The pinnacle of jewelry design, the "Mystery Set" or "Serti Mystérieux," represents the culmination of Van Cleef & Arpels' spirit of innovation and revolutionary jewelry design. This exceptional technique, perfected by only a few master jewelers, referred to as grandes mains or "great hands" by their contemporaries at the Van Cleef & Arpels workshops, not only transcended technical perfection but also reflected the jeweler's art. Though often imitated, the "Mystery Setting" has remained unrivalled and unmatched thanks to the incredible skill and dedication of the High Jewellery atelier that perfected this method of setting. The term "Serti Mystérieux" brought the firm much prestige and is thus a description exclusively reserved for Van Cleef & Arpels' creations.
First conceived at 22 Place Vendôme in the 1930s by Mr. Alfred Van Cleef, an innovative genius and lover of beauty, and Mr. Julien Arpels, a connoisseur of the finest precious stones, the "Mystery Setting" was a sophisticated and complex idea that added a new dimension to the world of jewelry. The "Mystery Setting" is simply defined as the setting of precious gemstones in a close pattern without a trace of metal or prongs. The technique was first applied to objects with flat surfaces, such as the minaudière, or vanity case. Over time, the technique extended to more complex curved or bombé forms, as illustrated in lot 159, a superb pair of "Mystery Set" ruby and diamond "Fleurettes" ear pendants.
Rather than the constraints of prongs or metal claws, the "Mystery Setting" is composed of a lattice of delicate gold or platinum "threads" that forms the net of the piece, only viewable from its backside. The jeweler then carefully selects only the best quality gemstones, and cuts, calibrates and polishes each stone to fit precisely within the overall design of the piece. The stone is given four extra facets to create subtle effects of light and shadow and then incised with a special groove cut just beneath the girdle of each stone, allowing the stone to slide onto the metal threads of the lattice. Each gem takes about 90 minutes in preparation, and the lapidary can spend hundreds, even thousands of hours creating just one single jewel. The final result is a dazzling mosaic of color and light.
The color combination for the "Mystery Setting" is either monochromatic or combines two colors. Rubies have become the signature color for the "Mystery Set" not only for their exceptional hardness and clarity but also for their rich and voluptuous color as captured in lot 160, the very chic "Mystery Set" ruby and diamond "Pavot" brooch. The enigmatic charm of sapphires off-sets the flamboyant ruby as seen in lot 162, a captivating "Mystery Set" sapphire and diamond bracelet. Emeralds were also used, initially only for detailing, as the gemstone is very soft, but today they are used throughout the entire piece. In 1990, diamonds were also patented for the "Mystery Set," further exemplifying the firm's continued ambition and achievement to advance the technique.
Through the hands of their master craftsmen, blossoms and leaves become extraordinary precious objects, glowing with myriad tiny gems of which they are formed. With their stylized lines, they come to life as though by magic, bending in an imaginary breeze, about to bloom or in full flower. With the setting reduced to an absolute minimum, nothing detracts from a gemstone's radiance and stones appear at their absolute best.
Taking an average of 1200 hours to complete just one piece of mystery-set jewelry, this painstaking process is a testament to the care, dedication and ambition of the firm's artistic and technical vision that makes these jewels a true inspiration for all jewelry design. The completed piece is always a voluptuous three-dimensional jewel; a work of art in both aesthetic design and ingenious craftsmanship; the manifestation of the devotion and dedication of those creating the jewels of Van Cleef & Arpels. The "Mystery Setting" provides a true symbol of the Maison's dedication to perfection and innovation.