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.
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.