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Jewellery - Feature Article

Van Cleef & Arpels, Masters of Jewellery Design

How Van Cleef & Arpels became one of the most important luxury jewellery designers in the world.

Van Cleef & Arpels is one of the leading names in luxury jewellery design. Over the years it has catered to screen idols of the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly, and international royalty including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, King Farouk, Prince Ibrahaim of Egypt and the Prince of Nepal. Today it has a huge celebrity following and an ever-increasing number of storefronts across the world. But what is behind the name and how did they rise to such heights?

Pic from Van Cleef & Arpels’ Archives: The iconic zip necklace made for the Duchess of Windsor, circa 1938.
Pic from Van Cleef & Arpels’ Archives: The iconic zip necklace made for the Duchess of Windsor, circa 1938.

The Van Cleef & Arpels story began in the twilight years of the 19th century when the offspring of two precious stone experts met and fell in love. Estelle Arpels, daughter of a gemmologist, fell for the charms of Alfred Van Cleef, son of a stonecutter. They were married shortly after and in 1906 their families opened a joint venture, the Van Cleef & Arpels maison. The site for their debut store, Place Vendôme, was already one of the most exclusive squares in Paris, but it was not yet the symbol of exquisite jewellery that it is today. 

Van Cleef & Arpels looked to catch the attentions of the international clients pouring into the Ritz hotel, which stood opposite their building. To them this meant making bold, innovative designs with the world’s most coveted stones and materials. This approach saw some success and by the twenties, Van Cleef & Arpels had opened stores in many exclusive French seaside resorts, including Deauville, Nice and Monte Carlo.

In 1925 Van Cleef & Arpels hit a turning point as it won the grand prize at the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris. Its champion design was an exquisite Art Deco bracelet and brooch made from rubies and diamonds fashioned into red and white roses. 

Pic from Van Cleef & Arpels: Prize-winning Red Roses Bracelet and Brooch made in 1924. It had a total of 463 round brilliants, 293 rubies, and 108 emeralds mounted on platinum.
Pic from Van Cleef & Arpels: Prize-winning Red Roses Bracelet and Brooch made in 1924. It had a total of 463 round brilliants, 293 rubies, and 108 emeralds mounted on platinum.

The next important moment in the timeline of Van Cleef & Arpels  came in 1933, when they introduced and patented an innovative technique known as the Serti Mysterieux (“Mystery Set”). This highly complex process enables the stones to look like they are floating on their setting. It was a revolutionary development in jewellery design and it propelled Van Cleef & Arpels to new heights. The technique is still in use today and indeed it still represents the pinnacle of jewellery craftsmanship. One piece alone can take months to make and so Van Cleef & Arpels typically only produce a handful of Mystery Set items per year. 

Pic from Sotheby’s: A Mystery-Set sapphire and diamond brooch sold at Sotheby’s Important Jewels sale in 2015. It’s reminiscent of the early Mystery-Set pieces from 1937. It fetched 162,500 USD.
Pic from Sotheby’s: A Mystery-Set sapphire and diamond brooch sold at Sotheby’s Important Jewels sale in 2015. It’s reminiscent of the early Mystery-Set pieces from 1937. It fetched 162,500 USD.

By now Van Cleef & Arpels had attracted some very distinguished followers. One of them, the Duchess of Windsor, had some ideas of her own and one of the most famous individual pieces made by Van Cleef & Arpels can be credited to her. In circa 1938 the Duchess allegedly spoke with the Maison’s then-artistic director, Renée Puissan, and requested a piece based on the zip fastener, which was a relatively new addition to the fashion world. The result, over ten years later, was a breathtaking necklace made from round and baguette-cut diamonds. Van Cleef & Arpels has since made many reiterations of this design.

The next most important step in the development of Van Cleef & Arpels’ super brand came in 1968, in the shape of the Alhambra motif. It was shaped like a four-leaf clover and named after the spectacular 13th-century Islamic Palace in Granada, Spain. To those who haven't had the pleasure of seeing the building, it is called the Alhambra, meaning "the red one" and it is perched atop a hill looking out over the mountains of the Sierra Nevada range. Repeated through its architecture is a shape that inspired the four-leaf clover. Today it stands as a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Spain’s most spectacular buildings. 

This shape is said to bring prosperity and good luck, Van Cleef & Arpels' Alhambra collection became a hit amongst European aristocracy. After a few years the Princess Grace of Monaco had a collection of it. Nowadays, the Alhambra is a staple in Van Cleef & Arpels’ catalogue and its shape can be seen on delicate watches, onyx bracelets, diamond necklaces and white gold cufflinks, but its most traditional form is as an organic mother-of-pearl pendant. Princess Grace’s daughter-in-law Princess Charlene of Monaco has carried on tradition and now often wears an Alhambra necklace. She is joined by an extensive list of glamorous celebrities wearing the collection, including the likes of Julia Roberts and Mariah Carey.

Today, Van Cleef & Arpels continues to innovate and take on ambitious and creative projects. Indeed this, combined with its uncompromising commitment to luxury, appear to be the secret to its success. Van Cleef & Arpels has been one of the most successful jewellery brands in recent years and it now has a huge number of stores around the world and continues to expand. 

For more information on high-jewellery, follow our magazine or you can shop pre-owned and vintage Van Cleef & Arpels jewellery on Xupes.