Van Cleef & Arpels (Est. 1906- ) is a French company known for selling jewelry, watches, and perfumes. For aficionados of vintage jewelry, notions of romance either for the pieces themselves or their value often motivate collectors. However, unlike most other famous names in the world of jewelry design, the Maison (“House”) of Van Cleef & Arpels has its roots in a real-life love story.
According to the company’s official website, toward the end of the 19th century, Estelle Arpel, the daughter of the precious stones dealer, Leon Arpel, met the young Alfred Van Cleef (1873 – ????), son of a stone-cutter. The meeting of these two cousins began what would become one of the world’s most famous and admired names in fine, collectible jewelry.
In 1895, Alfred and Estelle married. They had a lot in common including youthful enthusiasm, pioneering spirit, respect for what is now called, “family values,” and an intrinsic passion for precious stones. However, more than anything else, they wanted to create something lasting together.
In 1906, their passions led them to establish the Maison of Van Cleef & Arpels. Prior to meeting Estelle, Alfred had served as an apprentice in the workshops of Messrs. David et Grosgeat, for whom he later worked as a salesman.
With the help of his uncle, Salomon Arpels, Alfred established the business with Estelle’s brother Charles who was a talented salesman and managed the small shop at Place Vendôme, a Paris location known then as the epitome of fashion and luxury.
Two years later, Estelle’s brother Julien joined the firm and, in 1912, Estelle’s third brother, Louis, signed on. From the beginning of the partnership between her brothers and husband, Estelle contributed to the family business by managing the accounts.
From its earliest days, Van Cleef & Arpels’ jewelry was recognized for its fluid lines, graceful curves, color, and sense of movement. The firm also gave their wealthy clients opportunities to acquire unique, specially commissioned jewelry.
In 1908, for example, the Varuna boat, was one of the firm’s first special orders. Made of ebony, green and white enamel rubies, gold, and jasper plus built with an electrical contact for a butler’s bell, the piece was probably built for Eugene Higgins, a wealthy member of New York society, who owned the original steam yacht.
During the 1920s, Van Cleef & Arpels’ creations reflected contemporary fashion. The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 inspired Egyptian motifs and symbols. This taste for the “new” and exotic, also encouraged other Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry designs.
In 1924, their pieces had an Oriental influence that were used on vanity cases decorated with Persian arabesques and even Chinese landscapes. In 1925, their jewelry was influenced by the Art Deco movement with geometric patterns in the designs.
Before World War I, Van Cleef & Arpels’ style was defined by the artistic partnership of Renée Puissant, Estelle and Alfred’s daughter, who became the House’s artistic director and René Sim Lacaze, a draftsman and designer who joined the company in 1922. Together, the two Renées, forged a creative legacy that endures to this day.
Not an artist herself, Puissant relied on Lacaze to commit her ideas to paper. Working from his initial sketches, she would contribute her own detailed suggestions. The resulting creations were born from this aesthetic communion between these two complementary personalities. In its own way, the collaboration was similar to the one achieved by Renée’s mother and father. From 1926 to 1939, Puissant and Lacaze positioned Van Cleef & Arpels at the forefront of jewelry design.
Prior to the influence of Puissant and Lacaze, Van Cleef & Arpels’ creations had already had an impact on the history of modern jewelry. For example, Van Cleef & Arpels created the “necessaire” or vanity case which was designed with precious and semi-precious stones, enamel, mother-of-pearl, and contained hidden compartments to hold face powder, lipstick, rouge, and a miniature comb. This “minaudiere” became so popular that it replaced the woman’s evening bag.
The Japanese-influenced Panier Fleuri brooch reflects the more figurative style adopted by the Maison during the mid-1920s. The Collerette, designed in 1937 for a well-known French socialite continues to dazzle with its rows of cushion-shaped rubies interspersed with baguette-cut diamonds.
In 1925, at the Exhibition of Arts Decoratifs et Industriales Modernes in Paris, Van Cleef & Arpels won the Grand Prix Award for a magnificent bracelet of roses in rubies and diamonds with emerald leaves. This award increased the company’s reputation for excellence of design and technical innovation.
Beginning in the 1920s, the company began selling more than jewelry. This included clocks, a hand mirror that combined black and red lacquer with agate and gold, and had cabochon ruby accents. In 1931, Van Cleef and Arpels offered a night light made with gold, green and black enamel. When the light was on it showed through sections of rock-crystals. They also created a cage for a live frog, made from agate, jade, coral, lapis-lazuli, onyx and gold. It became one of the most unusual items the company ever produced.
In 1935, Alfred Van Cleef and Julien Arpel developed what was known as the “invisible setting.” In this technique, each stone is placed directly against the next to create a monochromatic mosaic that hides any prongs or signs of a setting.
At the end of the 1930s and during the 1940s, Julien’s three sons, Claude, Jacques and Pierre Arpel began to work for the company. Jacques Arpel became director; Pierre took over new projects including development of Van Cleef & Arpels boutiques around the world. Claude Arpel managed the American part of the business until his retirement in 1986.
During the 1940s and 1950s, the company introduced several new designs that were enormously popular. These included the “snowflake” motif; the “marine” motif, and the ballerina clip. Jeweled representations of birds of all kinds were also hits. These ranged from finches, to parakeets and birds of paradise.
During World War II, the shortage of precious stones affected most jewelry design companies. Van Cleef & Arpel attempted to finesse this by using textured gold.
As the company’s influence and popularity regenerated in the post-World War II years, it opened more boutiques. In 1954, the first Van Cleef & Arpels boutique for informal and less expensive jewelry made its debut.
The inventory for these outlets was produced in limited numbers and made of precious and semi-precious stones. A few of the items became classics such as the “mischievous cut” in 1954, and the “baby lion,” in 1964.
In 1972, Van Cleef & Arpels opened its first “Boutique des Heures,” in Paris selling a collection of exclusive watches. In 1979 and also in 1987, they created their own perfume.
Besides obtaining extraordinary stones, the Arpels acquired historic jewelry including the sautoir and tiara from Queen Mary of Serbia; the “Liberty” necklace bought in 1925 and donated by a Polish countess for the cause of liberty in 1777.
In 1965, Claude and Jacques Arpel acquired the 114 carat “Neela Ranee” (Blue Princess) sapphire. They also purchased the famous “Princie” diamond; a pink stone that weighs 34.64 carats. That year, they also purchased the “Mazarin” diamond; an emerald-cut stone of 30.58 carats.
They also bought a tiara given to Empress Marie-Louise in 1811 by Napoleon Bonaparte. Van Cleef & Arpels sold the emeralds it contained individually. Its diamond studded mount was bought by Mrs. Merriweather Port in 1966 who donated it to the Smithsonian Institution the same year.
Famous celebrities such as Maria Callas, Elizabeth Taylor, Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich, Christina Onassis, Madeleine Carroll, Barbara Hutton, the Vanderbilts, Mellons, Kennedy’s the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the Aga Khan have all been clients of the company.
Van Cleef & Arpels has stores in the Middle East and Southeast Asia and its products are sold in stand-alone boutiques, boutiques within major department stores, and in independent stores. Many of the standalones are located in Geneva, Milan, Shanghai, as well as in Paris where the company now has multiple locations, including their flagship store at the original location at Place Vendôme.
Van Cleef & Arpels was the first French jeweler to open boutiques in Japan and China. Compagnie Financière Richemont S.A. acquired the firm in 1999.
In America, the company has stand-alone boutiques in New York, Beverly Hills, Chicago, and Las Vegas. It also maintains Florida stores in Naples and Palm Beach, plus a seasonal location in Aspen, Colorado. The Chicago boutique originally opened in 2001 and moved to a larger location in the Drake Hotel in November 2011.
Today, Van Cleef and Arpels remains a family business that passes its knowledge and experience from generation to generation. The love that first brought Estelle and Alfred together lives on through accomplishments the Maison.
Van Cleef & Arpels continues to be one of the leading players in the high-end jewelry market, preserving its tradition of turning out products of the highest quality and incorporating the finest materials and the best designs.
For example, Anthony DeMarco writing in FORBES LIFE in late February, 2015 was rapturous about one of the company’s latest creations.
“[What] Van Cleef & Arpels unveiled was a work of art. The Carpe Koï watch bracelet combines all of the strengths of the Parisian jewelry and watch house—design, craftsmanship, the use rare gems in unique combinations, and storytelling.
“It is an orange-colored Koi carp in lifelike detail that represents what the brand calls its Mains d’Or (Hands of Gold), the skills of artists to first draw the piece in intricate detail followed by the hand-crafted techniques of its jewelers to create the jewel. It appears to be a happy fish and why wouldn’t it be with a body of 8,000 carefully crafted precious gems that took 3,450 hours to create.
“The bracelet combines yellow gold, white gold, diamonds, yellow sapphires, spessartite garnets, black spinels and “Paraíba-like” tourmalines (I’m assuming these are tourmalines (likely from Africa) with the same bluish and greenish color characteristics as the rare Brazilian Paraíba).
The carp has more than the sparkle of thousands of gems. It also has movement. The main feature is the mouth, which opens to reveal a quartz-powered watch dial, made of yellow gold, princess-cut diamonds, spessartite garnets and yellow sapphires.
The unique watch bracelet is unfastened by pressing on the carp’s tail.
The Carpe Koï watch bracelet is the brand’s tribute to Japanese culture, as the Koi is “a symbol of love, as it enlivens Zen gardens with its bright colors, contributing serenity and life.” Known for swimming against the current, the brand says the Koi is also “a symbol of strength and courage.”
Another recent creation is a unique cuff/bracelet. This one-of-a-kind bejeweled gold cuff is a take on 1960’s Op Art. When opened and laid flat (dozens of ribs make it as flexible as rope despite its rounded heft), the bracelet appears to be made of small interlocking onyx circles dotted with diamonds. However, when fastened on the wrist, the circles part to reveal a dense under layer of cultured pearls affixed to the armature. A contrasting row of emeralds leads the way to the slyly hidden closure.
Creating this elaborate piece required nearly 500 hours and the skill of 10 craftspeople that comprise Van Cleef’s, “Mains d’Or,” or golden hands who include a designer, a model maker, a lapidary, a gem setter and experts in hard stones, pearls and diamonds.
From October 2013 through February 2014 and in a subsequent tour, The Bowers Museum of Santa Ana, California, hosted, “A Quest for Beauty: The Art of Van Cleef & Arpels” a heritage exhibition that gave visitors an expansive tour through the 100+ years of the company’s history. Shown were jewelry, watches, and precious accessories, as well as archive drawings and documents of the Place Vendôme location.Sell Van Cleef & Arpels All Artists