The diamond people: Flemish jewellery pioneers reveal inspirations


Visitors to Antwerp’s Diva diamond museum can see a temporary exhibition dedicated to Flemish jewellery designers Wouters & Hendrix as well as the museum’s dazzling permanent collection

Fit for royalty

It’s been nearly 10 years since the jewellery design duo Wouters & Hendrix celebrated their 25th anniversary. High time, then, for an exhibition dedicated to these Flemish pioneers of creative design.

The Diva diamond museum in Antwerp has handed over its Room of Wonder temporary exhibition space to Katrin Wouters and Karen Hendrix, who have curated a show that includes some 345 pieces. Not just their own: Room of Wonder II: Wouters & Hendrix includes paintings by Dali, photography by Man Ray and jewellery by Grayson Perry, among many other objects.

“We are passionate collectors and like to surround ourselves with objects that amaze or inspire us,” the pair told Elle magazine. “The Room of Wonder is a kind of curiosity cabinet that drops visitors into our universe.”

While now many a shop window displays a certain local jewellery design aesthetic – organic, asymmetrical forms and a unorthodox mix of materials – Wouters & Hendrix were largely responsible for introducing these techniques. They refer to them as “wearable sculptures,” and they have been keeping the pair at the top of the industry for 35 years now.

Gold, silver and curios

But they are not alone. Jewellery designers the world over began to expand from the simple gold-and-gemstone rings of the past and let themselves be inspired by nature, art, architecture and fashion.

The three rooms in Room of Wonder II are split up by themes – gold, silver and curiosities. “Together with scenographer Bob Verhelst, we made a selection from our archives that beautifully sums up our career,” they told Elle.

They did not actually own all of the objects, only keeping images of some of them. They borrowed the real thing from collections across Belgium and the Netherlands. “We show jewellery, graphic works and objects from more than 70 collections,” they confirm. “We’ve already had this kind of exhibition in mind and on paper for a long time. It’s so exciting to see how it all works in real life.”

The exhibition, which runs until 16 February, is in some ways reflective of and in some ways a stark contrast to the rest of Diva’s collections. The museum – which opened last year, combining the collections of the city’s former diamond and silver museums – showcases jewellery and objects of times past. But while the priceless necklaces, broaches and hairpins seem traditional now, they were often unique in their own time.

Most museums start off small and work their way up, acclimatising visitors with some basics before splashing out with their greatest masterpieces, or the focus of their stories. But not Diva. Your first step inside finds you smack dab in the middle of many of its finest pieces.

The museum is split up into six spaces, with the first – the Wunderkammer – devoted to centuries of magnificent pieces forged from silver and gemstones.

Each piece of the peacock broach’s tail can move independently, so when you wear it, the feathers actually ruffle

- Diva director Eva Olde Monnikhof

“The Wunderkammer focuses on when the whole diamond and jewellery trade started to become one of the main trades in Antwerp’s economy,” says Diva director Eva Olde Monnikhof. “You see how the wealthy families in Antwerp – but also all of Belgium – started to collect beautiful things. They started to travel and to collect beautiful stuff, and the interesting part was that they started to ask for jewellery that was based on the influences of what they brought.”

So the Wunderkammer has several cases dedicated to different parts of the world. “For instance, people started to travel to Japan and China, and they started to ask for designs based on the vases or the hairpins. So these were made by Antwerp and Belgian – sometimes French – designers but are based on what they saw in the East.”

The Wunderkammer also tells the story of the Flemish Heart. While its exact meaning and origins are unknown, the design was commissioned and purchased in Antwerp specifically and is believed to be a symbol of devotion to Mary.

To this day, the people of Antwerp celebrate Mother’s Day on a different day than the rest of the country. It’s on 15 August, the Assumption of Mary. The hearts – of varying sizes and quality – always sported a diamond in the centre and contained either a crown or a quiver and bow.

“They were given either to the church as a protection for the mother and child or to mothers as a sign of respect,” explains Olde Monnikhof.

One of the most impressive pieces in the Wunderkammer – which is stuffed with impressive pieces – is the Peacock Broach. Created by Parisian jeweller Gustave Baugrand in the 1860s, the sapphires, rubies and emeralds that make up the colourful tail were sourced from different countries to ensure the highest quality.

But its most stupendous features is, quite sadly, the very thing you cannot see. “Each piece of the tail is on a very tiny wire that can move independently,” says Olde Monnikhof. “So when you wear it, the feathers actually ruffle, which catches the light brilliantly.”

Flea market find

Visitors move on from the Wunderkammer to the Atelier to learn how such grand jewellery and objects are made and then into the International Trading Room, where touchscreens and short films tell the story of Antwerp’s major jewellers and illustrate how the city became the centre of diamond trading.

From there, it’s very easy to pass an hour in the Dining Room, with its tableware collections from different centuries. Touchscreens allow you to choose a century to see what would have been on the table of the rich, or the working classes.

Then you go to the vault, a clever interactive display of questions and answers. Try to answer the questions on the cards in the centre of the room and check your answer in the vault drawers.

It’s a good idea to take a good look at things at a flea market now and again

- Eva Olde Monnikhof

The museum tour ends in the Boudoir, dedicated to exquisite pieces of jewellery and other luxury items from the 19th and 20th centuries. Among them are several examples of the kinds of jewellery worn by movie stars and royalty.

A nice pair of gold earrings from the first half of the 19th century come with a brilliant story. Diva’s chief curator got a call from someone with a stand at the flea market on Grote Markt. He had picked up the earrings somewhere because he “thought they were very nice. Maybe they’re something or maybe they’re nothing,” he said.

They turned out to be something. The earrings were made by Brussels artisan Joseph Germain Dutalis, “who was the main goldsmith for William I of the Netherlands,” explains Olde Monnikhof. “His only pieces known to have survived through revolutions and history are those that are in the royal collections. This is the only set that is not part of a royal collection.”

It just goes to show, she says, “that it’s a good idea to take a good look at things at a flea market now and again”.

This article is the final instalment in a three-part series on Antwerp’s diamond industry. Part one explains how Antwerp became the hub of the world trade in diamonds, while part two follows the life of a diamond from mine to showroom

Photos, from top: Room of Wonder II: Wouters & Hendrix ©Frederik Beyens, The Wunderkammer ©Sven Coubergs, Flemish Heart ©Frederik Beyens

Diamond sector

Antwerp is the world’s leading hub for diamond trade. For more than five centuries, diamonds have been bought, sold and cut here. The Antwerp diamond quarter has weathered revolutions, wars, occupations and, more recently, growing competition from diamond centres in emerging countries.
Bourses - Antwerp boasts four diamond trading exchanges, making Belgium the only country with this many bourses.
Antwerp Cut - The art of polishing diamonds was invented in the city.
On foot - The diamond quarter consists of two pedestrian-only streets close to Central Station.

percent of the world’s rough diamonds pass through the city

1 447

first record of a diamond trade in Antwerp

1 800

diamond dealers