The House of Van Cleef & Arpels, universally recognized as one of the leading and most stylish jewelry dealers of the 20th century, had its origins in 1906. On 16 June of that year, three enterprising young men Alfred Van Cleef, and the brothers Charles and Julien Arpels opened a small shop in the Place Vendome, at that time the prime centre of fashion and luxury in Paris.
Alfred was the son of Charles Van Cleef, a young lapidary craftsman who had left his native Amsterdam to work in Paris. Born in 1873, Alfred served as an apprentice in the workshops of Messrs David et Grosgeat, for whom he later became a salesman. In 1898 he married his cousin Estelle Arpels, the daughter of Leon Arpels, a dealer in precious stones. Coning from a comparable background, her brothers Charles and Julien shared Alfred's vision of creating distinctive jewelry, and so the partnership was born.
Before launching themselves properly in the Paris luxury market, they developed their skills and expertise in small office premises at 34 Rue Drouot. Their move to 22 Place Vendome (an address which Van Cleef & Arpels still occupies today) was calculated to attract the attention of a wealthy and stylish clientele. Their gamble paid off, and they were rewarded by an immediate success, which led them to increase their staff. From the beginning, Estelle contributed to the family enterprise by keeping the accounts, and in 1912 a third Arpels brother, Louis, joined the partnership.
The partners' various talents fortunately balanced each other. Charles's charm and salesmanship and Julien's judgment of stones 'Were an excellent complement to Alfred's understanding of stone cutting and skill as an administrator and master strategist. Louis's affable personality enabled him to establish a special rapport with many important clients as well as personal friendships with such celebrities as Marlene Dietrich and Maurice Chevalier.
The firm's jewelry archives for the years preceding 1920 have unfortunately not survived, but it is well known that certain themes have always been characteristic of the House's product: fluid lines, graceful curves, colour, and a sense of movement which might be suggested by the lines of the design or produced mechanically by mobile elements in the jewelry.
Throughout the 1920s Van Cleef & Arpels' designs reflected contemporary fashions. The discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922 provided the inspiration for a whole range of jewels, the most extraordinary of which was a series of flat bracelets decorated with ancient Egyptian symbols such as the ibis and sphinx, the lotus and scarab, and the god Horus. The Oriental influence was pervasive; in 1924, for instance, vanity cases were decorated with Persian arabesques or even a Chinese landscape. Once the vogue for Art Deco was launched by the 1925 exhibition of Arts Decoratifs et Industrials Modernes in Paris, geometric patterns made their appearance in Van Cleef & Arpels' designs. It was at that exhibition, too, that the firm's reputation for excellence of design and technical innovation was enhanced by the award of a Grand Prix for a magnificent bracelet of roses in rubies and diamonds with emerald leaves.
Popular items during this period included the sautoir, a long necklace sometimes worn with a pendant; bold bracelets which complemented the bare-armed fashions of the day; and pendant ear clips which were shown off to advantage by the new shorter hairstyles. "Convertible" jewelry, designed to be worn in different ways (for instance, a necklace which could be converted into a bracelet by undoing some small fasteners, or a large clip which could be separated and worn as two small clips), was a notable success.
Van Cleef & Arpels' collections have traditionally concentrated on the major gem stones diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires and the firm is renowned for creating unique pieces of jewelry. Some items, however, such as bracelets with "invisibly set" rubies or sapphires, became such classics that they are still being produced.
In the 1930s Van Cleef & Arpels' patrons wanted a look of luxurious extravagance in their jewelry. The coloratura soprano Lily Pons, for instance, was given a clip by her husband for her debut in Donizetti's opera La Fille du Regiment which bore a likeness of the part she was singing, the "vivandiere" Marie, fashioned from gold, rubies, sapphires and rose-cut diamonds.
Van Cleef & Arpels experimented with items other than conventional jewelry. In the 1920s they began to produce clocks. A hand mirror made in 1930 was unusual in combining black and red lacquer with agate and gold, with cabochon ruby accents. In 1931 the firm created a striking night light, made with gold, green and black enamel.. When the lamp was turned on, the light streamed through sections of rock-crystal. One of the most unusual items the firm ever produced was a cage, intended to house a live frog, which was made from agate, jade, coral, lapis-lazuli, onyx and gold.
An item which came to be particularly associated with the firm was the necessaries, or vanity case, which had been used by fashionable European women since shortly after the First World War. The relatively spacious surface of the cases allowed the designers and craftsmen of Van Cleef & Arpels to use their skills without the limitations imposed by conventional jewelry.
The necessaries lent itself to a wide range and combinations of materials: precious and semi-precious stones, enamel, mother-of-pearl, textured gold. Some boxes were covered in highly polished gold which acted as background to a design set off by the imaginative use of stones; this was the technique used to create a charming view of Avenue Foch in Paris on the surface of one case, while on another flamingos formed from huff-topped, calibrated rubies and emeralds stand in a pool of emeralds against a gold background.
The design themes chosen for the boxes were as varied as the materials, ranging from the starkly simple to the intricate. Some were inspired by motifs from China, Japan and Persia, while others were based on fabric or wallpaper patterns or design elements drawn from the past.
In the early 1930s the small box was endowed with an even greater degree of sophistication. Louis Arpels observed Florence. Gould the wife of an American tycoon using a long metal "Lucky Strike" box as a handbag. Inspired by her ingenuity, Louis invented the minaudiere, a sleek gold box with hidden latches which could be opened to reveal compartments especially designed to hold face powder, lip-stick, rouge, a miniature comb, and all the small items essential to a lady of fashion. Some even contained a tiny hidden watch. Their appeal was such that they quickly replaced the chic woman's evening bag. The term minaudiere was coined by Alfred Van Cleef from the word minauder ("to simper"), with which he teased his wife.
Like the necessaries, the minaudiere al-lowed the designer and craftsman great scope because of its shape. In addition to the usual precious and semi-precious materials, lacquer was also used as a substitute for enamel, which is too fragile to cover a large surface. Minaudiere often had an elaborately ornamented clasp, decorated with pearls or precious stones; sometimes the clasp was detachable so that it could he used as a clip.
Normally each minaudiere was unique. On one occasion, however, thirty identical ones, richly decorated with precious stones, were produced for an Emir who wished to avoid provoking jealousy among his thirty wives!
Innovation, whether technical or conceptual, was by no means limited to women's accessories. In 1935 Alfred Van Cleef and Julien Arpels developed into a work of art the technique of "invisible setting". The technique is to set each stone directly against the next in a beautiful mono-chromatic mosaic without any visible prongs or signs of setting. Rubies and sapphires, perfectly matched in colour and depth, are precisely cut and grooved by a highly skilled lapidary to fit exactly into their assigned places. Each stone is then slid onto concealed tracks and into its specific location in an intricate lattice-work of gold. The fit must be perfect, and the technique is therefore time-consuming. Sometimes as many 800 stones required making a single clip and many stone may be broken in the process and discarded. This revolutionary technique provides such flexibly that a bracelet can be moved like a ribbon of satin.
During the mid 1930s and the 1940s the second generation of the firm began to emerge. Julien's three sons, Claude, Jacques and Pierre 'carnet' he using by working with their father and uncles. Jacques was blessed with great energy and a keen business sense which fitted hint ideally to lake on eventually the position of Director of Van Cleef & Arpels in Paris; Jut I going into cull provides guidance for the firm Europe. Pierre's personality suited him for new projects, including development of the Van Cleef. Arpels boutique and the introduction of Van Cleef Arpels in Japan. Claude accompanied his uncles Julien and Louis on a visit to the United States and ended up managing the firm there until his retirement in 1986. He was succeeded by a member of the third generation, Jacques's son Philippe, who had learned the business in the 1970s by working alongside his father in Paris.
During the 1930s geometric motifs began to be replaced by softer designs, and it was in collections of this period that the "pad-lock" watch and the graceful "swallow" clips both appeared. Indeed, clips of all kinds continued to be shown every year; detachable clips, corsage clips, clasps for necklaces or bracelets that could be worn on their own as clips. Several became "classics": the flame clips in platinum which were introduced in 1934 were revived again in the 1950s, while the four-leaf clover clips continued to be made into the 1960s.
The "Ludo", bracelets, affectionately called after Louis Arpels who was nicknamed "Ludovic", first appeared in 1934. The bracelets were supple ribbons formed either from flat panels of highly polished gold in the shape of hexagons, set side by side in' a beehive pattern, or from .rectangular panels arranged in a brickwork pattern. Often precious stones were "star" set in the centre of each panel and additional stones adorned the clasp. The versa-tile decorative theme was also used for rings, clips and ear clips.
Invisible setting was extended to new items: clips, cufflinks, ear clips, and bracelets owl boxes. The in technique proved especially in highly contoured, sculpted items such us sumptuous flower and the "bottle" ring. Thy double holly lea clip, a remarkable example of invisible setting was favoured by the Duchess of Windsor and made popular by her.
Floral themes were popular in the 1930`s, and indeed into the 1960, especially the "Hawaii" motif, sprays of multicolored flowers on clips, ear clips, but let’s and necklaces.
Van Clout' Arpels received a particularly prestigious commission in I 18, when the firm Was requested to create jewels to be worn at the wedding of Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran, and Princess Fawzia, the daughter of King Fouad of Egypt. Van Cleef 64. Arpels jewels adorned not only the bride (who remained a loyal client of the firm), hut also Queen Nazli and the entourage of the Egyptian royal family.
It was also in 1938 that the first of the "passepartout" clips appeared. Decorated with cushion-cut Ceylon sapphires in pale tones of yellow, pink and blue, they could be worn alone or attached to a gold snake chain which could also serve as a belt or be coiled round the arm. These were success-fully revived in the 1940s and 1950s.
Van Cleef Arpels had seen their international business grow so rapidly that they reached the conclusion they were missing excellent opportunities by restricting their activities to the Place Vendome. They decided to follow their colourful clientele to the fashionable resorts and casinos of Europe. Their first venture was the opening in 1921 of a salon in Cannes, next door to the leading couturier of the period, Paul Poiret. Before long they opened further establishments in Deauville, Vichy and Nice, and over the years they have continued this policy of judicious expansion all over the world from Monte Carlo to Hong Kong.
In 1939 Julien and Louis Arpels travelled to the United States on the Queen Mary in search of new challenges and markets. An exhibition of the firm's jewelry in the French Pavilion of the New York World's Fair during that summer was so successful that they rented a two-room office in Rockefeller Center.
Americans were so enthusiastic about the style and sophistication of the French jewelers' haute joaillerie that Van Cleef & Arpels had little difficulty in developing a loyal clientele. In 1942, having outgrown the Rockefeller Center premises, the firm opened a salon on Fifth Avenue between 57th and 58th Streets, adjoining the exclusive shop of Bergdorf Goodman. Julien and Louis began to divide their time between Europe and the United States, while Jacques and Pierre oversaw the firm's expansion in Europe.
In 1940 a Van Cleef & Arpels salon was established on fashionable Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, an extension to the United States of the policy of being represented at the resorts favoured by those who could afford luxury jewelry. Beverly Hills was another obvious objective, and a salon was opened there on Rodeo Drive in 1969.
The clientele of Van Cleef & Arpels has always been illustrious, and while many have preferred to remain anonymous, others have made no secret of their patron-age. Over the years its glamorous customers have included Maria Callas, Elizabeth Taylor, Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich, Christina Onassis, Madeleine Carroll, Barbara Hutton, the Vanderbilt’s, Mellons, Kennedys, the Duke of Westminster, the Aga Khan, King Farouk and the Maharajah of Baroda.
The Duchess of Windsor was often photographed wearing a Van Cleef &. Arpels clip of a spray of wild flowers in diamonds and sapphires. She was a widely emulated leader of fashion, and the success of the flower style in the United States has been attributed to her influence. In a similar way, Marlene Dietrich made famous the manchettes, or cuff bracelet, decorated by sapphires with baguette, round-and square-cut diamonds.
During the 1940s and '50s several popular new themes were introduced, such as the "Snowflake" motif (1945), the "Marine" motif depicting waves and shells, and meteors of gold and platinum. The first of the successful ballerina clips was created in 1945, and during the latter half of the decade birds of all kinds, from finches to parakeets and birds of paradise, were in favour.
The scarcity of precious stones during the Second World War led Van Cleef & Arpels to explore the use of textured gold. As the result of technical innovations, gold could be fluted, twisted and perforated to resemble basket weave, lace or fabric. The "pochette" clip cleverly imitated the pocket handkerchief.
The same delight in imitating everyday items inspired the "col Claudine", a "collar" made of highly polished gold panels, with a detachable clip of white and jonquil diamonds; and also a cuff bracelet, complete with buttonhole and diamond button.
It was during the 1950s that the firm recognized the need for lighter jewelry for daytime wear, which might also have a greater appeal to the young. In 1954 the first van Cleef & Arpels boutique was opened as a special outlet for this casual and more reasonably priced jewelry, which was often produced in limited num, hers and comprised semi-precious stone, As with the traditional haute joaillerie, certain of these pieces, for instance, the "Mischievous Cat" dip of 1954 und the "Baby Lion" of 1%4, became classics which the firm continued to produce.
At the same time the House had no shortage of important commissions for its haute joaillerie. In 1957 Prince Rainier of Monaco ordered u magnificent diamond and pearl pa lure, consisting of a necklace, bracelet and ear clips, as a wedding gift for Princess Grace. In addition, the National and Municipal Council gave her a bracelet with five rows of diamonds, which was also from Van Cleef Arpels. Princess Grace wore it tiara of pear-shaped, marquise and round 1lionumac created by the firm lit die wedding of her daughter Princess Caroline in 1978.
Since the 1960s, Van Cleef Arpels' traditional pursuit of the opportunities offered by the globe-trotting life-style of their clientele has led them to organize exhibitions all over the world which are often timed to coincide with special events or the seasonal migrations of high society. It was after just such a series of exhibitions in Japan that Van Cleef Arpels established a presence there by opening 14 outlets under a franchise agreement with Seibu department stores.
In 1965, after competing with more than sixty other jewelers, the firm was commissioned by the Shah and Empress of Iran to create new jewels from the existing Crown Jewels. As the stones could not be taken from Iran, Pierre Arpels had plaster impressions made of them, so that exact replicas could be fashioned and used to create the new settings. These were taken back to Iran when the actual work was carried out.
In 1967 Barbara Hutton commissioned a tiara with six pear-shaped diamonds, the largest of which weighed 54.82 carats. On one occasion when he visited her during an indisposition, Pierre Arpels was surprised to find her wearing it in bed!
Claude and Jacques made numerous trips to India during the 1960s and '70s, and this proved a fertile source for their designs. For instance, precious and semi-precious stones were combined in multicoloured jewelry based on the collarettes worn by the maharajahs over their tunics. The brothers also took advantage of these Indian visits to indulge their family's passion for magnificent stones, and it was while in Bombay in 1965 that they acquired the 114-carat "Neela Ranee" ("Blue Princess") sapphire.
Other notable acquisitions by Claude and Jacques Arpels included the "Princie" diamond at a London auction in 1960 and the "Mazarin" diamond in 1964. The "Princie" diamond is a splendid pink stone weighing 34.64 carats, re-named in honour of the Maharajah of Baroda who was known as "Princie" to his friends. The "Mazarin" diamond is an emerald-cut stone of 30.58 carats which still shows traces of the cushion cutting carried out by Parisian lapidaries in the 17th century for Cardinal Mazarin.
Although the Arpels preferred to buy extraordinary stones, they have often also purchased jewelry with an interesting history. The firm bought a sautoir and tiara from Queen Mary of Serbia, daughter of Ferdinand I of Roumania and wife of Alexander I of Serbia. She had acquired the tiara from the Romanoff’s and had had the matching sautoir made.
As far back as 1925, Van Cleef & Arpels bought the famous "Liberty" necklace. According to legend, when Philadelphia was captured in September 1777, a beautiful Countess of Polish extraction became so distraught with anxiety about the fate of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the freedom-loving Pole who had joined the American cause that she called on Benjamin Franklin for comfort. Upon being assured by him that her beloved friend was not in danger, she took off her emerald necklace and earrings and donated them to the cause of Liberty.
In 1953 Van Cleef & Arpels purchased a tiara which had been given by Napoleon to the Empress Marie-Louise in 1811 to mark the birth of their son, the King of Rome. At a client's request, the firm sold the emeralds individually, while the diamond studded mount was bought by Mrs. Merriweather Post, who had it set with turquoise. In 1966 she donated it to the Smithsonian Institution.
Another acquisition with Napoleonic connections was a diamond tiara with a motif of butterflies and flowers which had been placed by Napoleon on Josephine's head on the day of his coronation. It is believed that Josephine bequeathed the tiara to her daughter Hortense, who in turn gave it to her son, the future Napoleon III. When Empress Eugenie fled from Paris, she entrusted her jewels to her friend Madame de Metternich, who arranged for them to be sent to London. The tiara was listed among some jewels sold by Eugenie in May 1872.
During the 1970s and '80s Van Cleef & Arpels concentrated on consolidating their status and success in the luxury market. In 1972 their first Boutique des Heures was launched in the Paris salon with a collection of exclusive watches, and in 1979 (and again in 1987) the firm diversified its activities by creating its own perfume. But of course jewelry remained the firm's major concern. "Ribbons" and "Bows" proved particular favorites’ among the motifs in the collections of the 1970s and '80s, while the firm's continuing use of the natural world as a source of inspiration is seen in the "Everest" necklace (1981), a series of scalloped motifs with diamonds and coloured stones. A variant of "Everest" with a characteristic invisible setting was also produced
Today the firm is still in the hands of the Arpels family, who are anticipating the handing one of their skills and experience to yet another generation.
Writer – Thames & Hudson