Saudi princesses, along with Egyptian and Ottoman royal descendants, revel in glittering Van Cleef & Arpels high jewelry ahead of this month’s Treasures & Legends exhibition at the Dubai Opera.
From paper sketch, high jewelry’s journey is fated to be extraordinary. Once a stone is dug up from the earth’s belly, cut and polished, set in gold or platinum, and touched thereafter with the eye’s caress, it can last for generations, centuries perhaps; even eternity. Handcrafted tiaras, necklaces, rings, bracelets, and brooches exist in nearly enduring seclusion. Then, on rare occasion, they are slipped out for rare occasioned cases; their cool metal laid upon the warm skin of a woman, perhaps of royal blood. Gems seize the light and splay it back in a dazzling aurora of color.
This month, Van Cleef & Arpels will cut the ribbon on a never-before-seen exhibition in the Middle East. Treasures & Legends, running from October 10 to mid-January, will feature 57 heritage pieces – jewels commissioned by Iranian, European, and Indian royal families – alongside other signature jewelry including some two dozen pieces from the poetic Quatre contes de Grimm collection, first unveiled in Paris in the summer of 2018. The showcase will mark the just opened Les Salons Van Cleef & Arpels Dubai Opera boutique, cementing its identity in the region as a high jeweler par excellence, courted by royals the world over.
To celebrate Van Cleef & Arpels’ unique rapport, Vogue Arabia set out to create new imagery of the high jewelry with young royals of today. History was made in a gilded and mirror- filled room on the quiet Danielle Casanova street, a stone’s throw from Paris’s Place Vendôme. L’ECOLE, School of Jewelry Arts, supported by Van Cleef & Arpels, was the arena for an unprecedented photoshoot with Saudi royalty. Two necklaces took center stage – one crafted with diamonds and a cabochon-cut emerald of 43.43 carats that hugged the neck. The other, more bohemian in style, long and draping with an onyx and emerald tassel finish. They were worn by two sisters, HRH Princesses Raghad and Sara bint Abdullah bin Saud Al-Saud. Clasping hands as they posed, they leaned into each other, creating a heightened intimacy. Their emotion was palpable, and dressed in midnight black, they reminded of a Francisco Goya portrait, hanging in Madrid’s El Retiro museum. The princesses appeared under the spell of the high jewels. “We love them for their history, for what they represent. For the craft that goes into them,” remarked Princess Sara after the shoot, exchanging the emeralds for her deep green overlay, neon sports top, shorts, and sneakers. Her sister crossed the wooden floor, having change into her white shirt and long skirt. “It is not the monetary value they represent that matters to us, but the story,” she affirmed. It is the sagas of years past that intrigue and pique the interest of royal elite.
Three days prior, the first pages of this story had already turned. Zeina and Sarah Georges opened the doors to their luxury San Regis boutique hotel and welcomed the descendants of two bygone royal families. Amina El-Demirdash and Yaz Bukey of the now abolished Egyptian and Ottoman courts arrived and were quickly ushered into chairs for hair and makeup. On request, Egyptian artist El-Demirdash had traveled to Paris from the countryside, where she was immersed in an artist residency for several weeks. Bukey, by chance, was in Paris between holidays. Excited laughter rang out in the connecting suites where the women were primped and dressed. In a corner by the boudoir, plain-clothed French security and Van Cleef & Arpels staff guarded three of the house’s most precious patrimony jewels – the diamond necklace belonging to Queen Nazli, the last queen of Egypt, and the emerald and diamond necklace belonging to her daughter, Princess Faiza, along with her ruby and diamond Peony clip. In 1946, foreign minister and ambassador of the Egyptian legation in Paris, Mahmoud Fakhry Pasha, bought the Peony clip for Princess Faiza. Consisting of two Mystery Set peonies surrounded by diamond leaves, the Peony clip remains a real-life fantasy piece, laboriously crafted by the Maison’s exceptional wizards of artistry.
The scene: El-Demirdash is the first to be photographed. She emerges in a plunging V-neck dress revealing her lithe frame and a long scar that splices her chest in two, the result of open-heart surgery at five years old. “I’ve been anxious ever since,” she laughs. Voices become hushed as an Art Deco-inspired diamond collaret is removed from its case. Three rivières of stones sweep across the nape of her neck to meet at the center. From here, four more diamond rivières hang in perfect geometry. Her Majesty Queen Nazli of Egypt, El-Demirdash’s great-grandmother, ordered the necklace to be made in record time for the occasion of the wedding of her daughter Princess Fawzia to Crown Prince Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran, in 1939. As the necklace is placed around her neck, El-Demirdash’s brow furrows. She is concerned that the look has been done. After all, this would be the second time she is photographed wearing it; the first being for the Vogue Arabia October, 2017 issue. She is assured that high jewelry of such singularity can only be reborn, time and again. Satisfied, she settles into a deep-seated chair and promptly requests the photographer change the oriental music for Dire Straits, her favorite band. After an hour of shooting – the necklace is difficult to photograph, its 673 diamonds are so brilliant, they keep catching the light – the collaret is tucked away.
The guards rummage quietly in a corner and the ruby and diamond peony brooch emerges. It underscores Van Cleef & Arpels’ mystery setting technique along with its affinity with nature, particularly flowers. Heavy, the brooch will be fitted on a jacket lapel; the stylist is certain a dress’s flimsy fabric will not hold it. El-Demirdash gazes at her reflection, discovering the sleepy flower for the first time. She is gripped to learn that the brooch originated as a double clip, with two peonies, one wilting and one blooming, to be worn together or apart. Having been separated, the blooming peony’s location remains a mystery. “I’m happy this is back with Van Cleef & Arpels,” comments El-Demirdash. “At least it is safe. How would you feel if strangers were wearing your family’s jewelry?”
After the flashes of the camera subside, French designer and great-granddaughter of Prince Amr-Ibrahim, Yaz Bukey, is offered her first glance of the diamond and emerald cabochon necklace once belonging to Princess Faiza. “I feel so emotional wearing this necklace,” she says, gazing down at the emeralds that appear to drip like tears. “I have only ever felt this with some jewelry belonging to my mother, who passed away when I was young. It’s as if it grabs your body. I can feel a warmth, especially around the stones.” With hair styled in soft waves framing her face, her wide-set eyes and red-stained mouth seem to revive the lost glamour of her late great-aunt Princess Fawzia, sister of His Majesty King Farouk I.
Historically, royal women wore their jewels to social functions and weddings alike. Princess Faiza was photographed in her cabochon emerald and diamond necklace in 1952, while enjoying a night of theater at the Comédie Française in Paris. But the elite also purchased high jewelry objects for the home and personal affairs. Wallis, Duchess of Windsor, was known to commission such pieces to gift her friends. A gold, sapphire, and ruby pill box was offered to a companion for the holidays in 1944.
Among these and other patrimony pieces to be marveled at the upcoming Dubai Opera exhibit is a Palmyre diamond bracelet, necklace, and earrings set in white gold. Afterward, outside the hotel, as the women wait for their cars and chat casually with friends, it strikes just how free they all are. They are unrestricted by guardianship, at liberty to come and go as they please, free to lead the lives they desire. Armed with projects and careers, they are normally discreet with regards to their lineage, and do not rely on it to carve any path before them. Earlier that day, with a Cheshire Cat smile, Bukey remarked that women carry within them the capacity to live many lives. It is these destinies that light up the world’s history books, and the pages of this book, just like the jewels they wear.