Icons of Design – Van Cleef & Arpels

By Vivienne Becker

R emarkably, this legendary Parisian master jeweller is still located at 22 Place Vendome, where 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.

Explore Van Cleef & Arpels Lots from Fine Jewels in New York

Van Cleef & Arpels’s 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.

Mystery Set Floral Brooches

A Mystery-Set Ruby and Diamond Brooch from 1937 sold for nearly $350,000 in 2016.

This 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 this way followed by sapphires and emeralds (notoriously difficult to cut). The dazzling effect was to flood the surface of the jewel with intense, velvety colour, which lent itself to floral and foliate designs, notably the famous double holly leaf brooch, given by the Duke of Windsor to Wallis Simpson for Christmas 1936, and sold by Sotheby’s in the milestone 1987 auction of the jewels of the Duchess of Windsor; and the poetic chrysanthemum brooch, 1937, now in the Van Cleef & Arpels collection.

Zip Necklace

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

The idea for a necklace inspired by the new zip fastener was suggested by the Duchess of Windsor, around 1938, to Renée Puissant, Artistic Director of Van Cleef & Arpels and her designer, René Sim Lacaze. World War intervened, and the first Zip necklace was created in 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.

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 & Arpels signatures, the Zip necklace demonstrated the influence of Parisian couture on the Maison, and also its speciality of transformable jewels. The Zip necklace, in various permutations, continues to be made today.


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

Once again, the Duchess of Windsor – or perhaps the Duke – had a hand in suggesting the idea for this 20th century design icon, first made in 1935. 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.

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  

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 Cadenas became the height of chic; 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.


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

“To be lucky, you have to believe in luck,” said Jacques Arpels, and luck has been a recurring theme in Van Cleef &Arpels’ collections. In 1968, the Maison launched a sautoir ornamented with 20 little gold four-leaf clover motifs, edged in beaded or “perlé” gold. Called Alhambra in reference to 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. While the long, loose, casual necklace captured the spirit of the ages, freedom and social and cultural revolution.

Since then the Alhambra, endlessly versatile, has appeared in so many forms, sizes, permutations and materials, the sweet little clover rendered in white or black mother-of-pearl, minerals, including malachite, lapis lazuli, onyx, tiger-s eye, or textured pink gold. The Alhambra sautoir was famously worn in the 1970s by celebrities including Francoise Hardy, Romy Schneider and Princess Grace of Monaco. Today the Alhambra is enjoying a massive revival as an enduring contemporary classic.

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