Icons of Design – Van Cleef & Arpels

By Catherine Kim
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T he legendary Parisian master jeweller, Van Cleef & Arpels is still located at 22 Place Vendome. In 1906, Alfred Van Cleef, son of a diamond broker and cutter, and his brothers-in-law, Charles, Julien and later Louis Arpels, opened a small boutique. In 1895, Alfred Van Cleef had married Estelle Arpels, daughter of a dealer in precious stones. The business remained in the family for decades – Julien’s sons, Claude, Jacques and Pierre gradually took over, through the late 1930s and 1940s, expanding the business around the world. While from 1926 to 1942 Alfred and Estelle’s daughter, Renée Puissant was artistic director, working with designer René Sim Lacaze.

Catherine, Princess of Wales, then Duchess of Cambridge, wearing van Cleef and Arpels Alhambra Necklace and earrings to the BAFTA's in London, February 2020.

The Van Cleef & Arpels signature style developed through the 20th century, shaped by diverse influences – nature, orientalism, couture, ballet and an imaginary world of fairytale and fantasy – as well as by technical ingenuity and the quest for superb gemstones of character and charm.

Their stellar clientele included the royal families of Egypt and Iran, Princess Grace of Monaco, movie stars from Marlene Dietrich to Elizabeth Taylor, and fashion leaders such as the Duchess of Windsor and Daisy Fellowes. Today, jewels by Van Cleef & Arpels, both from the past and present, are frequently seen at auction, on the red carpet and fabulous women around the world.

Van Cleef & Arpels Mystery Set Floral Brooches

The Van Cleef Mystery Set technique of virtuoso gem-cutting and setting was patented in 1933. Each stone was specially cut and calibrated, each with a side groove, and then inserted, one by one, onto a framework of gold rails to create a mosaic, with no metal visible from the front. Rubies were the first and most popular stones used in the Van Cleef Mystery Set. Sapphires and emeralds (notoriously difficult to cut) were then used for the Van Cleef Mystery Set.

Van Cleef Mystery Set Brooch

The dazzling effect was to flood the surface of the jewel with intense, velvety colour, which lent itself to floral and foliate designs. The famous double holly leaf brooch, given by the Duke of Windsor to Wallis Simpson for Christmas 1936 was sold by Sotheby’s in the milestone 1987 auction. Sotheby's also of the jewels of the Duchess of Windsor; and The poetic chrysanthemum brooch from 1937, now in the Van Cleef and Arpels collection.

The Van Cleef & Arpels 'Zip' Necklace

The idea for the Van Cleef 'Zip' necklace was inspired by the new zip fastener. The Duchess of Windsor suggested the idea in1938, to Renée Puissant, Artistic Director of Van Cleef and Arpels and her designer, René Sim Lacaze. World War intervened, and the first Van Cleef 'Zip' Necklace wasn't created intil 1951. The perfect marriage of design and technology, it opened and closed exactly like a zipper, through interlocking gold teeth, and could be worn either open as a necklace or fastened as a bracelet.

Actress Margot Robbie wore a Zip Necklace to the Academy Awards in 2015.  

In both cases the zipper was edged in intricate goldwork, accented with gemstones and pulled by a luscious gem-bead or gold chain tassel. One of the most thrillingly innovative Van Cleef and Arpels signatures, the Van Cleef Zip necklace demonstrated the influence of Parisian couture on the Maison, and also its speciality of transformable jewels.

Van Cleef Zip Necklace

The Van Cleef Zip necklace, in various permutations, continues to be made today. In 2021, Sotheby's sold a Van Cleef Zip Necklace with 31 carats of diamonds for just over $400,000.

Van Cleef & Arpels Cadenas Watch

The Van Cleef Cadenas watch was created in 1935. Once again, the Duchess of Windsor – or perhaps the Duke – had a hand in suggesting the idea for this 20th century design icon. Based on the padlock, with its machine-age flavour and strong, architectural silhouette, contrasting with the sensual snake-chain bracelet, the design anticipated the retro or cocktail style of the late ‘30s and 40s.

A contemporary example of the Cardenas watch sold in Hong Kong for more than $40,000.

A sublime fusion of form and function, the tiny dial was set into the slanted inner plane of the lock, at an angle, so as to be glimpsed effortlessly, elegantly and above all, discreetly, by the wearer. While the padlock motif doubled as the bracelet clasp. The Van Cleef Cadenas watch became the height of chic. The Duke of Windsor ordered the watch in 1938, and actress Paulette Goddard, an avid jewellery collector, bought a white gold and diamond version in 1940.

The Duchess of Windsor wearing her Cardenas watch while on a visit to the United States in 1941. Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images  

The Van Cleef & Arpels Alhambra

“To be lucky, you have to believe in luck,” said Jacques Arpels. Luck has been a recurring theme in Van Cleef and Arpels jewelry collections. In 1968, the Van Cleef launched the Van Cleef Alhambra, a sautoir ornamented with 20 little gold four-leaf clover motifs, edged in beaded or “perlé” gold. Van Cleef Alhambra also referenced architectural elements of the famous Moorish city fortress that resembled the clover motif. It also tapped into the prevailing mood of exoticism and hippie-luxe. The long, loose, casual Van Cleef Alhambra necklace captured the spirit of the ages, freedom along with social and cultural revolution.

Princess Grace of Monaco was frequently photographed wearing her Alhambra necklaces in the 1970s. Photo by Anwar Hussein/Getty Images.  

Since then the Van Cleef Alhambra has appeared in so many forms, sizes, permutations and materials. Variations of the Van Cleef Alhambra include clovers rendered in white or black mother-of-pearl, minerals, including malachite, lapis lazuli, onyx, tiger's eye, or textured pink gold. The Van Cleef Alhambra was famously worn in the 1970s by celebrities including Francoise Hardy, Romy Schneider and Princess Grace of Monaco. Today the Van Cleef Alhambra is enjoying a massive revival as an enduring contemporary classic, and can be worn on as part of an elegant evening ensemble, or paired with jeans, sneakers and a plain white t-shirt.

Van Cleef

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