History 'Awakens': 400 Years of Antique Jewels in First Exhibition of Its Kind in China

By Jennifer Huang Bernstein
From a striking Renaissance pendant to a 20th century René Boivin brooch, the importance of antique jewellery rests not on material value, but on how they bring us into contact with our past. These golden objects and glittering jewels contain facets of history — of religious veneration, aesthetic and cultural aspirations, economic power and social structures. Look closely and you will awaken centuries-old stories from mighty kingdoms and dynasties.
From the Bourbon Parma Collection, a diamond tiara made by the celebrated Viennese jeweller Hübner for Archduchess Maria Anna of Austria (1882-1940) in 1912. Photo courtesy of Awaken.

S tarting 22 December, the exhibition Awaken: Royal Jewellery Arts from Renaissance to the 20th Century will showcase nearly 200 royal treasures and historic jewels, arriving soon to Shenzhen. Never before has there been such an opportunity in China to engage with the world’s shared patrimony of jewels spanning some 400 years from twenty countries. More than a hundred of these historic objects on exhibit have never previously been seen in public.

“These treasures of human civilisation signify the pinnacle of artisanal skills of their time,” Alex Fan, curator of the exhibition, said. “Having survived turbulent times over hundreds of years, these gifts from the past are now able to tell their story. This is the first exhibition of historic Western jewellery of this calibre entirely curated by a Chinese team and we are particularly proud to present it.”

Alex Fan, Curator of 'Awaken: Royal Jewellery Arts from Renaissance to the 20th Century.' Photo Courtesy of NIUNIU.

The exhibition opens with “The Arrival of Christ” as signified by a striking Renaissance pendant. The sheer breadth of the history that follows is breathtaking. The space is evocative of a labyrinth, designed with winding paths that are meant represent a journey through ages. Discoveries along the way would include a golden laurel leaf cut from the crown of Napoleon Bonaparte, dazzling tales of imperial riches from Tsarist Russia, and a glimpse into the lives of European royalty.

"The winding path leading to different spots is a very important concept, at the same time very ‘Chinese'."
Alex Fan, Curator of the Exhibition

“In many museums, exhibitions are often arranged like the Hausmann style avenues, with objects displayed on both sides,” Fan said. "That experience is like walking down Parisian boulevards, and the visitors like Baudelaire's flâneurs.”

In its design, Awaken intends to create a different experience, informed by years of painstaking research devoted to each object. Each piece bears the full weight and tension of its history, according to Fan, so each deserves to breathe and shine. That is no easy task considering the sheer range of objects, including timepieces handcrafted by the 19th-century Genevese cabinotiers, delicate snuff boxes belonging to European royalty, clutches and exquisite jewels that once adorned legendary beauties, intaglios and carved stones, thirteen royal tiaras, and a golden reliquary from the 19th century.

To set each piece apart, the designer of the exhibition used various shades and textures of black to effect focus on the negative space. The approach is audacious. Some of the glittering jewels will appear faraway, seen through a gossamer scrim, like scattered stars. Other parts of the exhibit will emerge as dense and impassable as iron.

“There is a lot going on in the darkness, under the spotlights,” Fan said, comparing the scene to a field of battle. “The focus is the negative space of the site. It is a battlefield. We use a digital installation to create an image of a horse. It is the key visual that stays with you throughout the exhibition.”

The warhorse, which conjures in the mind images of blood and conflict, might at first seem out of place especially for those who typically associate jewellery with femininity and refinement. However, Fan maintains that in the past jewellery were emblems of imperial power, and such a reference to war is entirely in keeping with this understanding of the history.

To illustrate this point, Napoleon’s coronation coronet was made up of 56 gold laurel leaves as well as 42 golden seeds, with each leaf representing one of his military victories. All but two of these golden leaves have been lost to time. Of the two known to survive today, one is housed in the Fontainebleau Palace in France and the other is a major highlight in the current exhibition.

“The Gold Leaf, I felt breathless when I first saw it. Right in front of you is the overwhelming history and the pinnacle of power,” Alex Fan said.

A rare golden laurel leaf cut from Napoleon Bonaparte’s coronation coronet. Photo courtesy of Awaken.

There is a persistent idea at the heart of the exhibition. It is the notion of great treasure that has survived through years of history, now lying dormant and awaiting discovery. It informs the title of the exhibit, according to Fan.

“The jewels were hidden in the dark for centuries,” he said. “Throughout history, such treasures were known to be found in the most secret places, such as private safes or hidden vaults. Before she was beheaded, Marie Antoinette sent her jewels, wrapped in cotton, to a remote town. The Romanovs hid them inside clothes or pillows before their execution. These jewels which survived catastrophes, wars and fates are awakened when they return to the public realm, displayed in museums.”

Among others treasures in the exhibit to have survived centuries of war include an imperial diamond pendant centred with a miniature portrait of Emperor Alexander I of Russia. This pendant was a wedding gift from the Emperor to his sister, Grand Duchess Catherine Pavlovna, in 1809, according to jewellery historian Lilia Kuznetsova.

Left: An Imperial Portrait Diamond Pendant, probably Duval, St Petersburg. Right: A Starfish Brooch by René Boivin. Photos courtesy of Awaken.

Other crowning glories of the exhibition include an impressive diamond tiara from the Bourbon-Parma Collection, made by the celebrated Viennese jeweller Hübner for Archduchess Maria Anna of Austria in 1912. The collection of royal jewels from the Bourbon-Parma family, which was sold at Sotheby’s in 2018, is arguably one of the most important collections of antique jewels in the last century, according to David Bennet, worldwide chairman of the Sotheby's Jewellery.

“Jewels are works of art. It is a way of opening your mind to different moments in history… It is rewarding for me to see that the exhibition of jewels of the 19th and early 20th century is now being held in China. I hope there will be many more of these events that will open the public to the beauty of a form of art that is jewellery.”
Daniela Mascetti, chairman of Sotheby's Jewellery in Europe

Creates a unique experience, the design of the exhibition 'Awaken' is informed by years of painstaking research devoted to each piece of antique jewellery on display. PHOTO COURTESY OF NIUNIU .
The title 'Awaken' has a second interpretation. “Another meaning is that this exhibition is for young people in China. I want to awaken their passion of history and beauty,” said Alex Fan.

Awaken will be the first exhibition of its kind in China, sponsored by Shenzhen Museum of Contemporary Art & Urban Planning, organised by Shenzhen Nine Elephants Cultural & Creative Co., and supported by Sotheby’s. The public will be able to learn about important historical objects as well as marvels of 20th century design. This includes the debut appearance of a starfish brooch by René Boivin featuring 71 cabochon rubies and faceted amethysts. One of just five in existence, this magnificent brooch and other rarely-seen treasures will be on view from 22 December to 1 March.

Yan Weixin, the museum’s director, said that Awaken represents more than just a glittering display: “This is a re-interpretation of, and a tribute to, the history of jewellery through the ages. From the curation to the finishing touches, this has been an inspiring new experience for my team and the city of Shenzhen.”

Shenzhen Museum of Contemporary Art & Urban Planning
From 22 December 2019 - 1 March 2020

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