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Van Cleef & Arpels - the maison of haute jewels

In 1895, Estelle Arpels - the daughter of a precious stone merchant and the sister of two expert gemmologists - married Alfred Van Cleef, the son of a diamond broker, and the stage was set for the rise of one of the world's most successful haute jewellers, writes Julie Carter.

The name Van Cleef & Arpels was registered in 1906, three years before Louis Bleriot would be the first to fly over the English Channel and right at the dawn of a new world of inventions and innovation.

Estelle and Alfred's joint passion for jewellery, coupled with an entrepreneurial spirit, led them into business with Estelle's brothers Charles, Julien and Louis and together they opened a boutique at Place Vendôme, a Parisian address still renowned today for its elegance and luxury.

It was from here that Alfred and his three brothers-in-law supplied the upper classes with sophisticated jewels to suit their upmarket lifestyles. As the French Riviera came of age and their clients migrated to exclusive seaside resorts, Van Cleef & Arpels followed, with new branches in the fashionable towns and spas of Dinard, Nice, Deauville, Vichy, Cannes and Monte Carlo.

As the style of Art Nouveau was gradually replaced by the simpler, more austere lines of Art Deco, flowers and animals disappeared from jewellery design to be replaced by geometric forms. Van Cleef & Arpels continued to produce pieces with naturalist themes whilst drawing on ancient civilisations for inspiration, and their design insight was rewarded at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, when the firm was awarded the Grand Prize for a Roses bracelet and brooch set that had been especially designed for the exhibition. The set, which now belongs in a private collection, contained 463 round brilliant diamonds, 293 rubies and 108 emeralds mounted on platinum.

In 1926, Renée Puissant - the daughter of Alfred and Estelle - became the artistic director of the House of Van Cleef & Arpels, and was followed into the business by Julien's sons Claude, Jacques and Pierre. It was Claude who opened a branch of the company in New York after attending the 1939 New York World's Fair, presiding over the opening of several other outlets in the United States until his eventual retirement from the business in 1990.

In 1931 the jewellery house presented large pieces of exotically themed jewellery at the Exposition Coloniale Internationale in Paris, to great acclaim and a First Prize award. Then in 1932 Van Cleef & Arpels signed an exclusive contract with the Alfred Langlois workshop, which became the firm's official production workshop. A year later, the first hallmark was introduced - the initials 'VCA' and an image of the Vendôme column set within a lozenge shape.

The order books of Van Cleef & Arpels contain some famous names, and some of the company's creations are associated with the most prestigious of occasions, including a birthday gift from Edward VIII to Mrs Simpson and a set of jewels made for the wedding of the Egyptian princess Fawzia to the Shah of Iran in 1938. The pearl and diamond engagement ring that Prince Rainier presented to Grace Kelly in 1956 was made by Van Cleef & Arpels, but probably the most celebrated creation was the crown set of jewels made for the coronation of Farah Palhavi as the Empress of Iran, which required no less than twenty-four separate trips to finalise its details.

Iconic designs

The first chatelaines were created in 1918, and Van Cleef & Arpels introduced its first wristwatch in 1923. The Minaudière, a small, sophisticated vanity case, was registered in 1934 after Charles Arpels saw his socialite friend Florence Jay Gould tossing her lipstick, powder case, cigarettes and lighter into a cigarette tin.

Resembling a magician's box, the Minaudière - which was named after Estelle Arpels, whose mannerisms (or minaudières) were considered enchanting - opened to reveal separate compartments for the various items required by an elegant woman of taste, all enclosed within a luxurious case.

It was Louis Arpels' passion for dance that led to the introduction of the Ballerina and Fairy clips in the early 1940s and they remain the only human figural pieces produced by Van Cleef & Arpels. Presented in a number of dance poses, the Ballerina and Fairy clips were created using diamonds set on platinum and highlighted with rubies and emeralds.

The Zip necklace, which was introduced in 1951, had first been suggested to Renée Puissant by the Duchess of Windsor in the late 1930s, but it would be nearly fifteen years before the jewellery house was satisfied with its reinterpretation of the sliding fastener into an item of haute jewellery. Made of yellow gold and set with coloured stones and diamonds - for a more casual day look, it was suggested by the Maison at the time - the necklace zips and unzips to drape down the front or back of the neck and is transformable into a bracelet. It has been described as one of the most remarkable innovations within the field of couture jewellery.

And then there's the Mystery Setting

In 1933 Van Cleef & Arpels registered the Mystery Setting, which consists of jewellery settings in which no prongs are visible. The technique is extremely time-consuming: more than 90 hours to complete a ring, around 300 hours for a brooch and up to 1400 hours for the Clip du Mysterieux. Each faceted stone is carefully hand-grooved onto thin gold rails that measure less than two-tenths of a millimetre thick. Only a few Mystery Setting items are produced each year.

It was this elegance and ingenuity of design, combined with the use of the rarest and most precious materials, that attracted the aristocratic and the royal, the very rich and the famous to the Maison de Van Cleef & Arpels.

There's the very rich - and there's the super-rich

The Maharani of Baroda features as one of the super-rich clients of Van Cleef & Arpels. Nicknamed 'The Indian Wallis Simpson', she was a renowned exotic beauty who had a fabulous collection of more than 300 pieces of jewellery and thought nothing of having gems from her husband's crown jewels converted into contemporary designs. Claude and Jacques Arpels made frequent trips overseas to service their important Indian clients, and when the Maharani was in Paris she would have several servants accompany her to the Maison of Van Cleef & Arpels in order to leave boxes of precious stones there, to be remounted into spectacular pieces of jewellery. In 1950 she ordered the Baroda necklace, which featured 13 pear-shaped Columbian emeralds weighing 154.70 carats, suspended from a lotus flower with pavé set diamonds. That same year, she contracted Jacques Arpels to value her collection of jewels, which she presented to him at the Parisian Maison - in fifty-six boxes. A three-strand pearl necklace alone was estimated to be worth US$599,200, and suspended from a diamond necklace were eleven rectangular sapphires that were so large, they would have to be halved in order to be set in a ring.

Known as the 'Million Dollar Baby', Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton - who became one of the wealthiest women in the world in 1933, when she reached the age of 21 - was another of the firm's super-rich clients. Her orders were personally taken by Pierre Arpels, who often visited her at her home in order to receive instructions. On one occasion, as she was feeling unwell, Ms Hutton's butler asked Arpels to visit her in her bedroom, where he found her reclined in bed with her head resting on a lace pillow - and a spectacular Van Cleef & Arpels tiara of 22 pear-shaped diamonds on her head.

In December every year, Ms Hutton would go to Van Cleef & Arpels to choose Christmas presents for her family and close friends. For the 1946 Christmas she chose scores of brooches, cufflinks and watches, with the most expensive being a pair of ruby cufflinks for one of her lawyers. She had grown up with fabulous jewels; her father gave her a ruby ring worth $50,000 when she was sixteen, and when she married at the age of twenty she received a stunning pearl necklace said to have belonged to Marie-Antoinette. She married seven times, and bought jewels at Van Cleef & Arpels as the wife of six of her husbands - every time she remarried she appeared in the order books under her new married name.

Hollywood comes to glitter

Van Cleef & Arpels was a favourite of a number of Hollywood stars including Grace Kelly, who was introduced to the jeweller by fiancèe Prince Rainier. The couple went to the New York boutique to order a three-strand pearl necklace, bracelet, earrings and ring prior to their wedding, and three months later the Maison was awarded the title of Official Supplier to the Principality of Monaco. When Princess Caroline wed Philippe Jugnot in 1978, Princess Grace of Monaco wore a Van Cleef & Arpels diamond tiara of 77.34 carats.

The wildly extravagant Marlene Dietrich was another famous customer of the Maison. Every year she and her entourage would spend several months in Paris, London and Vienna, where Ms Dietrich would spend vast sums on staying in the very best hotels, touring the great couturiers and visiting haute jewellers. Her famed Jarretiere bracelet, which was created in the Paris workshops between 1937 and 1939 and was set with 73 rubies and 141 diamonds, became one of the most spectacular pieces ever to be created by Van Cleef & Arpels. It was valued at US$25,000 in 1948, and sold for US$990,000 at Sotheby's New York in 1992.

But it was Elizabeth Taylor who amassed the 'Crown Jewels of Hollywood', as they became known, with more than 40 pieces from Van Cleef & Arpels - most of them given to her by Richard Burton during their epic romance. For Christmas 1968 he gave her the 8.25 carat Puertas ruby, diamond and yellow gold ring, which she described as 'the most exquisite ruby anyone had ever seen'. The next year he bought her one of the most expensive stones in the world - a 69.42 carat diamond worth US$1.5m. For their tenth wedding anniversary in 1974, Burton presented Taylor with a pear-shaped cognac and white diamond ring of 33.81 carats and matching ear pendants weighing a total of 14.7 carats. Claude Arpels noted that the main diamond was 'very rare in this size and the best shade of cognac.' When Elizabeth Taylor's jewellery collection was sold in December 2011, the 'most exquisite ruby in the world' sold for more than $4.2m. No doubt the enormous price would have pleased Ms Taylor, who once commented to a friend when talking about her taster for ostentatious jewels: "They say I look common, but I couldn't care less."

Reference: www.vancleefarpels.com
Van Cleef & Arpels Treasures & Legends by Vincent Meylan. Published in 2014 by Antique Collectors' Club Ltd, Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK.
Van Cleef & Arpels by Anne-Marie Clais. Published in 2009 by Assouline Publishing, New York, USA.

This information first appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Antiques and Collectables for Pleasure & Profit