Van Cleef & Arpels — A collector’s guide
Jewellery specialist Raymond Sancroft-Baker describes the history of the French jewellery house favoured by film stars and royalty for more than a century. Illustrated with pieces previously sold at Christie’s, plus upcoming lots at the bottom of the story
The history of Van Cleef & Arpels
Alfred Van Cleef (1872-1938), the son of a diamond cutter, married Estelle Arpels, the daughter of a dealer in precious stones, in 1895. The following year Van Cleef and his father-in-law, Salomon Arpels, formed Van Cleef & Arpels.
After Salomon died in 1903, Alfred and two of his brothers-in-law, Charles (1880-1951) and Julien (1884-1964), officially founded Van Cleef & Arpels with the opening of their shop in 1906 at 22 Place Vendôme, where the firm remains today. The third Arpels brother, Louis (1886-1976), joined the firm in 1912, no doubt to cope with their expansion, as branches had been opened in Nice, Deauville, Vichy, Lyon and Cannes, all between 1910 and 1920.
Alfred’s daughter, Renée Puissant (1897-1942), took control of the company’s artistic direction in 1926, and for the next 12 years worked closely with the talented designer René-Sim Lacaze.
It was in 1930 that the firm invented the ‘minaudière’, reportedly inspired by the opera singer Florence Jay Gould (née Florence La Caze), after she had met Claude Arpels with her belongings contained in a Lucky Strike cigarette case. Claude set to work creating a case that could contain all of a woman’s ‘necessities’ such as a comb, lipstick, watch, cigarette holder, lighter, mirror and compact.
Always at the forefront of innovation, Van Cleef & Arpels patented its ‘Mystery Set’ — a technique that allows for the setting of stones so that no prongs are visible — in 1933. Originally used for adorning minaudières, the Mystery Set allowed for swathes of colour unbroken by the flash of metal.
In 1935, the three sons of Julien Arpels — Charles, Jacques and Pierre — joined the firm. At the end of the 1930s, for a time, Van Cleef & Arpels transferred most of its business to the United States — it had opened a branch in Palm Beach in 1940, and a shop in New York was acquired in 1942 at 744 Fifth Avenue, where the jeweller still trades today.
Following the Second World War the firm continued to expand, creating jewels for royalty, film stars and wealthy entrepreneurs. A growing emphasis on a more relaxed type of jewellery, however, led Van Cleef & Arpels to introduce an accessible range in 1954 that became well-known for its naturalistic forms and light-hearted themes. Diamonds were still used, but only as highlights. These attractive and wearable jewels were very popular in the 1950s, as confidence returned to a world that had been ravaged by war.
Van Cleef & Arpels has for almost the past 20 years been owned by the Richemont Group.
Important pieces and collections
The Mystery Set by Van Cleef & Arpels
After each stone has been cut and faceted, this new technique involves inserting them into gold rails less than a fifth of a millimetre thick. It is an extremely time-consuming process, and can necessitate more than 300 hours of work for one piece of average size.
Initially it was only possible to use this new setting on a flat surface — such as a box or minaudière — but as the ‘Mystery Set’ technique evolved it was used on more challenging curved surfaces. Emeralds are particularly difficult to cut and match in colour compared to sapphires or rubies, and are thus used more rarely.
In 1990, new cutting methods enabled Van Cleef & Arpels to incorporate diamonds into its designs, and in the same year hexagonal-cut stones were added to its inventory.
One piece that took an exceptionally long time to make was King Farouk’s Rose brooch, created in 1938, which had 814 rubies and 241 emeralds. There have been many imitations of this imaginative setting method, but only pieces made by Van Cleef & Arpels can be considered as truly mystery set.
The Van Cleef & Arpels Passe-Partout necklace
The design for the Passe-Partout necklace, one of the first examples of transformative pieces of jewellery created by Van Cleef & Arpels, was patented in France on 8 August 1938 and in the United States on 20 April 1939. It enables the owner to adapt her jewel to match her mood or to other jewels she would like to wear.
The Passe-Partout became popular in the 1940s and two early enthusiasts were actress Paulette Goddard, wife of Charlie Chaplin, and heiress Doris Duke. The jewel normally consisted of two large flower clips attached to a flexible gold snake chain by metal rails that could detach and transform into a necklace, choker, bracelet or two brooches. The flower consisted of blue and yellow sapphires with a ruby or coloured sapphire centre. A wonderful example of a complete parure of Passe-Partout jewellery was worn by Hélène Arpels when she attended the Prix de Diane at Chantilly in 1939.
The Russian-born artist Serge Ivanoff painted a large portrait for the New York Exposition in 1939, depicting the sitter wearing the latest fashion that included a hat with Passe-Partout jewellery.
Van Cleef & Arpels Ballerina brooch
The iconic Ballerina brooch was first conceived in New York in 1940, inspired by Louis Arpels and his nephew Claude, who were friends of George Balanchine, co-founder of the School of American Ballet.
The first Ballerina brooches were made by John Rubel, who (as Jean Rubel) had emigrated to New York in the late 1930s and was the principal manufacturing jeweller for Van Cleef & Arpels until 1943. After the ‘Spanish dancer’ was created in 1941, the firm produced a series of ballerina, dancer and fairy brooches, some with matching earrings. The Camargo brooch, made in 1942 and mounted in platinum with diamonds, rubies and emeralds, was inspired by Nicolas Lancret’s painting of Marie Camargo dancing, circa 1730.
In 1944, Barbara Woolworth Hutton (1912-1979), who at the time was married to Cary Grant, bought a ‘Spirit of Beauty’ Dragonfly Fairy brooch set with diamonds, emeralds and rubies, as well as purchasing a Ballerina brooch in the same year.
The distinctive jewels portray a series of poses, the costumes designed with rows of rose-cut diamonds, turquoises, rubies or emeralds. These dynamic creations were an instant success in New York, where Van Cleef & Arpels’ clients viewed them as something very distinct from pre-war designs.
The Van Cleef & Arpels Zip necklace
The history of the ‘Zip’ necklace is thought to have originated as a result of a conversation in the late 1930s between Renée Puissant (the daughter of Estelle Arpels and Alfred Van Cleef), the artistic director of Van Cleef & Arpels, and the Duchess of Windsor, who suggested that Renée create a jewel that was based on a simple zip.
It took the firm’s workmen many years to perfect a fully working zip in precious metals and gemstones. The necklace was finally unveiled in 1951 and quickly became a sought-after item, but given the time needed to make this challenging jewel only a limited number were produced. The ones that sold most quickly were those that could be opened to its full length or entirely closed, thus becoming a bracelet through the removal of a section from the back of the necklace, replaced with a bracelet clasp.
The Zip necklaces consist of a series of very small gold cups supported by hooks that mesh with one another when brought together by a sliding clasp. They have been made in gold and platinum studded with diamonds, sapphires, emeralds or rubies. A few are still produced today — a diamond and sapphire Zip necklace was worn by Australian actress Margot Robbie at the 2015 Academy Awards ceremony.
La Boutique collection by Van Cleef & Arpels
In 1954, Van Cleef & Arpels launched its ‘La Boutique’ collection of more affordable jewellery at 22 Place Vendôme.
The idea was to provide more light-hearted and whimsical jewels, usually of naturalistic form, using gold and semi-precious stones with diamonds highlights.
The jewels from the collection took the forms of birds, lions, cats, squirrels and other animals, and were instantly recognisable as works by Van Cleef & Arpels. They were collected by a broad range of important clients, including the likes of Jackie Onassis and Grace Kelly.
The modestly priced range of jewellery, manufactured in a broad range of materials including coral, aquamarine, mother-of-pearl and chalcedony, proved hugely successful.
Van Cleef & Arpels Alhambra jewellery
In 1968 a four-leaf clover design was introduced, and 50 years later it remains emblematic of the famous brand. It was inspired by the quatrefoil motifs that are found on the Moorish tiles of the Alhambra Palace in Granada. It was also meant to function as a lucky charm — a tradition that stems from the Touch Wood rings introduced in 1924.
This simple but distinctive design proved instantly popular with important jewellery collectors including the likes of Elizabeth Taylor. Princess Grace of Monaco was one of the people most identified with the Alhambra range, and often wore a necklace made of malachite that she bought in 1975.
It is as popular today as it was 50 years ago, proving the point that good design never goes out of fashion.
Worn by film stars, heiresses and royalty
Van Cleef & Arpels has been associated with the wealthy and the famous since its inception. From Gloria Swanson to Greta Garbo, films stars have never been far from the Maison’s front door. In 1938 the jeweller created a ruby and diamond Jarretière bracelet, one of the most spectacular pieces it had ever made, for Marlene Dietrich. Princess Faiza of Egypt, one of the five sisters of King Farouk, had the Art Deco emerald and diamond necklace shown below made for her in 1929. When it was sold at Christie’s in 2013, for $4 million, it was acquired by Van Cleef & Arpels for its own collection.
One of the House’s most famous clients was the Duchess of Windsor (1896-1986), who was born Bessie Wallis Warfield. In March 1936 the Duke of Windsor bought his future wife a bracelet of faceted rubies and diamonds; further purchases were made the following year, both before and after their marriage on 3 June 1937 at the Château de Candé in France.
When Christie’s sold Eva Perón’s Flag brooch (above) in 1998, which she had commissioned from Van Cleef & Arpels in the late 1940s, we did not realise that its heady mix of fame and quality would prove so potent. The brooch was estimated at $80,000-120,000, and sold for a staggering $992,500 after a bidding battle of more than 10 minutes.
When Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels were sold for $115 million in December 2011 at Christie’s in New York, she had 22 pieces by Van Cleef & Arpels in the evening session. They included the Lamartine bracelet and the Puertas ruby, both pictured above, given to her by Richard Burton. The latter, presented as a gift for Christmas 1968, sold for $4,226,500.