For many young students today, studying abroad is a rite of passage. But as it turns out, the practice virtually dates back to the 16th Century, when young European aristocrats underwent a traditional ‘Grand Tour’ of the continent as they came of age, which purported to show them the worlds of art, culture and society from the bustling streets of Paris to the main cities of Italy. The Grand Tour was “a way for a lot of young people, artists and creators to educate themselves and to discover art and culture, travelling from London, Paris or Germany across Europe, with Italy, of course, being a main destination,” explained Nicolas Bos, President and CEO of Van Cleef & Arpels.
Above all, the Grand Tour was a personal odyssey and although its high cost originally made it the preserve of a privileged class, it later attracted more artists, intellectuals and the broader public. Tracing the footsteps of these travellers, Van Cleef & Arpels has reinterpreted this remarkable journey of initiation that left its mark on the artistic and cultural landscape of Europe with its latest high jewellery collection, Le Grand Tour. Spanning 70 creations, the collection references the cultural heritage of the various stops of the Grand Tour. Think sculptural necklaces and girandole earrings evoking Renaissance jewels, wide bracelets depicting the scenery of famous landmarks in the style of antique micro mosaics.
Earlier this year, I was invited by the Maison to embark upon an similarly exquisite voyage. Our week in Rome saw days filled with awe-inspiring explorations of the City’s treasures, guided by experts who breathed life into the rich history of this ancient metropolis. We roamed the storied halls of the Roman Forum, immersed ourselves in the architecture that defined Western civilisations, and learned of the deep Christian culture that has shaped Rome’s identity.
The experience of walking through the same paths as the Grand Tourists of the past was surreal, connecting us to a bygone era, one that left such an indelible mark on Europe’s cultural landscape.
Evenings were no less enchanting. One night, we were granted exclusive access to Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, a privately owned palace that houses an extraordinary collection of masterpieces from renowned artists like Caravaggio and Michelangelo. Basking in the presence of such artistic brilliance left an impression that will stay with me forever.
The privilege of witnessing history come alive through art was an experience that deepened my appreciation for the craftsmanship and creativity of generations past.
In the spirit of the Grand Tour, our itinerary included an afternoon dedicated to the meticulous craft of fine art restoration and gold leafing. The dedication of these talented artisans reminded me of the profound importance of preserving and cherishing traditional techniques that have shaped our cultural heritage.
Van Cleef & Arpels’ Grand Finale was an evening gala at the Villa Medici, which was nothing short of magical. The setting perfectly complemented the theme of the Maison’s collection. Here, the brand skilfully transported us back in time, presenting live performances as postcards of the iconic cities that were integral to the original Grand Tour. We were treated to enchanting serenades in Neapolitan, musicians playing under a Wedgwood-like pavilion, and the comical presence of the traditional Harlequin character from Venice. The use of actors and engaging performances truly brought history to life, further emphasising the collection’s essence.
The evening was a feast for the senses, with surprises awaiting at every turn; Pulcinellas on stilts and other masked characters dancing around the garden, added an element of whimsy to the affair, while a fashion show during dinner wove together the beauty of haute couture with the artistry of the high jewellery collection. As night fell the sky was adorned with colourful hot air balloons and a soprano singer’s voice filled the air as she floated past our tables. It was hard to not feel a profound connection to the Grand Tourists of the past, who sought to embrace the beauty and wonders of the world through their own cultural odysseys.
The spirit of the Grand Tour lives on today, transcending time and bridging the past with the present. Van Cleef & Arpels’ Le Grand Tour is not merely a collection of exquisite jewellery but a testament to the enduring power of exploration, discovery, and the quest for beauty. Just as the young European aristocrats embarked on their Grand Tours centuries ago, seeking to broaden their minds and enrich their souls, I, too, emerged from this journey with a renewed passion for art, culture, and the indomitable spirit of human creativity.