Four jewellery exhibitions by L'Ecole Van Cleef & Arpels to catch in Dubai

We discover the fascinating stories feature pearls from the Gulf, jewels from Saudi Arabia, famed French diamonds and Aga Khan’s art deco objects

A copy of the 112-carat French Blue, aka the Hope Diamond, at L'Ecole  
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As part of its second venture in Dubai, L'Ecole Van Cleef & Arpels, The School of Jewellery Arts, is hosting a series of exhibitions and classes in Dubai Design District to celebrate craftsmanship, and unravel the mysteries of jewellery and the complex role it played throughout history.

“Our goal is to instil an intellectual and emotional understanding of the spirit of these exceptional crafts; to encourage mastery of their techniques through personal experience; to educate the hand, the eye and the sense of taste,” says Marie Vallanet-­Delhom, president of L’Ecole Van Cleef & Arpels.

This view is echoed by a Van Cleef art historian, Gislain Aucremanne. "It is all about how jewels offer a way of understanding much more than just jewellery," he says. "Within a larger context, each piece tells us stories about art history, symbols of power and the development of techniques."

While the workshops are all full, the exhibitions are free to visit and will run until Saturday.

Pearls from the Gulf

The first, Pearl Merchants, covers a topic close to home: the relationship between the pearl divers of the Gulf and the jewellery houses of France. In Paris, during the 1920s and 1930s, there were 300 pearl merchants between numbers 1 and 100 Rue La Fayette, and most of the pearls sold in these boutiques came from the Gulf.

Much of that trade was focused around Manama in Bahrain, where natural pearls were so plentiful, and of such excellent quality, that journalist Albert Londres said in 1935 that Bahrain was where "each morning, women in white, emerging from the sea, appear on the sand with hands overflowing with pearls".

The scale of the industry is hard to imagine. It is estimated that in 1835, 3,500 pearl ships worked out of Bahrain alone and, by 1904, the industry employed an estimated 74,000 people across the region. Across the Emirates, there were 1,200 pearl ships in 1907, while art historian and mineralogist George Frederick Kunz estimated the value of pearls exported from the Gulf in 1904 and 1905 at $4 million – the equivalent of about Dh400m today.

The region was famous for its natural pearls, which form when a mollusc secretes the same compound that makes its hard shell – calcium carbonate – inside the shell instead. The compound forms a small pearl sac, and if shell material continues to be added, a pearl forms. The warm temperatures of the Gulf waters make the Pinctada oyster, or mohar in Arabic, produce pearls that glisten with iridescence, in rich lustrous shades of white, cream white or slightly yellow gold, or with undertones of green or pink, which were the most highly prized.

Early in the last decade, long stands of pearls were fashionable in Paris

, and customers simply could not get enough. Some of the exceptional pieces created during this time are on show in Dubai, including a 1915 Van Cleef & Arpels brooch of pearls and diamonds in the shape of a bunch of grapes; and an evening purse that is painstakingly strung with pearls that are no more than one millimetre in ­diameter. 

Van Cleef & Arpels's diamond and pearcl brooch, 1915, at L'Ecole 

But the pearl boom did not last. Overharvesting and poor conservation damaged the oyster beds, while the stock market crash of 1929 also had a significant impact on the industry. With the introduction of the far cheaper cultured pearls from Japan – created by oyster farmers under controlled conditions – the appetite for natural pearls was vastly diminished by the 1930s. 

Diamonds from France

A second exhibition, The Fabulous Destiny of Tavernier's Diamonds, reunites 20 of the most magnificent diamonds collected by Jean-­Baptiste Tavernier. Well, almost. During the 1600s, the intrepid Tavarnier travelled about 240,000 kilometres across the globe in search of gemstones, silks and other treasures to sell in France. He spent time in the Mughal court of India, then under ruler Shah Jahan, and saw first-hand the fabled Peacock Throne. In 1668, Tavarnier sold 1,000 Mughal diamonds to King Louis XIV, including 20 stones that were so staggering, they were deemed the most beautiful diamonds at the time. After diligent research and a collaboration among L'Ecole, Francois Farges, professor of mineralogy at the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle, and master gem-cutter Patrick Dubuc, the collection was brought together. But what makes this exhibition really intriguing is that, of the original diamonds, 19 have vanished without a trace.

Using the only known depiction of the diamonds, an engraving made in 1670 by artist Abraham Bosse, the stones have been recreated in cubic zirconia using 3D-modelling software, photo-­realistic renderings and the gem-cutting skill of Dubuc. Visitors can once again see the stones as Louis XIV would have seen them in the 17th century, including what was known as the French Blue. The 112-carat diamond came from the Kollur mine in Golconda, India, and was described by the French king's jeweller, Jean Pittan the Younger, as having "extraordinarily beautiful clarity".

The stone was recut in 1672 from its Mughal shape – which some people considered dull and lifeless – resulting in a more pleasing, but decidedly smaller stone of 67 carats. Louis XIV took to wearing it on a ribbon around his neck. During the French Revolution in 1791, the royals attempted to smuggle themselves and the crown jewels out of the country, but were discovered. The gems were seized by parliament, only to be stolen the following year, and the 20 diamonds vanished.

The French Blue was the only stone that resurfaced and it was bought by Henry Philip Hope in 1839. He gave the stone his name, and today the Hope diamond rests in the Smithsonian, as the centre stone of a necklace designed by Cartier in 1911. All that remains of the rest of Louis XIV's collection are these skilful copies on show in Dubai.

Aga Khan's Art Deco treasures

The Imperial Door vanity case by Lacloche Freres, circa 1924, at the Aga Khan exhibition at L'Ecole 

A third exhibition, Precious Art Deco Objects, contains almost 50 pieces from the Prince and Princess Sadruddin Aga Khan Collection. In what can only be described as a love story, this shows Art Deco objects the Aga Khan collected and gifted to his wife, Princess Catherine. A man renowned for his good taste – his collection of Islamic art is one of the finest in the world – the Aga Khan gathered more than 150 of the world's best Art Deco ladies' vanity cases, powder compacts and cigarette cases, all small enough to fit into the purses carried by women of the 1920s and 1930s, and all unique. Many of their designs are influenced by Chinese art, such as one compact made by Cartier circa 1930. It is topped by carved jadeite depicting koi carp and a dragon, and is finished with cabochon sapphires. Another vanity case by Boucheron, circa 1928, depicts a landscape made from inlaid mother-of-pearl. A Tiffany & Co vanity case from 1925 has lapis lazuli framed by a stepped pyramid design in gold, while a Van Cleef cigarette case, dated 1927, is decorated in red, black and yellow enamelling of highly stylised leaves, or feuilles.

Jewels from Saudi Arabia

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES -Earings on display at the Hidden Treasures, a look at early 20th century Saudi Arabia jewelry,  show how diverse the different regions fashion was. Leslie Pableo for The National

The fourth exhibition, Hidden Treasures: Jewellery from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, showcases the diversity of jewellery and accessories from across the Kingdom, including a few diamond pieces from the collection of King Abdul Aziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia.  

"The modern-day borders of the Arab world are new, so this exhibition really shows the jewellery art of Jazeera Al Arabiya [the Arabian Peninsula]," explains curator Pramod Kumar KG. "We went to all of the different regions of the Kingdom, and we've taken headpieces, necklaces, earrings, bracelets and belts."

Some of the pieces on show would have been worn by the middle class, while others are meant for royalty. "We wanted to show that the same designs were worn by different communities, but the choice of material would be different," Kumar says. "If a commoner would use lower grade silver, the royal would use gold, but the design details would more or less remain the same."

See more images here.

For more information and opening times of the L’Ecole exhibitions in Dubai, visit