“Jewels from the Comédie Française” inaugurate the Van Cleef School’s new building

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René Lalique, pin made in honor of Sarah Bernhardt, 1896, gold, emerald, enamel, Comédie française, gift from André Malraux to the comedians

You might remember that last July 4, 2023, I announced the imminent inauguration of the new Van Cleef jewelry school premises in Hotel Mercy-Argenteau, at 16 bis boulevard Montmartre. The opening was delayed one year but the exhibition of “Jewels from the Comédie Française” was worth waiting for. It is great fun, impeccably produced and brings us back to the great stars of the XIXth century like Rachel (1821-1858) and Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923). The large white and gold living rooms of the center are devoted to the school but will serve as exhibition spaces eventually. This time the show takes place in the courtyard and mixes  jewelry with great historical portraits. The library specialized in the art of jewelry will open in mid July on the street.

Rachel’s tiara © Coll. Comédie Française Photo L’Ecole des Arts Joailliers, Benjamin Chelly

What is most fascinating in this jewelry collection curated by Agathe Sanjuan for the Comédie Française, and Professor Guillaume Glorieux, from the Van Cleef School, is the perfect technique used on each necklace and ring. The stones are not precious but their setting is a masterwork which shows the luxury invested in those items in the XIX th century. Sometimes the actresses wore their own jewelry as to show how successful they were, but Comédie Française always provided the pieces relative to the part. This treasure was lying in cupboards and safes of the theatre until the Jewelry school discovered them and helped restore each one of them.

Anonymous, Julia Bartet in Bérénice, by Jean Racine, 1893

When I first entered the room, I was disconcerted by how dark the show is with very little light focused on the showcases. But the striking (if not always good) portraits light up the scenography in the grand ballroom designed by a follower of Garnier. So you can see above the paneling the XIX th century sculpted frieze of the ceiling. Enlarged photographs of Julia Bartet and Mounet-Sully, two very famous actors of the 1890’s, give life to the scenography. This seems to be the trend in exhibitions at the moment, since at the Pompidou center, enlarged comic strips ponder the exhibition of “La B.D. à tous les étages”.

Costume of Monet-Sully for the part of Joad in “Athalie” by Jean Racine, in 1892 (CNCS) and pectoral in gilt copper and glass, Comédie Française

A marble bust of Rachel made in 1839 by Antoine-Laurent Dantan, distinctly shows a beautiful necklace. She embodied the romantic heroine, and became during her short career -she died at 36- the most well known French actress, traveling to all the courts of Europe and to the U.S. She loved jewelry, collected tiaras, and was happy to show them off. The influence of exotic Oriental travels increased the profusion of stones and beads which the public expected and loved. When Rachel acts the Great Catherine of Russia, in Eugène Scribe’s “The Czarine”, her costumes enhanced by multiple jewels was part of her success.

Donat Nonnotte, Mademoiselle Dumesnil in the part of “Agrippine” in Britannicus by Jean Racine, 1754, Comédie Française (detail)

It’s interesting that one of the most prominent French jewelers from Place Vendôme should choose to exhibit a collection of fake jewelry. This is because the School started by Van Cleef & Arpels, has become a world institution with establishments in Tokyo, New York, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Dubaï. The latters’ new premises were designed by Constance Guisset who was also in charge of restoring Hotel Mercy-Argenteau. She designed modern furniture and a suspension for the staircase which takes you up to the exhibition rooms.

The staircase and suspension designed by Constance Guisset

In the courtyard, you can see through the glass windows the workshops where students learn gemology and the general feeling is of great luxury mixed with scientific research. The library which should open mid-July on the boulevard, will be devoted mostly to jewelry around the world. Since the center is very close to Hotel Drouot, Paris’ famous auction house, it will become an attraction and soon a lunching place when the restaurant opens in 2025.

Comb in pearl  ©Coll. Comédie-Française,  Photo L’École des Arts Joailliers Benjamin Chelly

Until September 1, at L’Ecole des Arts Joailliers, 16 bis bd Montmartre. The entrance is free but you have to reserve and there are guided tours on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 1 pm, Thursdays at 6 pm and 7 pm.

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