Famous designerʼs little-known jewellery collection on display in Ghent

Summary

A quirky Ghent gallery is putting the spotlight on the Flemish fashion label’s ventures into the art of jewellery design, with many pieces never before shown to the public

Birds of a feather

A white feather, a jet-black cockʼs claw and a glass cylinder filled with diamonds… For fashion enthusiasts there’s no doubting the provenance of the darkly romantic jewels currently on display at the Casa Argentaurum gallery in Ghent.

Long before she ventured into jewellery design, Ann Demeulemeester rose to fame as part of the oft-anthologised Antwerp Six, a group of graduates from the fashion department of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts who stormed London Fashion Week in 1986. Her instantly recognisable aesthetic – streamlined, funereal and poetic – swiftly made her a household name, gaining ambassadors like punk priestess Patti Smith. A men’s line was added in 1996.

Jewellery first graced her shows 10 years ago, adding a further flourish to the gothic, androgynous fashion. A range of jewels has appeared in her collections ever since.

“She started designing jewellery for herself, but also for the shows,” says Caroline Dewolf, the gallery owner and curator of De Juwelen Van Ann Demeulemeester (The Jewels of Ann Demeulemeester). “Many of the pieces on display were never actually up for sale, so for many people this is an opportunity to see them for the very first time.”

Like the fashion, which for decades has revisited staples such as crisply tailored white shirts, asymmetrical skirts and military-style boots, the jewellery draws on a strikingly limited – mostly monochrome – palette. Silver, diamonds and leather also figure repeatedly in the exhibition, which spans necklaces, rings, woven armbands and bracelets.

Coming full circle

Heavy silver chains, looped multiple times around the neck, bear small glass vials filled with loose precious stones or diamond pearls, and culminate in a single black or white feather – a house motif. Elsewhere, double velvet ribbons and Victorian fob watch-style pendants add to the sense of decadence.

The pieces, which resemble complex formal assemblies, can be draped, wrapped or pinned in numerous ways.

Dewolf was originally drawn to the jewels through her friendship with Anne Chappelle – the “fairy godmother” of Belgian fashion, who has been the CEO of the Ann Demeulemeester design house since 1994. She’s also the label’s sole owner, following Demeulemeester’s resignation in 2013.

Demeulemeester’s work is not about making people shine, but about making them dream

- Gallery owner Caroline Dewolf

The exhibition, Dewolf adds, brings Casa Argentaurum full circle. The gallery’s inaugural show in 1988 showcased jewellery and objects in gold and silver that were designed by architects. The show became the inspiration for the atypical name, a portmanteau of the Latin words for gold and silver.

The current show, she says, is “also a bit like the collection of objects and jewellery that Andrea Branzani, the Milanese architect, made for us. Like Branzani, Demeulemeester uses very pure silver and diamonds. In her case, there’s also the recurring motif of the feather. Her work is not about making people shine, but about making them dream.”

Dewolf, an interior architect, launched the gallery with her late husband, Eddy François. As a student she became fascinated with Venetian master Carlo Scarpa, who was known for his meticulously detailed approach to design and for resurrecting Venice’s waning artisanal crafts – glass-blowing, metalwork, silver – in tandem with local craftsmen.

Grand miniatures

“In Venice, one of the craftsmen told us that he had a whole collection of objects and jewellery,” Dewolf recalls. “At that time we had just renovated a house in Ghent and opened it up for architectural exhibitions. We decided to showcase the objects and the jewellery, and people would ask if they could buy it. That’s how the gallery started.”

Billed as an art and design gallery as well as a tearoom, the sleek three-room space has since hosted exhibitions by Ettore Sotsass, the late designer for the Italian brand Olivetti and the founder of the influential Memphis collective; the late Flemish furniture designer Maarten Van Severen; and the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Toyo Ito. 

In 2012, the Flemish contemporary artist Honoré d’O was invited to create a permanent room to showcase his works in progress. His room overlooks Waalse Krook, Ghent’s new multi-media library and cultural complex being built across the canal.

Lest it be thought that the gallery only collaborates with the titans of the art and design world, Casa Argentaurum has also begun featuring up-and-coming locals. “Our last exhibition was with a newly graduated architect and a photographer,” Dewolf says. “Two friends who did something special in the gallery.” 

In 2013, to mark its 25th anniversary, the gallery collaborated with the city’s Design Museum on the exhibition Architects in Silver, which focused on how famous architects, like Scarpa and Zaha Hadid, have translated their big ideas into miniature works in silver.

Generally, however, the gallery remains under the radar. “We’re very small,” says Dewolf. “When I like something I try to do something with it. We started with architects, but architecture is many things, from houses and interiors to food and clothes. Jewellery is architecture, too – just on a smaller scale.”