It was a marriage made in jewelry heaven when Alfred Van Cleef and Estelle Arpels wed in Paris in 1895. Both had an appreciation and understanding of jewelry because Estelle’s father was a gem dealer and Alfred’s father was a gem cutter. It was no surprise when the couple launched the Maison Van Cleef & Arpels (VCA) in 1906. The first store opened at 22 Place Vendome, across the street from the Ritz Hotel where it remains today. The duo partnered with Estelle’s brother Charles, while her two other brothers Julien and Louis joined the firm a little later. It was a family business until it became fully owned by Swiss luxury group Richemont in 2003.
Through the years, VCA has been known for its innovative creations. This can in part be attributed to the first design directors of the firm, Renée Puissant, the daughter of Alfred and Estelle who held the position from 1926 through 1942. She teamed up with designer René-Sim Lacaze and they created a style and visual direction for the company.
The Art Deco Years
The Art Deco era of the 1920s and 1930s was a very glamorous time for jewelry. Heavily influenced by the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 as well as Japanese, Chinese and Indian motifs, VCA created sumptuous jewels in platinum and diamonds informed by the era’s straight lines and geometric shapes. In 1925 VCA was awarded the grand prize at the Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes for its Roses bracelet comprised of diamonds, rubies and emeralds.
Perhaps one of the best known items made by VCA during that time was the minaudiere — a precious metal and bejeweled vanity case that held the essentials for an evening out. Inspired by an appointment with Florence Gould who was the wife of railroad tycoon Jay Gould, Charles Arpels was the innovator of the design. Ms. Gould was running late for her appointment with Mr. Arpels and in her haste to be on time, she tossed her essentials into a small metal box and left for the meeting. When Charles Arpels saw what she had done, it triggered the idea to create a more chic way of carrying one’s necessities around. That idea materialized as the minaudiere, which had compartments for lipstick, powder, cigarettes, lighter and money.
The Mystery Setting
One of the most famous and innovative creations from VCA is the Mystery Set. It is a setting style that shows only stones and no metal. To achieve this effect, the square shaped gems, either ruby or sapphire, with a groove on the bottom, are precision cut to slide into a “rail” that holds the gems in place so that no metal is visible. Emeralds are sometimes used for a Mystery Setting piece however, the green gems are not as hard as ruby or sapphire and can break more easily during the setting process so they are used more rarely.
The Mystery Set is a masterpiece of jewelry engineering and is a very challenging process requiring each gem to be specially cut. The process also demands tremendous skill, time and patience on the part of the setter to ensure that the gems don’t break while they are being placed in the rail. Van Cleef & Arpels patented the technique in 1933 and today the Mystery Setting is still being fabricated.
Ballerinas and Fairies
Van Cleef & Arpels has created its own bejeweled fantasy world filled with ballerinas and fairies. The first fairy clip debuted as a symbol of hope in 1941 as World War II was tearing the world apart. The Ballerina Brooches came out around the same time and are perhaps one of VCA’s most renowned jewels. They were inspired by Louis Arpels’ love of ballet. With their rose cut diamond faces, the ballerinas gracefully depict a dancer’s pose, while wearing a costume of precious jewels. The vintage ballerinas are quite rare and are highly prized by collectors, selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auctions in recent years.
These fabulous ballerina’s also inspired New York City Ballet choreographer, George Balanchine to create “Jewels” a trilogy of dances devoted to diamonds, rubies and emeralds in 1967. The jewelry Maison sponsored the ballet then and continues to do so today, along with French choreographer Benjamin Millepied’s LA Dance Project. It’s part of VCA’s way of supporting contemporary dance and nurturing new choreography.
Another one of VCA’s signature jewels and probably one of its best known is its Alhambra collection. Designed as a series of quatrefoil stations, Alhambra first came onto the scene in 1968. The original version of the Alhambra necklace was made in all gold, but then colorful hard stones and diamonds were added. The shape is evocative of a four leaf clover, which Jacques Arpels, the nephew of Estelle and Alfred, loved to pick in his backyard and then give to his staff for “luck”. The Alhambra necklace was an immediate success. It was jewelry that could easily be worn during the day, but transitioned seamlessly for evening. The style worked with the changing times when women were looking for jewelry that was less formal, more colorful and more wearable.
Throughout its history, Van Cleef & Arpels has been on the forefront of design appealing to celebrities and royalty including Grace Kelly, Barbara Hutton, Empress Farah Pahlavi of Iran, Wallis Simpson and many others. Today the firm continues its heritage of creating innovative jewelry designs to appeal to new generations.
Featured image (top of page): Alfred Van Cleef and Estelle Arpels, courtesy Van Cleef & Arpels.
First: Gold and diamond minaudiere by Van Cleef & Arpels; Second: Earrings in gold and diamonds with Mystery Set rubies by Van Cleef & Arpels; Third: Diamond, emerald and ruby Fairy brooch by Van Cleef & Arpels, courtesy Pinterest, Vogue Italia; Fourth: 18-karat white gold and black onyx Alhambra pendant by Van Cleef & Arpels.
Authored by Amber Michelle