Born out of a love story, Van Cleef & Arpels is today, 115 years after its founding, a jewelery brand recognized worldwide for the craftsmanship with which it gives life to magical, delicate and very romantic creations.
The Van Cleef & Arpels narrative merges with the love story between two young people who decided to unite two passions: the one they had for each other and the one they shared for the precious stones. She, Estelle Arpels, was the daughter of a gem dealer, while Alfred Van Cleef’s father was a gem cutter.
It was the combination of the love shared by jewelery, family and each other that led to the opening (by Alfred and his brothers-in-law), in 1906, of the first Van Cleef & Arpels boutique at number 22 of the prestigious Place Vendôme, in Paris. A privileged location, in front of the Hotel Ritz, a place that attracts many European businessmen and aristocrats, who fell in love with the creations of the young brand, thus helping to spread the Maison’s pieces to the world.
The passion for gems, the youthful enthusiasm and the pioneering spirit of the founders led to the rapid success of Van Cleef & Arpels, surprising through pieces with hidden functions, modeled after exotic birds, fairies and flowers, as well as through careful and unusual selection of materials in more traditional pieces. Recognized for producing exclusive jewels of great quality and beauty, Maison began its expansion, opening boutiques in several French resorts.
In 1926, Alfred became the company’s artistic director and, in the following decade, his daughter, Renée Puissant, joined the creative team, as well as the jewelry designer, René Sim-Lacaze, a duo who would later create several of the iconic Maison designs. At the same time, Alfred Van Cleef and Julian Aprils developed a technique – Mystery Set- to set precious stones without any visible claws. Using mainly sapphires and rubies, the technique consisted of cutting a piece on the side of the gems so that they fit perfectly together. This technique is still practiced today and can only be performed by a highly qualified master jeweler with perfectly matched color gems.
In a feat of limitless creativity and technical achievement, Van Cleef & Arpels has also established itself as a master of transformable jewelery. One of the Maison’s first transformable pieces was the Passe-Partout necklace, composed of a flexible gold chain, in the shape of a snake and two pins in the shape of a flower. This piece could be used as a necklace, choker, bracelet or brooch. Another example is the Zip necklace. It is a functional zipper, adorned with precious stones and that can be used as a necklace or bracelet when fully closed.
During the mid-1930s and 1940s, the next generation began to emerge in the company. Julien’s three children, Claude, Jacques and Pierre, learned the business from their father and uncle and each took on a different position in the world. Jacques took over the direction of Van Cleef & Arpels in Paris, while Pierre introduced the company to the Japanese market. Claude, with the help of his uncles, Julien and Louis, ventured into the United States. It was a time of great growth and expansion for the company.
Maison opened boutiques in Japan, China and New York. Shortly after opening this last space, in the 1940s, created the Spirit of Beauty pin, a piece that exhibited a fairy with wings and which was intended to be a symbol of hope. It was during this same period, stimulated by friendship with the co-founder of the School of American Ballet, that the company’s designer at the time, Maurice Divalent, created the iconic ballerina pins.
Alhambra, the Birth of an icon
After four decades of creating jewelry for balls and evening gala parties, filled with precious stones, Maison decided, in the 1950s, to create more pieces that could be used in everyday life, jewelry that would attract a young and affluent audience. This resulted in the creation of animal-shaped pins, made mainly of gold and sprinkled with precious and semi-precious stones.
In 1968 Van Cleef & Arpels’ most iconic design was born: Alhambra. Inspired by the four-leaf clover, considered a symbol of luck, love and health, this motif has been embellished with several gems over the years, including mother of pearl, turquoise, diamond, onyx and carnelian. Reminescent of the quadrifolium motifs found on the Moorish tiles of the Alhambra Palace in Granada, this collection is still in production and includes rings, earrings, necklaces, bracelets and watches.
Today part of the Richemont Group, and 115 years after the opening of the first boutique, Van Cleef & Arpels remains iconic and timeless, celebrated for its magical and masterfully crafted jewels, which range from delicate flowers to playful animals and fluttering ballerinas.