore, the Duchess of Windsor and the “Zip” necklace.  Around 1939, the Duchess collaborated with Renee Puissant, the artistic director of VC&A, and asked the renowned jeweler to create a platinum and diamond zipper for one of her evening dresses. Zippers were relatively new at the time, but even for someone as ostentatious as she, a platinum and diamond zipper for a dress was a little over the top. Can you imagine having the kind of downtime that allows you to come up with such an idea?

Never mind the scarcity of platinum during this time. Keep in mind that even today, compared to silver and gold, there is relatively little platinum available. Per the Platinum Guild, “Platinum is 30 times more rare than gold. If platinum mining ceased today, the available supply would be exhausted in two years, compared to a quarter of a century for gold," so you can imagine how rare the metal was in the 1930s.  The Guild further states, “With the outbreak of war in 1939, platinum is declared a strategic metal in the USA, used for the manufacture of armaments. Its use for making jewelry is forbidden.” (But Wallis whined, "I need that zipper - buttons are so hard to do!"). So while it was a very creative notion on the part of the Duchess to use one of those newfangled zipper things as a jewelry idea, her self-focused sense of timing was terrible.  

Another bad idea.  We should not be making these PR decisions on our own anymore.

Although the zip was never actually sewn into her dress, VC&A achieved the first zip necklace around 1940 with two gold ribbons and small diamond set hooks on each side that slide into each other. It can be worn open as a necklace or zipped up and wrapped around your wrist and worn like a bracelet. In the image below, the back actually unclasps from the top of the necklace to form a bracelet.

Innovation.  Van Cleef & Arpels Zip Necklace.
  

It took a full 10 years to perfect the design technique, and by 1951 it was fully developed and the “Zip” necklace was born.  The Iconic Zip Necklace continues to be a formidable part of the VC&A collections.








       
Eve Best as Wallis Simpson in "The Kings Speech" wore a number of authentic Van Cleef & Arpels pieces in the film.

Some say the Duchess is famous for the quote, “You can never be too rich or too thin.” Well, she was rich and she was thin, and by 1950's, her cigarette induced, osteoporitic, wizzened frame was very fashionable. Today, when I see someone like that, I'm already doing calculations in my head about how long they have to live.  

Living the life of luxury can be hard on a girl.  Photo:  Richard Avedon.

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