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Jewellery expert Olaf Van Cleef comes to India with a glittering canvas

Olaf Van Cleef, scion of the family that crafted jewellery for the likes of Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor, is in India to exhibit his collection of gem-studded paintings. The author speaks to him a

Asmita Aggarwal 

“I am not a jeweller. I do not design jewellery. I am a salesman at Cartier, and I have been selling a dream for 32 years. I am the link between the design studio and my clients, when they want a special order,” says Olaf Van Cleef. But one knows he is being modest. He is the scion of a family that is known to craft products that sparkle and dazzle — Van Cleef & Arpels, the famed French luxury jewellery, watch and perfume company, has been an institution since 1896.

Van Cleef is no stranger to opulence. He grew up in France where he was “matured” or mentored by his grandmother. “She had a five-carat diamond on her left hand and a six-carat yellow diamond. So from the time I was four, the diamonds were in front of my eyes every day,” he laughs. “Everything looked beautiful on her hands. I kissed her diamond-laden hands in the morning, and even when I was spanked there were diamonds.”

Sadly, he is one of the last surviving members of a family that revolutionised the way baubles were viewed. “Over 160 Van Cleefs died in Nazi camps. The daughter of founder (Alfred Van Cleef) also died during the war when the Germans took over Vichy. My grandmother, Magda, survived because she was a Christian,” he says. She was an acclaimed beauty and lived in Nice on the French Riviera. “She was extremely generous and worked with many charities. It was quite amazing to see a woman who could be blazing with diamonds and yet have so much commitment towards good causes,” he reminisces.

Switching back to the present, Van Cleef continues to insist that he is not a jewellery maker. “In front of my clients I create a draft by hand. Then the office of creation at Cartier adapts these ideas,” he says. Having observed markets around the globe, he rates the jewellery market in India as one of the most promising and adds that everyone in the world wants jewellery India style. However, he admits that the market in the country is multi-levelled. For instance, one piece of jewellery won’t suit every piece of clothing. “A mini brooch looks superb on a Chanel jacket, but can’t be worn with a sari with big motifs and bold curves. Also, one has to keep in mind that certain gemstones in India are considered inauspicious and have to be kept out of the design,” he adds.

Now, he has made it his mission to impart his tremendous experience in jewellery to others. “I want to pass around all that I have learned,” he says. Van Cleef shuttles between Paris and Pondicherry and loves the colours, fragrances and culture of India. And now he is all set to show watercolours studded with Swarovski and glass gems in Chennai as part of his collection, Deities in Diamond Dreams.

Hindu mythology has always held a fascination for him and has also found representation in his paintings. Van Cleef was mesmerised when he first saw an image of a playful Krishna and Radha on a swing. He discovered, on various trips to Pondicherry, that images of Indian gods and goddesses were nearly always covered with precious stones. “It reminded me of my grandmother with her five rows of pearls and diamonds,” he grins. Van Cleef’s style of painting is based on abstract pointillism and tachisme. His technique involves softening irregular dabs of bright watercolours with multiple dots in white. “Many of the paintings mirror the intricacy and details of jewellery design,” he explains.

Two years ago, Van Cleef started a not-for profit platform, Van Cleef Hall, in Pondicherry, where artists can exhibit for a nominal fee. “My paintings reflect a desire to break free from stifling social conventions of my time. I had deep trouble finding my place in the world, which led me to reject conventional values (but not traditional), I found a meaning in my life in India,” he concludes.

Deities in Diamond Dreams will be displayed at Amethyst, Chennai, on October 1 and 2

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First Published: Sat, September 27 2014. 00:27 IST