The value of a truly iconic piece of jewellery lies not in its monetary worth, carat count or eye-catching design (as exquisite as these all may be), but in the fact that it has a story to tell. Iconic jewels are more than decorative trinkets – they are markers of history, constants in an ever-changing world. The times may evolve and the characters may vary, but the jewels live on to tell their tales.
This is where the unwavering allure of the historic jewellery houses lies.
In the introduction to his book Van Cleef & Arpels: Treasures and Legends, French journalist and historian Vincent Meylan transports us to a dinner party on Paris's rue Foch, in the autumn of 1966. In attendance is the crème de la crème of post-war Parisian society.
“Presiding over the company, seated opposite the hostess, was the Duke of Windsor,” Meylan writes. “On the right of the host, one of the city’s most successful lawyers, sat the duchess, and on his left the Maharani of Baroda.”
The two women detest each other, we learn, having fallen out over a piece of jewellery. Aristotle Onassis is also in attendance, although Maria Callas has made her excuses, which is taken as a further sign that their romance is floundering. Socialites Lady Deterding, Madame Patiño and Florence Gould are also to be found feasting on the menu of “consommé aux perles de la Volga, turbot braisé, riz créole and agneau de lait à la broche”.
What is perhaps most remarkable about this scene is the fact that these upstanding ladies, who have all been coiffured by Alexandre de Paris and reflect the very finest tastes of the time, are decked out in jewellery by the same creator: Van Cleef & Arpels. “The maison at 22 Place Vendôme was one of the links connecting the members of this glittering society,” Meylan explains.
“Van Cleef & Arpels was not merely a purveyor of jewels to these men and women who possessed – and who still possess – colossal fortunes, but also their confidant. Only they knew for whom Onassis bought that ruby and diamond clip; the origins of the magnificent stone set in the Duchess of Windsor’s bracelet or the Maharani of Baroda’s necklace; or the identity of the princess, impoverished by war or revolution, who had come to sell her imperial or royal jewels in secrecy.”
The founding of Van Cleef & Arpels famously centres on the love story between Estelle Arpels, daughter of a dealer of precious stones, and Alfred Van Cleef, son of a lapidary and diamond broker, who married in 1895. The couple joined forces with Estelle’s brothers – Charles, then Julien and Louis – to open the first Van Cleef & Arpels boutique at Paris’s 22 Place Vendôme in 1906; the store remains at this address to this day.
A second generation of the family took over in the 1930s, under the artistic guidance of Estelle and Alfred’s daughter, Renée Puissant, who was creative director from 1926 to 1942. Julien Arpels’s sons Claude, Jacques and Pierre would also eventually join the family business.
From the beginning, the store attracted an eclectic mix of Russian and European aristocrats and royals, American business magnates and, in later years, stars of the silver screen. There were duchesses, maharanis and princesses, including Princess Grace of Monaco; film stars, from Marlene Dietrich to Elizabeth Taylor; and American heiresses and socialites, such as Daisy Fellowes and Barbara Hutton.
But it is the American divorcee Wallis Simpson, who is best known as the Duchess of Windsor and was famously blamed for causing Edward VIII (the Duke of Windsor) to abdicate his throne in 1936, who emerges as one of the maison’s most faithful fans. “Few love stories, royal or otherwise, have featured gems so prominently,” Meylan writes in his book. “For the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, precious stones charted a map of their sentimental journey, with every jewel marking a different stage.”
Van Cleef & Arpels was the couple’s jeweller of choice, and the Duchess amassed quite a collection over the years – from the large sapphire and diamond Mystery Set Jarretière bracelet that she wore on her wedding day, to the double-strand emerald and diamond necklace that she was sporting when Cecil Beaton took his famous portrait of her.
Perhaps more importantly, the Duchess is credited with sowing the seed for what would eventually become one of Van Cleef’s most masterful technical achievements: the Zip necklace. First produced in 1950, this bold creation opens and closes like a real zipper and can be worn in two different ways: as a necklace, with the zip open, or as a bracelet, with the zip closed.
Van Cleef creations were present at historic occasions across the globe, worn by the likes of Queen Nazli of Egypt, who sported a glistening Van Cleef collarette consisting of 673 diamonds set in platinum at the wedding of her daughter, Fawzia, in March 1939.
Princess Fawzia was the owner of another of Van Cleef & Arpels’s notable heritage pieces. Acquired from the maison via Mahmoud Fakhry Pasha, the Egyptian ambassador to Paris, in 1946, the Pivoine Mystérieuse Clip epitomises the Van Cleef aesthetic. There is the floral motif, which has been a Van Cleef hallmark since the brand’s inception, but also the use of the Mystery Set technique, which was invented in 1933 and still stands as a symbol of the brand’s technical prowess. A single brooch takes about 300 hours of work, with faceted stones inserted onto thin gold rails that are less than two-tenths of a millimetre thick. Once complete, the gems appear to be entirely freestanding. Because of the complexity of the process, Mystery Set pieces are extremely rare – Van Cleef & Arpels produces only a few each year.
Fawzia’s Pivoine Mystérieuse Clip consists of 706 rubies, weighing 71 carats, and 239 diamonds weighing 29.72 carats, in a platinum setting. The Pivoine was originally a set of two clips, one with a closing flower and the other opening, which could be worn together or separately. The “closing” clip is now part of the Van Cleef & Arpels private collection – an assortment of treasures that the house has been reclaiming over the last 30 years.
Even a cursory look at the collection shows how jewellery can act as a cultural barometer. For example, art deco styling reigned supreme in the 1920s and 1930s, manifesting itself in abstract shapes and strong symmetry. A chunky platinum bracelet from the Van Cleef collection, featuring square, round and marquise-cut diamonds, perfectly encapsulates the aesthetic of the time. Then there are the Egyptian-inspired pieces of the 1920s, a reflection of growing interest in Ancient Egypt following the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. A fascination with Far Eastern cultures, which peaked in 1931 with the arrival of the Exposition Coloniale Internationale in Paris, is revealed in pieces such as Van Cleef’s Chapeau Chinois set, inspired by the traditional hats worn in rice paddies. And in the 1970s, the house embraced the hippy leanings of the time with long necklaces featuring a daring clash of colours and stones.
“The Van Cleef & Arpels Collection is a lively treasure and the signature of the maison. It illustrates the historical, artistic, stylistic and technical evolution of the maison, and testifies to the timelessness and dynamism of the Van Cleef & Arpels style,” says Catherine Cariou, the brand’s heritage director. “For almost 30 years, with passion and an infinite patience, a collection, which keeps jewellery pieces, timepieces, objects and accessories, has been created.”
The allure of such historical pieces is as strong as ever, Cariou continues. The desire to own unique jewels, particularly vintage pieces that tell a story, is as strong today as it was when the Maharani of Baroda or the Duchess of Windsor first fell in love with Van Cleef’s creations.
“In today’s market, our clients want to be more and more exclusive. This is why they like unique high-jewellery pieces, special orders and vintage jewellery; they love the fact that they will be the only ones to have the piece,” says Cariou. “Jewellery is very personal, with emotion playing a large part in what one finds attractive and alluring, and there is a certain romance associated with vintage style. And in these times of economic and political uncertainty, to wear and own a piece from the past can be very reassuring as well. For all of these reasons, vintage jewellery is very much in demand in today’s market.”
Read this and more stories in Luxury magazine, out with The National on Thursday, December 8.