Alfred Van Cleef
& Estelle Arpels
Founded in 1906; Paris, France.
To learn more: vancleefarpels.com
“On 2 December 1933, Van Cleef and Arpels received French Patent No. 764,966 for a proprietary gem setting style it calls Serti Mysterieux, or “Mystery Setting”, a technique employing a setting where the prongs are invisible. Each stone is faceted onto gold rails less than two-tenths of a millimeter thick. The technique can require 300 hours of work per piece or more, and only a few are produced each year.”
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The Van Cleef & Arpels brand instantly conjures up the concept of diamonds, rare rubies, sapphires and emeralds. The high-jewelry house consistently strives to improve methods of cutting stones, mounting, and crafting pieces that are treasured through generations. Faithful to the spirit of their founders, each piece of Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry is designed to enhance the beauty of exceptional stones. Although Van Cleef & Arpels has purchased exceptional specimens, it has also brought rare but less valuable stones, such as aquamarines, mandarin garnets and rubellites, to light. Van Cleef & Arpels sometimes chose to highlight the poetry of more unexpected materials, such as mother-of-pearl, snake-wood and lacquer.
In 1895, Esther Arpels, the daughter of Salomon Arpels, a dealer in precious stones, married Alfred Van Cleef, the son of a diamond cutter from Amsterdam. In 1906, Alfred Van Cleef and his two brothers-in laws, Charles Arpels and Jules Arpels registered the “Van Cleef & Arpels” trademark and opened their first boutique at 22 Place Vendôme, Paris. Their mission was to render exceptional stones sublime, the transformation of jewels into finished pieces being the ultimate act of creativity.
They were soon joined by Esther’s brothers, Salomon, Jules and Louis Arpels. From 1909 to 1939, Van Cleef & Arpels prospered and opened boutiques in holiday resorts such as Deauville, Le Touquet, Nice and Monte-Carlo. Alfred Van Cleef died in 1938, leaving his daughter, Renée Rachel Puissant, behind him.
Van Cleef & Arpels sought to appeal to a sophisticated, cosmopolitan clientele. Legend has it that Charles Arpels witnessed the dancer and socialite Florence Jay Gould slipping her lipstick into a plain white tin and balked at the idea of glamorous women having no suitable containers to hold their essential belongings. In 1934-1935, Van Cleef & Arpels introduced the Minaudiére, a sleek version of the vanity cases of the day, meant to hold a woman’s lipstick, handkerchief, and powder puff with style and ease. As early as the 1920’s the firm started to produce platinum wrist and pocket watches set with diamonds and crystal. The Cadenas watch, created in 1936, sought to marry form, function, and beauty. The piece consisted of a jewel encrusted watch face, and a double strand chain capped with a jeweled ball. The design appeared more decorative than a plain watch, yet more functional than a bracelet alone. Van Cleef & Arpels were always developing new styles and settings. One of the most enduring techniques developed by the House is the Mystery Setting, patented between 1934 and 1936. The stunning pieces of jewelry consist of hundreds of small gems which seem to float on top of the structure with no visible mounting. The surfaces are created using an extremely fine rose gold mesh which hugs the contours of the stones resulting in a seamless surface of rubies, emeralds, sapphires, or diamonds.
The House created the Van Cleef & Arpels hallmark in 1938, a lozenge symbol with the letters VC on one side and A on the other separated by the Vendome column, which guarantees the origin of each jewel. At the end of the 1930’s, the Duchess of Windsor and Reneé Puissant, artistic director of the House at the time, suggested that the firm create a jewel inspired by the zip fastener. Finally achieved in 1950, the first Zip necklace imitates a real zipper and can be worn open as a necklace or closed as a bracelet. It has remained a popular design, reworked periodically for new collections. During the 1940’s Van Cleef & Arpels strived to capture the beauty of nature, with its vital force and fragility co-existing in harmony. The Snowflake collection, which debuted in 1946 with the Guirlande de Lierre Clip, was a signature example of this harmony captured in design.
Progressively, the second generation joined the business. Claude Arpels, the oldest son of Julien joined the company in 1932; 7 years later he opened the first Van Cleef & Arpels across the Atlantic at the new Rockefeller Center, becoming one of the first European luxury firms to establish a presence in the States. In 1942, the rest of the Arpels family immigrated to America and moved the boutique to its present location at 744 Fifth Avenue. In 1954, the firm started a commercial trend that continues to this day by opening boutiques that served as companions to their haute joaillerie salons, greatly expanding their client base. The boutiques offered collections of jewelry that were “young in spirit and reasonably priced” and updated yearly to reflect changing fashions.
Since their inception, Van Cleef & Arpels have been associated with events that have marked the lives of princely, royal and imperial families around the world. Clients have included His Royal Highness Don Antonio of Orléans and Grand Duke Dmitri in the 1920s, Princess de Faucigny Lucinge, Baron Thyssen, the Duchess of Windsor and the Duke of Westminster in the 1930s, Queen Nazli and King Farouk of Egypt, Baron James de Rothschild, Countesses de Rohan Chabot and d’Harcourt, the Maharani of Baroda, Princess de Réthy, then King Baudoin of Belgium, Princess von Turn und Taxis, the Marquis of Cuevas , Queen Sirikit of Thailand in the 1950s, and then, in the following decades, Baron Guy de Rothschild, the Princess of Wales, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, the Aga Khan family, etc.
Numerous actresses have also favored Van Cleef & Arpels jewels. Marlene Dietrich wore an exceptional ruby and diamond baguette bracelet in Hitchcock’s “Stage Fright” putting the firm directly in the stylish spotlight. Examples of faithful clients include Madeleine Carroll, Michèle Morgen, Ava Gardner, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Liz Taylor, Maria Callas, Jacqueline Kennedy, Claudia Cardinale, Romy Schneider, Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, Charlotte Rampling, Chiara Mastroianni, Sharon Stone, Kristin Scott Thomas, Julia Roberts, Uma Thurman, Zhang Ziyi, Carole Bouquet, Diane Kruger, Scarlett Johansson, Sofia Coppola, and many more.
Over the years, the firm was always managed by a descendant of the Arpels family, until it was acquired by the Compagnie Financière Richemont S.A. in 1999. The company’s prestige stems from a long list of prominent commissions issued by royal and imperial courts, financiers and industrial magnates, which have enabled Van Cleef & Arpels to be active today not only in Europe and the United States, but also in Asia and the Middle East.