A collecting guide to the jewellery of Van Cleef & Arpels
A look behind the doors of the French jewellery house and its iconic creations loved by film stars, heiresses and royalty — illustrated with lots offered at Christie’s
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 in 1906 of their shop 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 the company’s 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 made it possible to have 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 in 1942 a shop was acquired at 744 Fifth Avenue in New York, 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, which 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 is now owned by the Richemont Group.
The Mystery Set by Van Cleef & Arpels
After each stone has been cut and faceted, the Mystery Set 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 technique evolved, it came to be deployed on more challenging curved pieces. 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 owners to adapt their jewel according to their mood or to match other pieces they would like to wear.
The Passe-Partout became popular in the 1940s, two early enthusiasts being the actress Paulette Goddard, wife of Charlie Chaplin, and the 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, including Passe-Partout jewellery.
The 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 they were viewed as something very distinct from the jeweller’s pre-war designs.
The Van Cleef & Arpels Zip necklace
The ‘Zip’ necklace is thought to have originated from a conversation in the late 1930s between the artistic director of Van Cleef & Arpels, Renée Puissant (daughter of Estelle Arpels and Alfred Van Cleef), and the Duchess of Windsor, who suggested that Puissant create a jewel based on a simple zip.
It took the firm’s artisans many years to perfect a fully working zip in precious metals and gemstones. When the necklace was finally unveiled in 1951, it 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 their full length or entirely closed; they could then be turned into a bracelet by removing a section from the back of the necklace and replacing it with a bracelet clasp.
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, and studded with diamonds, sapphires, emeralds or rubies. A few are still produced today — a diamond and sapphire Zip necklace was worn by the Australian actress Margot Robbie at the 2015 Academy Awards.
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 diamond highlights.
The jewels from the collection took the form of birds, lions, cats, squirrels and other animals, and were instantly recognisable as works by Van Cleef & Arpels. They were collected by many important clients, including 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 more than 50 years later it remains emblematic of the brand. It was inspired by the quatrefoil motifs that are found on the Moorish tiles of the Alhambra Palace in Granada. It was intended to be 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, Elizabeth Taylor among them. Princess Grace of Monaco was one of the people most closely identified with the Alhambra range, and she 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 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 maison’s most famous clients was the Duchess of Windsor, who was born Bessie Wallis Warfield in 1896. 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’s Loire Valley.
When Christie’s sold Eva Perón’s Flag brooch 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.
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When Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels were sold for $115 million in December 2011 at Christie’s in New York, there were 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.