DIVA: a brilliant museum reopens

27 March 2023

DIVA sparkles more than ever before. The permanent exhibition in DIVA, the museum for diamonds, jewellery and silver, is renewed after a thorough renovation. I was invited to the pre-opening and chatted with curator Catherine Regout and librarian An Labis. We discussed evolving personal tastes, fair mining and much more. I even got to see a remarkable antique jewellery catalogue in the library, linking to a newly acquired Art Deco bracelet in the exhibition. Let’s dive into this brilliant world of wonders!

New and improved exhibition

DIVA is located in Antwerp (Belgium) and in quite the fitting neighbourhood. This is where goldsmiths and jewellers live, work and sell their products. Not just now, but for more than 575 years already. Inside the renewed museum, curator Catherine Regout shows us around, pointing out what is new and improved. I can’t help looking at the gorgeous gold earrings with granules she is wearing. Catherine: ‘I bought them in an antiques shop in Italy!’

Our tour starts in the Raw Materials Room, followed by the Boudoir and the Vault. The curator proudly talks about new acquisitions and other highlights in the Boudoir. Catherine: ‘Diamonds have always been expensive. What I love about the jewellery on show here is their versatility and you were able to wear it differently whatever the occasion. This diamond diadem for example can also be worn as a chain or each part as an individual brooch. How clever!’

Rare diamond ring from the 17th century

Via the Atelier we head into the Trading Room and Dining Room. The tour ends in the spectacular Room of Wonder with one of my favourite objects. A rare diamond cluster ring with locket from the 17th century. Locket rings were fashionable in that era, but this ring remains an enigma because of its concealed message.

When opened, the inside lid reveals an engraved portrait of a young man. Inside the case against a translucent green enameled ground appears another man with an oversized pink rose. Is it a memorial ring or a wedding ring? Whatever its meaning, the ring must have been commissioned for a special occasion, for there is none other like it.

Custom museum soundscapes

The museum shows 650 diamonds, jewellery and silver objects from the 15th century to today. An incredible collection! While we walk from one room to another, I notice the change in music. Catherine: ‘What you hear are custom soundscapes. Composed especially for this museum. From classical music to the typical sounds of a vault. We aim to stimulate all senses of our visitors.’ With a big smile she adds: ‘Almost all senses, we didn’t add scents.’

Before the renovation, the museum was quite a lot to take in. Catherine: ‘You can definitely feel the difference. There was so much going on, from objects to intense colours. We restored the peace and designed a logical route. We now work with themes and have added texts. You can happily browse the museum by yourself or without a guide and still see and learn a lot.’

Evolving personal taste in jewellery

As a curator, Catherine has to be an expert in many fields. Does this also means that she loves all styles and all types of jewellery? Catherine: ‘Your personal taste evolves. It’s a constant process. Every now and again I see something I’ve never seen before and I really have to let it sink in. But you know what, the more you know about something, the more you’re able to appreciate it. Even with jewellery you didn’t like when you first laid your eyes on.’

Her favourite piece? She looks around and starts pointing at the cabinets: ‘Do you see that piece? It showcases so many different cut shapes in just one piece of jewellery and the colours of the enamel really pop. I love Art Deco too. That elegant diamond bracelet over there? I would definitely wear it.’ We walk past some revolutionary items made in the 1960s and 1970s. ‘This is something I had to get used to. After a while, when you’re completely invested in your research, this somehow becomes your favourite period. It really works that way.’

The time to turn a blind eye is over

In the permanent exhibition you discover different stages: from the mine to the finished product. Unfortunately, the industry is not all fun and games. What I love about DIVA is that the museum doesn’t shy away from complicated topics and educates its visitors. Catherine: ‘The time to turn a blind eye is over. For us as a museum it is important to give insight in all sides of the story without expressing our own opinion.’

‘Mind you, we have always told all stories. Compared to the old setup, certain themes are now more prominent in the renewed exhibition. Themes such as fair mining and social injustice. Our visitors appreciate this new approach. Many of them, think about millennials and gen z, requested this. We do have the power to change, let’s not forget that. Our renewed exhibition shows that.’

Information and inspiration

At the end of the tour, librarian An Labis invites me to take a look at the library collection as well. We leave the other guests behind and dive into the museum’s library depot. The difference couldn’t be bigger. From a dark green and mysterious Room of Wonder showcasing gold and silver objects, we enter a bright and white university-like area.

An: ‘This is our reading room. You can make an appointment to consult our library collection and sit here as long as you like.’ I could easily see myself sitting here all day. Curled up on one of the couches with a stack of rare jewellery books. An: ‘This is also where we can host DIVA talks and workshops. A great place to come to for both information and inspiration!’

Perfect climatological conditions

I follow An as she walks towards a white fence which looks like some kind of balcony. An: ‘We’re now on top of the depot. Looking down, you can see the library stacks. Under perfect climatological conditions we store about 25.000 objects and many more other paper collections. From books, magazines and photo negatives to auction catalogues about gold, silver, jewellery and diamonds.’

Honestly, this may not breath a boudoir-vibe as the museum does but it definitely feels like another Room of Wonder. Downstairs, I see publications on art history and styles, manuals on techniques and crafts and much, much more. An exceptional source of information and inspiration indeed. An: ‘We don’t use gloves as it may damage the materials. Let me wash my hands and we’ll have a look at some precious items.’

True treasures of the library

An’s eyes light up when she tells me about the 1.800 precious books they preserve. What to expect? Printed works published before 1831, for example. An: ‘The true treasures of our library! Not everything is available when you’re doing online research, using tools such as Google. Let me show you some old Belgian trade catalogues, used for advertisement or promotion.’ An opens a blue paper folder and shows the prints. An: ‘I love how this gives us insight in life in the early 1900s.’

We compare two prints. An: ‘In this first print you see a husband and wife. She has just given birth and receives a so-called push present (gold jewellery as a reward). A picture perfect setting for that time. When we look at another print, just a couple of years later, it’s much more emancipated. The woman doesn’t need a partner to get her hands on jewellery.’

1920s version of Instagram

An opens another folder and I couldn’t be more excited. This is the main reason for our depot visit. The librarian sighs: ‘This is really special to us.’ She’s holding a commercial catalogue of Compagnie de Joaillerie & Orfèvrerie Altenloh S.A. It dates back to 1929-1930 and shows wonderful designs of Art Deco jewellery. An: ‘Instagram of the 1920s. This is how they used to promote jewellery. Well, you can imagine how thrilled we were when the museum acquired a bracelet just like the one in this catalogue.’

An points at a drawing of an Art Deco bracelet with flexible links in platinum with diamonds, signed ALTENLOH. I remember seeing it at the permanent collection less than 30 minutes before admiring this catalogue. I love how this connects the museum and the library. An closes the folder. It’s time to say goodbye to everyone at DIVA. Full of inspiration, I return to Rotterdam.

I highly recommend a visit to DIVA, the museum for diamonds, jewellery and silver. Let me know when you’re going. Tag me in your photos on Instagram or Facebook. I’d love see your favourite objects. Enjoy!

[Photo credits: Dominique Provost (jewellery), Tom Cornille (museum overview) and Kim van Zweeden (behind the scenes)]