Blending age-old Indian tradition with cutting-edge design is no mean feat, but the Van Gelder sisters see every obstacle as an opportunity. By Sarah Royce-Greensill
RBARA KIEBOOM FOTOGRAFIE (PORTRAIT OF FLEUR AND NOËLLE VAN GELDER)
ANNE TIMMER (MODEL SHOTS )
AS CHILDREN, SISTERS Fleur Damman-van Gelder and Noëlle Viguurs-van Gelder would help their mother Bernadette unpack vast deliveries of antique Indian jewellery like most kids would the weekly groceries. And when Noëlle “borrowed” a piece to wear to kindergarten, which just happened to be a vintage Cartier emerald and diamond turban pin, it became clear that they had inherited Bernadette’s eye for beautiful things.
The 12th of 13 children, Bernadette van Gelder grew up in ’s-Hertogenbosch, a small town south of Amsterdam, surrounded by art and antiquities. Her older brother, a Chinese art dealer, once gave her a parure of oriental jewellery, igniting a spark of curiosity. When she visited India alongside her husband William, a textiles trader, that spark turned into a full-blown blaze. “It was a coup de foudre—to her, India was a place between heaven and earth,” says Fleur. “She made it her mission to discover absolutely everything she could about traditional Indian jewellery.”
This was 1980—long before iPhones and online encyclopaedias—so Bernadette sought answers from artisans and experts in every corner of the country; enough to later write books about Indian jewellery. Echoing Dutch merchants of the 15th and 16th centuries, she brought her discoveries home and amassed a community of collectors who, like her, were fascinated by the symbolism, ritual and mythology behind these highly decorative jewels.
The Van Gelder Heritage collection comprises extraordinarily rare pieces, handed down through private families over generations: 18th-century foiled rock crystal wedding ornaments, 17th-century pearl braid decorations, 19th-century baju bands, rich with coloured enamel that indicates when and where they were crafted. Some of these jewels are so rare that they’ll be displayed in museums around the world but never sold, at any price.
FROM THEIR EARLY twenties, Noëlle and Fleur would accompany their mother on her buying trips and, having studied painting restoration, Fleur would sketch the most exceptional jewels from the hundreds they’d see each day. “It helped to train my eye and notice all the fine details,” she says. These sketches would prove invaluable in the tumultuous years to come.
Meeting the sisters now as they launch a contemporary jewellery line inspired by the myths and motifs of the historical pieces, there’s no clue as to the adversity they’ve overcome. Jovial blondes who finish each other’s sentences, they’d planned to launch the
contemporary collection in 2007, but in April that year Fleur had a near-fatal riding accident, leaving her with a permanent traumatic brain injury, and everything ground to a halt. While Noëlle continued the heritage business, Fleur, after three years in and out of hospital, began to pick up her pencil again. “Noëlle would pass on messages from the families we worked with and show me the pieces she’d bought; she’d say I need help to redo a certain fitting, could you maybe draw something…” recalls Fleur. “Slowly but surely, I started doing little sketches. And the workshop would make things, with no expectations or pressure. It’s almost as if in the crack, the literal void, all of a sudden there was space for unlimited creativity.” Together, the sisters refined those sketches into four collections: Colors, full of clean lines, rich enamel and vibrant gemstones; Chandra, which merges traditional tribal designs with intricate, regal motifs; Jali, inspired by the openwork of Indian privacy screens; and Jodha Bai, named after the Rajput warrior princess. Handcrafted in Jaipur, the pieces are utterly modern yet made using traditional Indian techniques that are now being taught to a new generation of artisans. “The biggest compliment we get is when people say how well the new pieces blend with the Heritage collection,” says Fleur. “At the beginning, people told us not to do a contemporary line—in the same way that people told our mother that there was no western market for Indian jewellery,” adds Noëlle. “But since Fleur’s accident we have a new motto: redefine the possible. And that’s what we’re doing.”
“It’s almost as if in the crack, the literal VOID, all of a sudden there was space for unlimited CREATIVITY”