An Eye for Beauty: Conversation with curator Nicolas Luchsinger, President of Van Cleef & Arpels Asia Pacific, on the mysterious Illuminata Collection

In the auction world, there is a rule of 3Ds: Debt, Death, and Divorce – the three biggest reasons why a collection is put up for sale. 

Very often, a collection is the fruit of a lifelong passion, usually cherished privately by the owner, and rarely do we have the chance to get a glimpse into those treasures, unless in auctions or exhibitions. 

Six years ago, L'ÉCOLE – the School of Jewellery Arts supported by Van Cleef and Arpels – initiated the Through the Eye of a Connoisseur exhibition series, which is dedicated to single-owner collections and the exploration of taste, opening to the public a window to the art of collecting. 

Following the footsteps of previous editions in New York, Dubai, and Tokyo, L'ÉCOLE recently unveiled a world premiere selection of jewellery masterpieces from The Illuminata Collection, a private collection of an unnamed Hong Kong lady, at its Hong Kong campus in the city's landmark mall K11 Musea.

The selection of fifty or so pieces, spanning 300 years of Western and Chinese art, has been thoughtfully chosen by the curator Nicolas Luchsinger, President of Van Cleef and Arpels Asia Pacific, and Scientific Consultant Mathilde Rondouin, Art Historian and Lecturer at L'ÉCOLE. 

On the occasion, The Value caught up with both of them to learn more about the mysterious collector and the stories behind the exhibition. 

An Eye for Beauty, the Illuminata Jewelry Collection exhibition runs until 31 March at K11 Musea in Hong Kong

Ruby necklace with detachable pendant | 18th century

(Left) Emerald earrings by Carnet; (Right) Aluminium ear clips by JAR | 21st century

For jewellery lovers, The Illuminata Collection is no secret, known for its diversity and fine quality. But how did the curator and the private collector meet? 

"I've been interested in jewellery since I was twelve. But I personally don't collect jewellery because I don't wear them. I always ask for jewellery books instead for my birthdays and holidays, and now I have a very large collection of them which doesn't stop growing. Each time I tell myself, 'No, I have to stop. I have no more space.' Then I see there's a new book published about a collection, a jeweller, or an era – I buy them all," Luchsinger says and smiles.   

"One day, I came across a post on Instagram discussing a book written by Diana Scarisbrick, a very famous English jewellery historian, and it's published in English and Chinese about a collection. But I couldn't find out what that collection was; the book was impossible to buy. I tried to find it everywhere: on Amazon, in Hong Kong, and China –  I didn't even know if it was a Hong Kong book or a Chinese one."

Little did he know that the discreet owner of this collection lived just ten minutes from him, and their paths would soon cross.

"Then, at a party, I met a lady, and she spoke of her jewellery collection and that there's a book about it. The next day, she messaged me; it's that book [I was looking for]. During the same week, I met her again at another dinner. So we met three times in a week, and then we became friends," Luchsinger recalls. 

"I started to know more about her, and I found her journey into collecting both jewellery and Chinese works of art very interesting. So I asked her if she'd agree to lend me pieces to do this exhibition; she said yes, and this is how everything started."

Illuminata: Three Centuries of Fine Jewellery, the book that sparked the curator's interest in the collection

The curator Nicolas Luchsinger, President of Van Cleef and Arpels Asia Pacific

Sapphire necklace | Circa 1850

On the concept behind the Through the Eyes of a Connoisseur series, Luchsinger explains, "We opened L'ÉCOLE twelve years ago. While we wanted to have different kinds of showcases, I thought it'd be interesting to present a collection of somebody – a single-owner collection – because you really have behind the collection a story, a history, as in what they like; why and how they, as collectors, select the pieces."

"What I like and find intriguing in this collection is that the collector, who wants to stay anonymous, doesn't consider herself a collector," stresses him. In fact, she is one of the world's leading experts in the field of classical Chinese furniture, renowned and highly respected for her extensive and top-quality collection. 

In 2022, the collector donated to The Hong Kong Palace Museum three pieces of Ming furniture, which are now part of the Museum’s world-class permanent collection. Five years earlier, in 2017 in Hong Kong, the fuller scope of her collection was showcased in a large-scale solo exhibition, which featured well over 100 pieces in eleven categories and was opened to critical acclaim. 

"What I really want to show is that eye for beauty. Our collector indeed has a well-trained eye for selecting incredible Ming furniture; while she humbly said she knew nothing about jewellery and that she only bought pieces she'd wear, with that discerning taste, she's acquired the best jewellery as well – her jewellery collection is flawless."

The exhibition's Scientific Consultant Rondouin adds, "Her collection's much bigger than what we're displaying here, but we want to give the public a sense of this Ming aesthetics, and how such an aesthetics could actually help collectors get structured and a high-standard eye for collecting other objects." 

Scientific consultant Mathilde Rondouin, Art Historian and Lecturer at L'ÉCOLE

High yoke-back chair | Late Ming dynasty (1573-1644), Huanghuali wood

Portable chest | Late Ming dynasty (1573-1644), Huanghuali wood 

The chest was used by the collector to store jewels

Exploring taste and the art of collecting, the exhibition is divided into three chapters, the first of which are three exquisite examples of Ming-era furniture: a portable chest, a pingtouan table, and a high yoke-back chair. 

The chair, in particular, is Luchsinger's favourite of the three. He's fascinated by the timeless simplicity of the design and the impeccable craftsmanship demonstrated by the curved back. 

Rondouin remarks, "This chest has a very specific connection with the collector. She’s actually storing some of her jewels in this very chest, which originally was not a jewellery box, but a scholar object."

"I don’t know what was inside in the 16th century, during the Ming dynasty, but I’m sure there weren’t Western jewels. So this is a playfulness where East can meet West, and really emulate a style, a confluence, which is exactly what Hong Kong is: a hub between East and West."

Diamond stomacher with detachable chain and diamond pendants | Circa 1990

Diamond tiara transformable into a necklace | Circa 1910

Following that are about forty pieces of Western jewellery spanning from the 18th to the 21st centuries, delving into the enduring legacies of women. 

What the curator wants to highlight is the transformability and wearability of these pieces; as Rondouin explains, "That transformability was actually planned by the jeweller in its own time; it’s a beautiful crossing, an achievement. A tiara could become a necklace; a bracelet could become a necklace. We take transformability for granted today, but it's a marvel, and it’s absolutely beautiful to have pieces still functioning from many centuries ago." 

Walking through the journey of female heritage in the West, lastly, we were led to a more intimate space, where six pieces of court jewels once worn by court ladies during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) of China are on display. 

"What is so interesting is the way they were worn. When you see beads on a string, you would think it’s either a necklace or, in this case, a bracelet. But they could also be pinned on the bottom knots of a traditional Chinese garment," notes Rondouin.  

"And I must admit, I did not know about that. It’s by looking at the objects and discovering this part of the collection, which gives us another facet of female heritage, that I actually discovered this versatility. So this is not necessarily planned by the jewellers, but also the users, customers, or actually patrons of those subjects."

(Left) Agarwood bead bracelet; (Right) Amber bead bracelet | Qing dynasty (1644-1911)

Bespoke Chinese set by Shanghai Tang

(Left) Jadeite pendant; (Middle) Jadeite chi-dragon pendant; (Right) Amber chi-dragon pendant | Qing dynasty (1644-1911)

Toward the end of our conversation, we asked the curator to share some advice with our collector-wannabe.

Luchsinger thinks for a while and says, "You can collect anything: stones, Asian art, or European art. You just have to find a passion. Before you start collecting, read a lot, in books or on the Internet, about the subject. And then you will make mistakes – but don't be afraid of that. Your eyes will sharpen. They will be trained to the best, to beauty." 

"When you look at your collection, sometimes you will regret a piece you bought, and you will sell it, upgrade it, and find something better. But never should you be afraid of mistakes; it's what makes a collection interesting." 

An Eye for Beauty, the Illuminata Jewellery Collection 

Date and Time: Now until 31 March 2024 | Daily 1 pm - 7 pm (except special closures)
Venue: L’ÉCOLE Asia Pacific, School of Jewelry Arts
Address: 510A, 5F, K11 MUSEA, 18 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong
Free admission for the public
Guided tours are available in English, Cantonese or Mandarin | Book your visit here