Robert Wilson Creates a Whimsical Noah’s Ark for Van Cleef & Arpels

The revered set designer talks about the inspiration behind his extraordinary design for Van Cleef & Arpels's latest high jewelry collection

Bejeweled animals are coupled as part of Van Cleef & Arpels's latest collection of baubles.
Photo: Van Cleef & Arpels
A pair of diamond-encrusted raccoons perch on almandine and pink-tourmaline orbs. Photo: Van Cleef & Arpels

When Robert Wilson began building the L’Arche de Noé racontée installation for Van Cleef & Arpels’s new high jewelry collection in Manhattan, he set out to depict the traditional biblical story of Noah’s Ark fashion—before turning it on its head, and presenting something of a much more cerebral nature.

“I just didn’t feel comfortable in that environment,” says Wilson, known for his fantastical stage settings. (He has worked with everyone from Lou Reed to Philip Glass.) “It was too busy. I couldn’t concentrate because the room became more important than the jewelry—and actually that’s what we want to see.”

The vision he executed was of a tiny frame of a boat in a vast open sea surrounded by the 40 or so spectacularly bejeweled pairs of animals. The installation has transformed a room inside the Cedar Lake performance space in Chelsea, New York, and is on view through November 19.

A view of the installation at Cedar Lake. Photo: Van Cleef & Arpels

“Suddenly the idea of space was so much bigger than the big boat I was trying to build,” he tells Galerie. “There is nothing more beautiful than an empty room.”

The room is designed to evoke the ocean, with light-blue mesh walls and a dark-blue ceiling and carpeting. Toward the front of the room, the hull of the boat, based on an Inuit model, hangs from a string and gently sways from the ceiling. This vessel appears to be floating in a vast and immersive sea. The jewels are displayed in glass vitrines built into the mesh walls surrounding the space. The music, selected by Wilson, is the opening passage of Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel for piano and violin—its subtle, tender three-note motif in 6/4 time adding a sense of calmness and serenity to the experience.

The monkeys are set with diamonds, sapphires, purple sapphires, chalcopyrite, and black spinel. Photo: Van Cleef & Arpels

“The music provided the right mental state in which to clear my head. We live in cities that are very busy, so this can offer a kind of relief. I can go in and find a space that’s calm where I can empty my head and focus on something else: another world.”

The respite is broken, however, by sudden darkness and the roar of thunder. Two spotlights illuminate the boat, and the jewelry display cases remain lit, like stars twinkling in the night sky.

“They are like a navigational chart for this little boat. They are the brightest points in the room.” The light soon enough returns to the space, as does the music of Spiegel im Spiegel, and all is calm again.

“Martin-Pêcheurs” clips feature diamonds, multicolored sapphires, turquoise, and black spinels set in 18K white and yellow gold. Photo: Van Cleef & Arpels

Nicolas Bos, CEO of Van Cleef & Arpels, came up with the Noah’s Ark theme for the high jewelry collection based on the painting The Entry of the Animals into Noah’s Ark, by Jan Brueghel the Elder, at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Bos was drawn to the dynamic energy displayed in the work—pairs of animals fighting, playing, climbing, flying, and swimming while being shepherded by Noah to the ark in the distance—and felt it complemented the luxury brand’s image.

The body of the Toucans brooch is made of ebony and inlaid with diamonds, sapphires, yellow sapphires, garnets, and red spinel. Photo: Van Cleef & Arpels

The 41 whimsical pairs of animals are beautifully crafted using precious and semi-precious stones in the form of monkeys, horses, and penguins. Two penguins stand on a bed of turquoise and lapis lazuli ice, their bodies rendered in pavé diamonds and their black coats in onyx, while a pair of donkeys are crafted in a gradation of diamonds and sapphires. (Each exquisite piece retails between $250,000 to $600,000.)

“The representation of nature is very important at Van Cleef & Arpels. There is always a sense of movement and color and a certain form of positivity of nature . . . it’s very poetic.” Bos tells Galerie. “Of course I knew the story, but I never thought of Noah’s Ark as something that could be an inspiration for jewelry because it’s biblical, with a lot of scriptural meaning. But I thought it was an interesting way to show animals and nature because there was a sense of magic,” he continues.

The diamond Koalas feature onyx noses plus sapphire and emerald eyes. Photo: Van Cleef & Arpels

Bos first met Wilson on a trip to Moscow where he was staging the Fairy Tales by Alexander Pushkin. “I realized he was truly passionate about the worlds of fantasy and childhood as he took infinite care with the appearance of a small rabbit onstage. I also witnessed his absolute and legendary stagecraft precision. I knew he was particularly fond of literature and tales, so I reached out to him for his outstanding artistic expertise and talent in creating fantastic realms.”

Like Wilson, Bos was looking for a traditional way to tell the story with the large ship and the animals inside it but soon realized it was the wrong approach.

The red parrot brooch is inlaid with diamonds, pink sapphires, coral, onyx, ruby, and amethyst. Photo: Van Cleef & Arpels

“When he started to work with it, he wasn’t happy with the way it could be translated. It’s really when he decided to forget about that big ark and to actually include the boat, but in a very different size and scale, that he was freed,” Bos explains.

“His way of working was fascinating to witness and to participate in. He took all the components of the story: We have the animals, we have the sea, we have the boat, we have the storm, and we have the serenity of the sea after the storm. He just recombined them in a less-expected way.”

L’Arche de Noé racontée” is on view through November 19, at 547 W. 26th St., New York City.