With a time-honored reputation for excellence in jewelry design, Van Cleef & Arpels
continues to draw patrons who are captivated by the art and craftsmanship of high jewelry. From its humble beginnings in the late 19th
century to the present day, the Maison’s inventive creations and classic renderings have been, and continue to be, the elements that set the firm apart from the rest.
An innovator of the classicism custom of design arts, Van Cleef & Arpels fused European tradition with modern style, producing jewelry worn by many influential people. In certain instances, this effort encompassed some of the most extravagant expressions of love.
In 1936, King Edward VIII
gave Wallis Simpson
a platinum, diamond and ruby Van Cleef & Arpels bracelet inscribed “Hold tight.” Her dearly-bought patience was rewarded, and a few months later he abdicated the throne. The last Shah of Iran showered each of his three wives with jewels from the Maison, including the emerald ring he gave his second wife, the green-eyed Soraya
, weeks before their marriage dissolved after she couldn’t provide an heir. After Aristotle Onassis
left Maria Callas
for Jackie Kennedy
—having draped both women in astonishing jewels—the opera singer told journalist Peter Evans that “Ari’s total understanding of women comes out of a Van Cleef & Arpels catalogue.”
The concept of transformation—wearing a jewel one way one day, and a completely different way another—continues to be a fundamental feature of Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry. A brilliant example of this is the Passe-Partout
, which was patented in 1938, and remains one of the first examples of the transformative jewelry for which the Maison is often celebrated. First exhibited by Van Cleef & Arpels at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, this signature piece consisted of a flexible gold snake chain and system of rails, enabling the wearer to convert it into a number of separate pieces, such as a necklace, choker, belt, or bracelet, depending on mood, attire, or event. Flower-shaped clips made of vibrant blue, pink, and yellow sapphires, which hold the piece together, can be detached and worn separately as brooches or together as earrings.
Another example of this pioneering concept is the Walska Briolette Diamond Brooch
. Designed as a phoenix, the Walska brooch was set with brilliant and single-cut yellow-tinted diamonds, pear-shaped emeralds, and a cabochon sapphire, and encompasses a dangling 96.62-carat yellow diamond briolette. The transformative feature lies in its ability to be unfastened in three places, with the briolette worn as a pendant, the wings as ear clips, and the tail as a smaller brooch. Fashioned in 1971 for famed Polish opera singer Ganna Walska, this extraordinary piece recently garnered $9.24 million at Sotheby’s November 2013 Magnificent Jewels
auction in Geneva—a record sale for a Van Cleef & Arpels piece.
Interestingly, Van Cleef & Arpels continues to be an enthusiastic collector of its own vintage jewelry. Catherine Cariou, the house’s Heritage Director, is responsible for an annual budget allocated for acquiring rare and important Van Cleef & Arpels pieces from auctions, private dealers, or private collectors. Understanding which pieces may be available during any given year makes building the collection a demanding endeavor. Competition for these exclusive pieces is high, making it increasingly difficult to match against the offers of the mega-rich. An example of the ferocity of the competition is illustrated by the pieces Cariou hoped to buy at the Christie’s 2011 auction of Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels. Ultimately, she could afford only one, the Granny Necklace
, a diamond, emerald, and gold choker with a detachable lion’s head, given to Taylor in 1971 by Richard Burton upon becoming a grandmother. A highlight of this auction, Cariou paid $902,500 with buyer’s premium for the piece. Cariou’s winning bid was almost five times the auction’s high estimate, clearly illustrating the value placed on vintage Van Cleef & Arpels.
The Van Cleef & Arpels brand has always, and continues to, boast an impressive list of clientele, including royalty—as in the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, King Farouk of Egypt, and the Court of Iran; industrial magnates and financiers—such as the Mellons, Kennedys, Vanderbilts, and Onassises; and films stars—the likes of Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich, Sophia Loren, and Elizabeth Taylor, to name a few. No small feat for a company formed out of a family alliance.
The Dynastic History
The Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry business was borne out of a union between two cousins, Alfred Van Cleef and Estelle Arpels. Alfred had initially become involved in the business through his father, Charles Van Cleef, a Dutch diamond cutter who moved to Paris during the reign of Napoleon III, and who quickly emerged in prominence for his ability to increase the value of flawed gemstones by eradicating imperfections. Alfred, himself, had always been drawn to jewelry design, and had apprenticed in the workshops of Messrs. David and Grosgogeat, purveyors of diamonds and precious stones in late nineteenth century Paris.
In 1895, Alfred married Estelle Arpels, the daughter of Léon Solomon Arpels, a Parisian dealer of precious stones. A year later, Alfred and Estelle, in partnership with Estelle’s brother, Charles, founded a company for "the creation and enhancement of jewelry and watches." They began in a modest office in Paris’s ninth arrondissement. In time, Estelle’s two other brothers, Julien and Louis, joined firm, and soon the business began to thrive. In 1906, the Van Cleef & Arpels trademark was filed and the company established itself on Place Vendôme, an area that attracted many renowned jewelers and watchmakers.
By 1912, the company had increased its staff and established a presence in a number of French resort destinations, such as Nice and Monte Carlo, enabling the organization to solicit the jet set on holiday, a clientele who possessed the ability to enhance the firm’s reputation. But business was disrupted with the breakout of World War I two years later, and Charles and Louis enlisted, leaving Alfred to manage alone, owing to health issues. Estelle volunteered as a nurse, and cared for wounded soldiers. One of her patients was a young lieutenant named Emile Puissant, who, after the war, met and married Estelle and Alfred’s daughter, Renée Van Cleef. In time, Emile would prove himself a valuable asset as the firm’s administrator.
With Emile at the helm in a post-war new age, Van Cleef & Arpels began to establish itself as a premier jewelry house. One of the principal impacts he’d had on the business was implementing the practice of an “auction” type sale, a custom frequent in most jewelry houses today, but which was unheard of then. Each December, the firm held a sale for prospective buyers of roughly a thousand pieces, after an initial introduction of the jewelry via catalogue by mail. This groundbreaking practice stunned rival establishments and proved to be a boon for business and for the Van Cleef & Arpels name. Unfortunately, the growth realized under Emile's tutelage lasted only until 1926, when he was killed pursuing his passion for auto racing.
After Emile’s death, his wife, Renée, assumed the role of artistic director. Though Renée was highly creative and excelled at conceptualizing new ideas, she could not transfer those ideas to paper. The person capable of this task was René-Sim Lacaze, a gifted artist and jewelry designer who played a major role in the development of the European Art Deco style, for which Van Cleef & Arpels is recognized. Renée cultivated the ideas and René-Sim sketched them out. This collaboration worked so well that René-Sim partnered in creative design with Renée, which lasted until his departure in 1941. The combined talents of these two creative individuals made for a remarkable legacy, encompassing the design of many famous works, including the minaudière, and the serti invisible.
The 1930s and ‘40s ushered in a second generation of Arpels: Claude (1932), Jacques (1936), and Pierre (1944). By 1938, the Van Cleef line was all but extinguished when Alfred died, so the Arpels lineage was designated to carry on. In doing so, they kept with tradition, and more in preserving the reputation and standing of the firm. Claude and Louis are credited with opening one of the first European Luxury jewelry stores in the United States, after establishing their Palm Beach store in 1940. Two years later, they set up shop in New York City, where, owing to the onset of the Second World War, much of the family relocated. The caveat to this, however, were the heavy taxes levied on imported jewelry. As such, the jewelry was shipped in sections and assembled in New York, much of it by Oscar Heyman, who had been manufacturing fine jewelry in New York City since 1912, and by John Rubel, who moved there to help produce jewelry for the new shop, including the famous ballerina and fairy clips.
Back in France, the family held off the Germans by transferring the business to Christian ownership, with the understanding that they would resume their rights after the war. They chose their accomplices well, and the Arpels were able to reclaim the entirety of the business at war’s end. The New York branch became a permanent entity, with several family members electing to remain, and what had begun as a security measure, helped to foster a presence outside of France and to further enhance the Van Cleef & Arpels brand.
The 1920s: Evolution of the Brand
This decade ushered in a period of tremendous growth in the fine jewelry market. The style of jewelry produced by Van Cleef & Arpels emphasized the concepts of classicism, while still remaining original. The emerging interest in all thing Egyptian, signaled by the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922, heralded a revival of Egyptian motifs. Many important jewelry houses embraced these themes, as did Van Cleef & Arpels in their extraordinary collection of bracelets and brooches. This fascination also went hand-in-hand with attention to unusual stone combinations, including semi-precious varieties, such as turquoise,
cornelian, and lapis lazuli, in complementary settings with precious gemstones.
During this period, Van Cleef & Arpels also produced jewelry inspired by Chinese and Japanese themes, which utilized jade, coral, pearls, and enamel to produce pieces reminiscent of the Orient, such as dragons, pandas, fans, and pagodas. Applying these Oriental and Egyptian motifs allowed for a wider application of the color palette of gemstones and dramatic contrasts in coloration.
In addition to the use of foreign motifs, this decade featured jewelry that was heavily influenced by the revolutionary shift in women’s fashion. Out went the constrictive and weighty clothing of the Victorian and Edwardian periods, and in came the flapper dresses, tunics, skirts, and trousers. One of the characteristic pieces executed by Van Cleef & Arpels at this time was the sautoir, a very long necklace, usually comprised of small pearls or stone beads, which terminated in a tassel that was often jeweled, enameled, or otherwise embellished, and often ended in another tassel of silk. Having incorporated the expanded color palette, the gemstones in the sautoir complimented the rise in colorful fabrics that accompanied the creation of synthetic fabrics. The war-weary public now embraced tunic and flapper dresses, which would have been belted at the hip, yielding an elongation in form that gave rise to the necessity for lengthy ornamentation. This prevalent custom helped to epitomize the stylishness of the roaring twenties.
Due to the emergence of looser, flowing garments, which were generally comprised of less material, clothing was often sleeveless, and the exposure wrought by the bare arms in this decade resulted in another characteristic Van Cleef & Arpels design—the wide bracelet, a hot trend that lasted through the mid-1930s. These wide bracelets were flat and flexible, and often fashioned in a geometric composition, an element that reflected the influence of the concurrent Art Deco movement. They were constructed largely in platinum, and set with diamonds, often in combination with colored gemstones, and they were all the rage.
This period also generated a trend for shorter hair, rendering long pendant earrings the desirable choice. Van Cleef & Arpels again utilized their palette of gemstones to orchestrate color contrasts that drew attention to dramatic pendant earrings, some of which featured motifs in the form of drops, cascades, and bunches of fruit.
Other popular items created by Van Cleef & Arpels during this era were multi-use brooches in the shape of bowties or jeweled birds—a departure from the Art Deco geometrics, as well as bracelet watches, and a collection of pieces that were flower themed, which won Van Cleef & Arpels the Grand Prix at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs.
The 1930s-1950s: Market Innovation
In the period spanning the 1930s through the 1950s, Van Cleef & Arpels continued its magnificent growth and fed its penchant for innovative designs and new contributions to the marketplace. The first of these innovative introductions was the previously-mentioned minaudière
, a type of vanity case constructed from gold or silver. The inspiration for this design, created by Charles Arpels who had joined the firm in 1932, came from one of the firm’s clients: Frances Gould, wife of American railroad baron, Jay Gould. When opened, the minaudière
reveals various essentials, including a comb, lipstick case, and lighter, as well as smaller compartments in which to store change, powder, and cigarettes.
The second major contribution by Van Cleef & Arpels in 1933 was the serti invisible
, also known as the “mystery setting,” although other jewelry houses, among them Cartier, claimed conceptive responsibility. This technique required months of work by master craftsmen, as each stone had to be cut with precision in order to fit with its neighboring stone. These were set into a gold f
ramework which held the stones in place so that the setting contained no visible prongs or bezels. As a revolutionary technique, this method allowed the jeweler to create a continuous surface of color. The serti invisible
was applied to many of Van Cleef & Arpels’ most important and fabulous pieces, including those designed for the Duchess of Windsor. This setting type is still vastly popular today, especially in single-stone engagement rings.
In terms of jewelry style, the 1930s brought about another shift, as white metals and sharp, geometric shapes fell out of fashion. Instead, Van Cleef & Arpels embraced curves with figurative and romantic themes in highly polished yellow gold. Birds and botanical motifs were in favor, and were generally embellished with diamonds, rubies, and sapphires. Multi-purpose jewelry also had grown in popularity at this time, as thrifty-minded women sought jewelry that served several functions. As with the previously-introduced Passe-Partout style, necklaces could transform into bracelets, or contain elements that could be detached and worn as clips, earrings, or brooches. Van Cleef & Arpels developed many ingenious techniques to accomplish this, producing some of the most technically demanding jewelry of any of the famed jewelry houses, including "secret hinges" and "invisible articulations."
was another important piece designed during this period. It is, essentially, a bracelet with a flexible band that is formed by attaching small, gold hexagon-shaped elements to one another. Generally, a small stone—either diamond or colored—was usually placed in a star-shaped setting and engraved. This practice was also executed by many important jewelers.
The emphasis in jewelry in the 1940s and ‘50s was on naturalism and romanticism, seen largely in animal and floral motifs. The popular flower-head broaches, often set with rubies and sapphires, exemplified this, and Van Cleef and Arpels excelled in their manufacture. Also successful were the Van Cleef and Arpels “ballerina” brooches. Many variations of these broaches were constructed, some of which were comprised of white diamonds, and others which employed colored stones.
“Chantilly” was a design style fashionable through the 1940s and into the 1950s. Crafted in gold and, in some instances set with small diamonds, the style was designed to mimic the airy transparency of lace. This method not only lent and interesting appearance to the jewelry, but due to the scarcity of gold as a consequence of the war, it enabled sizable pieces to be constructed using a reduced amount of the material. This practice is still employed today.
Another remarkable innovation, conceived of by Renée Puissant, was the Zip Necklace
. This piece was originally designed for the Duchess of Windsor in 1951, though she had originally recommended, sometime around 1938, that the firm design a piece of jewelry that mimicked the zip fastener. This concept took over a decade to come to fruition, but once complete, proved to be a technical feat. Fashioned in platinum and lined with baguette-cut and round diamonds, the necklace worked just as a zipper would, and could be zipped open or closed. Though it saw various incarnations—in some instances composed with colored sapphires, and another incorporating lapis lazuli and cultured pearls, and yet another boasting a “ribbon of rubies, emeralds, and sapphires”—what this design concept fostered, ultimately, was the theoretical challenge of taking an ordinary, utilitarian object and transforming it, quite brilliantly, into an article of refinement.
As a business move, the mid-1950s witnessed the beginning of a commercial undertaking, when Van Cleef & Arpels opened companion boutiques to offer what today would be considered a “trendier” product and at a more reasonable cost than what was sold in their pricier salons. This enabled the company to expand their client base, and many jewelry houses followed suit.
The 1960s to the Present: Maintaining the Brand Legacy
In 1968, Van Cleef & Arpels launched one of their most iconic designs—the “Alhambra,” which found immediate success and became an iconic motif for the Maison, lasting for over four decades. Originating from the name of the 11th
century Moorish palace in Spain, the motif resembles a four-leaf clover, as a symbol of “luck, health, fortune, and love.” First appearing on a sautoir necklace, the design was an immediate success and soon became a house classic, worn by women from Elizabeth Taylor to the Hollywood stars of today. Over the years, the Alhambra collection has grown to include rings, earrings, bracelets, pendants, and necklaces made from a seemingly endless variety of materials, including diamonds, carnelian, tiger’s eye, and mother-of-pearl. In addition, other shapes had been added to the mix, such as leaves, butterflies, and hearts.
Apart from designing jewelry collections, another undertaking of the firm involved fulfilling custom orders for their very famous, moneyed clientele. One of the more prominent commissions involved the design of a bejeweled crown for the 1967 investiture of Iranian Empress, Farah Pahlavi. This spectacular piece, which weighed 4.3 pounds, incorporated of a total of 1,541 stones, consisting of diamonds, rubies, spinels, pearls, and, emeralds, including a 150-carat emerald which took center stage. During construction of the piece, removal of these jewels from Iran’s national treasury was prohibited, forcing Pierre Arpels to travel to and from Paris to Teheran over a period of roughly six months to complete the noble commission. The crown is now on permanent display at the Central Bank of Iran.
Heading into the 1970s, numerous Van Cleef & Arpels designs found their origins in the Arpels brothers’ numerous trips to India, where inspiration abounded. Many of the pieces that emerged then were highly stylized, incorporating bold color and unusual designs to create daring, elaborate jewelry. An example of this can be seen in the Panka—a tassel necklace comprised of round and oval-shaped turquoise cabochons, paired with brilliant-cut diamonds, and mounted in yellow gold. A patterned piece, this necklace nicely typifies Indian style in high jewelry. The set included earrings to match.
The sautoir necklace is a design style that returned in the ‘70s, though it little resembled the earlier productions from the ‘20s. Remaining with the bold theme, these necklaces often incorporated heavier pieces, and, in some cases, juxtaposed uncommon combinations, such a jade and diamonds, or amethyst, coral, and diamonds, and even a bright green chrysoprase, with onyx and diamonds. In this case, the unusual was no longer . . . unusual.
After a stint in the ‘80s when ribbons and bows formed the trend, in addition to a reworking of old styles with modern technology and expertise, the bolder aesthetic of the ‘70s gave way to increased formality. Necklaces were shortened and exhibited less malleability, while pearls reappeared.
In terms of the business, by 1999, Van Cleef & Arpels, now relatively broadened worldwide, relinquished a majority interest to Richemont, a Swiss-based holding company that specializes in luxury goods. Despite this, Van Cleef & Arpels still takes in large profits while maintaining an expanded market base. It has also increased its product offerings, tapping into the beauty market with high-end fragrances and related commodities.
The Maison Today
Today, management of the haute joaillerie continues to be executed by the family. It still holds a reputation as one of the foremost jewelry houses in the world, including Europe, the U.S., the Middle East, and South East Asia, with standalone boutiques in many major cities, as well as in-store boutiques throughout the world. The company continues to produce jewelry with a timeless elegance, while also remaining innovative and relevant. In addition, the practice of fulfilling commissioned work requests continues, seen as recently as 2011 in the fabrication of a tiara for the wedding between Prince Albert of Monaco and Charlene Wittstock. This piece, titled “Océan,” holds over a thousand diamonds and sapphires, and was designed to mimic ocean waves, in a deliberate gesture to Wittstock’s former career as an Olympic swimmer.
What Van Cleef & Arpels represents today is a studied history of extraordinary jewelry design. The company’s technical innovations, in conjunction with the proficiency with which the organization set trends, has placed Van Cleef & Arpels in a category all its own. Though royal weddings and star power might have helped influenced the company’s standing, even more was the ability to set trends and the creative foresight for innovation in business and design.