The origins of the celebrated French jewellery Maison Van Cleef & Arpels begin with the marriage of Alfred Van Cleef to Esther Arpels in 1895.
The Van Cleefs, originally from Amsterdam, were diamond cutters by trade, whilst Esther’s father Salomon had established himself as a jewellery dealer after moving his family from Ghent in Belgium to Paris in the 1860s.
Alfred followed in his father’s footsteps as a gemstone cutter before setting up his own jewellery dealership, eventually merging with his brother-in-law Charles, a diamond broker, to establish the firm of Van Cleef & Arpels in February 1906.
Just a few months later the partnership acquired its first premises at 22 Place Vendôme, Paris, opposite the Hotel Ritz and neighbouring the showrooms of renowned French glassmaker Lalique and fellow jewellery house Boucheron.
Van Cleef & Arpels was very much a family run business from the outset with Esther’s brother Julien, a gemstone specialist, joining the company in 1908 and younger brother Louis adding his marketing talents to the firm in 1912.
The newly established Maison quickly earned a reputation for producing exceptionally fine jewellery and with that success came rapid expansion. Only three years after opening in Paris, Van Cleef & Arpels opened their second boutique amidst the grand hotels and casinos at the fashionable resort of Dinard in Brittany.
This growth continued with additional premises in popular resort towns such as Nice, Deauville, Cannes and Le Touquet. However, the company’s momentum was checked by the outbreak of War in 1914, with all bar Alfred being called upon to serve. Although, ironically, a chance wartime meeting would have a hugely beneficial outcome on the company’s fortunes.
After enlisting as a nurse, Esther found herself caring for a young lieutenant named Émile Puissant, the son of a family of wealthy cattle dealers. He fell in love with her daughter Renée and the couple were married in 1918. Emile joined the family business and quickly made an impact with his creative advertising campaigns, the most controversial of which being an annual Christmas discount sale, a shocking and inconceivable innovation for the leading jewellery houses of the time.
The 1920s saw Van Cleef & Arpels embrace the burgeoning Art Deco movement with tremendous success, producing many of the finest jewellery pieces of the period. The most notable of which is the Roses Bracelet illustrated here; a magnificent band of alternating red and white roses, fashioned in rubies, diamonds and emeralds, which won the Grand Prize at the 1925 International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris.
Tragedy struck Van Cleef & Arpels in 1926 when Émile Puissant was killed in a road accident on his way to Monaco. His death prompted his young widow Renée to take a more active role in the family business as Artistic Director and her creative partnership with the companies leading designer René Sim Lacaze pushed the firm from strength to strength.
Amongst the innovations introduced during this period were the Minaudière, a compact evening case designed to hold indispensable accessories, allegedly inspired by Charles Arpels witnessing a friend store her lipstick, cigarettes and lighter in a Lucky Strike cigarette tin for an evening out.
More important still was the introduction of the ‘Serti Mystérieux’ or mystery setting which was registered as a patent by the company in 1933. The mystery setting allows a number of stones to be set close together by faceting each stone onto gold rails, leaving no visible sign of a clasp and the illusion of an invisible setting. The technique can require up to 300 hours work per piece and would cement Van Cleef & Arpels growing reputation as one of the world’s leading jewellery houses.
After an unsuccessful attempt to open a New York boutique in 1929 which coincided with the Wall Street stock market crash of that year, Van Cleef & Arpels returned to the United States with great success a decade later, exhibiting at the New York World’s Fair in 1939 and opening new offices in the Rockfeller Centre.
Back in France, the outbreak of hostilities in 1939 and subsequent invasion of France sent much of the family, who were of Jewish decent, into exile. Renée Puissant, who was now in sole charge following the death of her father in 1938 was left behind to run the business, relocating headquarters to the Vichy branch where tragically she took her own life when Germany invaded the free zone in 1942.
The company was returned to the family in 1944 with Julien Arpel’s sons Claude, Jacques and Pierre appointed as directors. Their next iconic creation was the zip necklace, a design which was first conceived by the Duchess of Windsor and Renée Puissant back in the late 1930s but took more than a decade to achieve.
The design is so versatile that the jewels can be taken apart, zipped up and worn as a bracelet, however the stunning gold and bejewelled zipper is so complicated to create that very few examples have been made, making it the must have fashion accessory of the 1950s.
Their continual innovation and breath-taking designs have seen Van Cleef & Arpels grow into one of the world’s best known and most important jewellery houses. In 1973 they became the first French jewellery house to open in Japan and now have branches as far afield as Shanghai and Sydney.
Whether worn by Royalty or on the Red Carpet, their jewels have become synonymous with countless fashion icons including the late Princess of Monaco Grace Kelly, Dame Elizabeth Taylor, Marlene Dietrich and Maria Callas, and more recently Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Margot Robbie, Mariah Carey and Cameron Diaz.