15 Minutes With… Alexandrine Maviel‑Sonet, Patrimony And Exhibitions Director Of Van Cleef & Arpels

The French luxury maison’s patrimony and exhibitions director discusses balancing tradition and innovation, the power of making pieces that stand the test of time, and the importance of emotional storytelling
Alexandrine Maviel-Sonet. Photo: Courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels

Tell us more about your role as the patrimony and exhibitions director of Van Cleef & Arpels; what does it entail?

The patrimony [collection] at Van Cleef & Arpels consists of about 2,500 pieces. We take care of that collection and we also enrich it. So we follow the auctions, we see if they have pieces from our maison, and we buy them sometimes when we can. (laughs) So that’s the first role. The second role is [to organise] exhibitions, either in collaboration with curators such as Alba (Cappellieri, curator of the Van Cleef & Arpels: Time, Nature, Love exhibition) or with museums, like we did in Singapore with the ArtScience Museum a few years ago.

We also do our own curation for the exhibitions, and the archives as well. We don’t mention the archives enough! They’re quite important for the pieces—[that’s how] we can identify the pieces from the [patrimony] collection, so they’re really important, and also very beautiful. [The archival drawings are pieces] of art. Our role is to transmit our knowledge internally too, so we collaborate very closely with everyone in the maison. We do presentations of the maison’s collections, its history, and also, of course, we try to share the knowledge we have on engineering techniques, because we know the pieces [so well].

Van Cleef & Arpels’s “37” clip from 1937. Photo: Courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels

There are several new pieces that are being shown to the public for the first time at the Van Cleef & Arpels: Time, Nature, Love exhibition in Seoul. What can you tell us about these pieces and what’s so special about them?

Well,  [there’s] Marlene [Dietrich’s cuff] bracelet—that’s a stunning piece that joined the maison [in June 2023] … and it’s presented [in this exhibition] for the first time. It’s a huge bracelet with 73 rubies—just by seeing that [number] you can imagine how impressive it is—and the story behind it is that Dietrich loved and kept that piece of jewellery until the end of her life.

Marlene Dietrich’s Van Cleef & Arpels Jarretière cuff bracelet from 1937. Photo: Courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels

If you watch the Alfred Hitchcock movie Stage Fright, she wears it in the [film]. She kept that jewel on even when she was acting and she also wore [it] when giving out awards—and we can understand why she didn’t want to take it off, because it’s a stunning piece! We’re very, very proud to have it in the patrimony collection.

[Then there are] all these Mystery Set pieces—it’s a technique very unique [to] the maison. We have the Two Leaves brooch, which is presented for the very first time because it was acquired earlier [in 2023]. It’s a stunning example of the Mystery Set technique from 1937, and you’ll see how the technique makes the brooch look velvety. Well, it’s made from rubies, but it looks velvety, and you see the volume of the piece and it’s quite stunning to see in person.

The Van Cleef & Arpels Peony clip from 1937. Photo: Courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels

What do you think makes a piece of jewellery or a timepiece stand the test of time?

It’s art, you know, it’s the same concept. An art piece is timeless because of the magic of the art, and it’s the same [with] jewellery. You looked at my ring earlier: This is a Van Cleef & Arpels ring from the ’70s. It’s quite old, but it still looks so modern. And that’s the art of the maison: being able to make a piece remain timeless.

Van Cleef & Arpels’s Arc de Triomphe powder case from 1945. Photo: Courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels

Van Cleef & Arpels is renowned for its rich history and heritage—how do you approach the responsibility of preserving and showcasing the brand’s patrimony in your role?

Well, I try to share my emotions. I think that’s the important thing about the patrimony collection. It’s our interest to share all these art pieces because we have all these collections and there’s a story behind all of them. We have pieces from the 1910s, and I think it’s always quite emotional to imagine all the stories behind the pieces. Take, for instance, opera singer and socialite Ganna Walska’s yellow diamond pendant. She wore it in the 1930s and then the diamond became a bird [brooch], and then [that] became the piece selected to inaugurate the exhibition here in Seoul. So it’s all these stories behind the pieces that are quite touching, and I’d like to share that emotion.

The Van Cleef & Arpels Walska brooch from the 1930s. Photo: Courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels

So how does the brand balance tradition and innovation?

The innovation we have now [was achieved] by sharing all the savoir faire [from the past]. We show how the maison was avant garde—like the Mystery Set pieces I mentioned [and also] the Zip necklace … The Zip actually took the maison 12 years to develop. If I could, I’d actually do an exhibition to show the Zip’s evolution! You can keep the same ID and the same savoir faire, the same techniques, but it still evolves [over time with modern innovations] and the piece can become lighter or use different skills and different materials.

One of the Van Cleef & Arpels Zip necklaces. Photo: Courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels