William Cowper’s poem, The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk, popularized the phrase “the monarch of all I survey”. And in some ways, the world’s most legendary balls, which the iconic Parisian jeweler Van Cleef & Arpels has seen fit to pay tribute to with a series of exceptional watches, are each expressions of one individual’s remaking of the world to reflect his or her own idealistic portrait of it. But to look at these balls as expressions of hubris or personal excess is to miss the point entirely.They were, in their very best incarnations, expressions of supreme taste and indomitable will imposed upon their surroundings. They are, at their finest, singular extrapolations of man’s need to remake the world in his likeness. Reflected through the brilliance of specific individuals’ minds such as that of Truman Capote, Marie-Hélène de Rothschild, Tsarina Alexandra and Charles de Beistegui, the end results were nothing less than transcendent events that helped define the canon of civilization itself.
Of course, these balls were not without their drama. It is said that through his creation of his Black and White Ball, Truman Capote made 500 friends and 15,000 enemies, the latter in reference to those who remained shamefully uninvited. But this very statement demonstrates the significance of his ball as a vehicle for social reclassification. Because if society is like a river that constantly seeks to define new tributaries, then the ball is the map that defines, clarifies and cuts to the essence of each individual and his or her respective contribution to the cultural world we live in.
Regarding the Black and White Ball of New York in 1966, the 1903 St. Petersburg Ball in the Winter Palace, the Bal du Siècle, also known as the Beistegui Ball, in Venice in 1951, and the Proust Ball, held in the Château de Ferrières, the residence of the Rothschild family, in 1971, the minds that brought them forth, the wills that empowered them, were some of the greatest shapers of contemporary culture.
Like all great events, the genesis of the Proust Ball began in the mind of one person: Marie-Hélène de Rothschild. Though to defer to her as merely an individual is to do her a gross disservice. Indeed, Marie-Hélène, wife of Guy de Rothschild, who incidentally was her second husband as well as her third cousin once removed, was more akin to a force of nature who more than lived up to the moniker the“Queen of Paris”.
The baroness was a woman of exceptional sensitivity who would have presents from guests rewrapped if the wrapping paper did not match the décor of her rooms. She was the only society woman Yves Saint Laurent would continue to personally fit once he reached the zenith of his fame, and she was given to dispense generous gifts, such as the Van Cleef & Arpels compacts she presented to the shop girls at Dior.
Her close friend Alexis von Rosenberg, Baron de Redé, recalled, “She would receive close friends in her bathroom. We would sit in tiny chairs while she lay in the bath talking to us… Sometimes she amused herself by asking us to guess our weights. If she suspected we were wrong, she would order us onto her bathroom scales.”
Marie-Hélène de Rothschild would hold court in Ferrières, her château outside Paris which had been constructed by the English architect Joseph Paxton as a “vast square edifice flanked at each corner by a square turret”. At the center of it all was an imposing hall that stood two stories high. Of Ferrières, King Wilhelm I of Prussia said, “What an incredible place! A king would not have dared to build it. It took a Rothschild.”
This would be the location of one of the last great balls of the 20th century. By this time, Guy and Marie-Hélène de Rothschild were famed for throwing some of the most spectacular parties of all time, including the Oriental Ball in 1969 at the Hôtel Lambert on the Île Saint-Louis. The courtyard of the Lambert was flanked by two life-sized paper-mache elephants and 16 half-naked men hired from Paris gymnasiums played Nubian slaves. The guest list was extraordinary, and featured a near-naked Brigitte Bardot, the Aga Khan, Prince Henrik of Denmark, Salvador Dali, Jacqueline de Ribes and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
The Proust Ball came after the Oriental Ball, but before the era-ending Surrealist Ball, and coincides with the height of Marie-Hélène de Rothschild’s dominance over Parisian society. It was atypical in theme in that she demanded that guests research Proust’s seminal novel À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, or, as English translator C.K. Scott Moncrieff dubbed it, Remembrance of Things Past — the book that, upon its release, legendary British writer Somerset Maugham called “the greatest fiction to date”.
Amusingly, it was suspected that the majority of guests had not read the weighty tome, yet this did not dissuade them from commissioning costume designers to do the heady research for them. The Duchesse de Guermantes left her costume to the designer Courrèges with mixed results, while Hélène Rochas had more success with Yves Saint Laurent. The wine that night was Château Lafite, and Cecil Beaton was asked to photograph guests for Vogue. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Princess Grace of Monaco and the Duchess of Windsor came in through the side door, while Andy Warhol moved around awkwardly, at some point greatly offending Burton’s aesthetic sensibility. Burton quipped, “He looked like a cadaver when still and a failure of plastic surgery when he moved, which was seldom.” Despite this one anomaly, the evening was a triumph.
Van Cleef & Arpels’ Bal Proust timepiece pays tribute to this magical night with white-gold silhouettes dancing upon a mother-of-pearl background. These animated figurines make a full rotation every 24 hours, and with each new period of time, newly costumed dancers emerge to take center stage. The bezel of the 38mm white-gold case is set with round diamonds.
You can make the argument that while all balls are ego-driven, Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball held in New York’s iconic Plaza Hotel in 1966 was simultaneously the most ruthless and most delicious expression of one man’s desire to impose his will on the haute monde.
Capote was a writer of singular talent whose Breakfast at Tiffany’s so blew away the notoriously fickle Norman Mailer that he was compelled to anoint Capote “the most perfect writer of my generation”.
In 1965, Capote completed his seminal In Cold Blood, a book that strives to find redemption in two unredeemable murderers. The book spawned the groundbreaking cinematic oeuvre directed by Richard Brooks as well as two Capote biopics, one of which won Philip Seymour Hoffman the Academy Award for Best Actor.
But beyond his writing ability, Capote’s other singular gift had been ingratiating himself into high society. Now, he prepared to turn the tables and actually become the high priest of society itself through a brilliantly conceptualized act of self-publicity.
He announced that he would hold the world’s greatest ball — and for only the top 540 people in the world. With this announcement, an invitation to the Black and White Ball became one of the most viciously demanded commodities in the haut monde. People attempted to charm, and when that didn’t work, bribe or threaten Capote into inviting them. But true to his genius, he resisted all efforts to make him sway from the singular vision he had in his mind.
On the evening itself, the media attention reached frenzied heights. One by one, the guests arrived, including the Agnellis and the Kennedys. But this being America, there was one couple that held sway over and above all others, and that was Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow.
In complete disregard for the seating plan, Sinatra and his entourage took over the best table in the house — to the delight of the wait staff, which he was reputed to have tipped generously. It is believed that Capote actually begged Sinatra not to depart early, realizing that his departure would be a signal for others to leave.
In honor of the Black and White Ball, Van Cleef & Arpels has created a watch of staggering cosmopolitan beauty. The lower half of the dial is informed by a spectacular Art Deco sculpture recalling New York’s Chrysler Building. The passing of time is associated with the elegant turning of sculpted white-gold dancers on an onyx background decorated with mother-of-pearl marquetry. The dancers are animated using Van Cleef & Arpels’ 24-hour Poetic Complication movement.
Interestingly, Charles de Beistegui, the Mexican-Spanish silver baron, is reputed to have been a largely introverted person whose passion in life was interior design. He owned the Palazzo Labia in Venice, which featured a stunning Tiepolo fresco of Antony and Cleopatra, and it was this painting that gave him the idea for what is commonly considered to be the single most glamorous ball of the 20th century.
Guests were asked to wear 18th-century ball costumes while socialite and actress Lady Diana Cooper would be given the honor of donning the Cleopatra costume. Obviously, part of the Beistegui Ball’s inordinate charm was the idyllic setting of Venice, and according to the Baron de Redé, “An extraordinary procession of chauffeur-driven basketwork Rolls-Royces proceeded through the Simplon Pass in the direction of Venice… The Fiat garage, which housed 4,000 cars, was completely booked.”
On the day of the party, multiple interlopers tried to force their way into the affair, compelling Aude de Mun, a close friend of Beistegui’s, to assume the role of chief negotiator. “More often than not, he responded to a request for an invitation by banging his stick on the ground, announcing, ‘La réponse est non, non, non!’” De Redé recalled.
“As guests arrived at the Serenissima, there was laughter and cries of ‘Beistegui, Beistegui’ from the crowds on the bridges.” Because the Palazzo Labia is situated far down the Grand Canal, close to the Venice train station, guests were compelled to make their way via gondola, creating a parade of extraordinary costumes and a spectacle that can only be described as a once-in-a-lifetime affair.
Every bridge and every stretch of the bank along the Canal was filled with onlookers passing casual judgment on whose costume was best. Realizing the promotional potential of his ball, Beistegui had erected a grandstand opposite the Labia where an additional 4,000 spectators could watch the grand entrance
of each and every guest.
In attendance were Jacqueline de Ribes, Princess Colonna and Princess Caetani, all dressed in similar white dresses and black masks. Daisy Fellowes showed up as the Queen of Africa with a barefoot James Caffery as her attendant. The evening was an endless cavalcade of high-society stalwarts, all immersed in the enchantment of Venice and the extraordinary Palazzo Labia.
To honor the most famous 20th-century ball to grace “La Serenissima”, Van Cleef & Arpels have created the Bal du Siècle timepiece. Its pink-gold case is 38mm in diameter, giving it the perfect proportions for the most elegant of wrists. Its bezel is set with round diamonds, invoking the magic and glamor of the night of the Beistegui Ball. Its dial is a magnificent work, incorporating mother-of-pearl marquetry and aventurine glass. Aventurine was invented in Venice in the 17th century by the Miotti family, and features copper elements that provide a shimmering starry-night motif to this material. On this backdrop, sculpted pink-gold figures dance as they revolve around the dial every 24 hours.
Tsarina Alexandra of Russia was born Alix of Hesse and by Rhine — a grand duchy that was then part of Germany. She was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and by all accounts one of her favorites — so much
so that the queen allowed Alix to refuse an offer of marriage from Prince Albert Victor, the eldest son of the Prince of Wales, despite her desire for her two grandchildren to wed. By this time, Alix had met and fallen in love
with Nicholas II, the heir to the throne of Russia.
The feeling was, apparently, reciprocal. After they met in Russia in 1889, Nicholas wrote in his diary, “It is my dream to one day marry Alix.” But Nicholas’ father, Tsar Alexander III of Russia, heavily resisted the match. He was determined to find his son a wife with a greater title, such as Princess Hélène, daughter of Prince Philippe, Count of Paris. Nicholas, in turn, told his father he would prefer to become a monk than marry another but Alix.
In 1894, Tsar Alexander III died, and Nicholas wasted no time in marrying his
life-long love, Alix. At the Winter Palace, just 25 days after his father’s death, she was crowned Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna.
In 1903, Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra held the most glamorous ball in contemporary Russian history to celebrate the Romanov Dynasty’s rule over the country. The actual event took place over two days. On 11 February, guests gathered at the theater in the Winter Palace where they watched scenes from the opera Boris Godunov, as well as the ballets La Bayadère and Swan Lake. From there, they proceeded to dinner at the Hermitage.
Guests reconvened on 13 February dressed in the costume of 17th-century Russia, and amusements included 65 “dancing officers” personally appointed by the tsarina. At the stroke of 10 o’clock, some guests proceeded to the Concert Room to dance while others gathered around 34 dining tables. With the Great War looming ahead, the guests would not realize that this would be the last great act of the Romanov Dynasty. Their reign would be abolished in 1917, and the Bolsheviks would shoot Tsar Nicholas II in 1918. But that evening at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, guests would witness an event that was the very apex of glamor in Russia for the better part of the 20th century.
To celebrate this greatest of all Russian balls, Van Cleef & Arpels unveiled the Bal du Palais d’Hiver timepiece. As with the other watches in the Bals de Légende collection, sculpted figurines trace a 24-hour path around the dial, crafted using mother-of-pearl marquetry, bringing to mind an era of unrivaled elegance and perennial charm.