Van Cleef & Arpels’ reputation in the jewelry world is founded on its unyielding commitment to craftsmanship, beauty, and innovation. Through the marriage of Estelle Arpels and Alfred Van Cleef, two prominent jeweler’s families came together to establish Maison Van Cleef & Arpels at Place Vendome in Paris in 1906. By seeking out the most magnificent stones and working with extremely gifted jewelers, the firm would quickly gain international acclaim among the wealthy – from aristocrats to maharajas and celebrities. Not long after their inception, they opened branches in many French cities and resort towns of Nice, Cannes, Deauville, Lyons, Vichy and Dinard. By the 1940’s they had a presence in other international hot spots, including New York City.
WWI Shapes Artistic Trends
Stylistic trends evolved rapidly in the 20th century, particularly after the many hardships of World War I subsided. The war drastically changed the role of women in society – with their husbands away at battle, they became single heads of the household, taking on the dual role of caretaker and provider, and in many instances assuming the work of their husbands.
When the war ended, the pace of change was accelerated by newfound joie de vivre defined by uninhibited creativity and freedom of expression. Women were at the forefront of this, celebrating their post-war emancipation and prosperity by cutting their hair and their hems, darkening their make-up, and lowering their waistlines – a look known as la garconne, or ‘the female boy.’
This big move in fashion in the 1920’s inspired jewelry houses to take exciting creative leaps, and Van Cleef & Arpels’ formal and material experimentation brought them an enormous amount of attention amongst the elites in Europe, placing them amongst the small group of esteemed jewelers – alongside firms like Cartier and Mauboussin. Mirroring the gallant times, their pieces began to take on a more geometric and linear shape, and combined the intensity and boldness of colored stones such as onyx, rubies, emeralds and sapphires with brilliant colorless diamonds, most often set in platinum.
In addition to wearable jewelry, they made cigarette boxes, lighters, and vanity cases, all magnificently crafted functional works of art. They pulled from multiple sources of inspiration, including the cubist movement and Egyptian motifs such as sphinxes, and scarabs. One example of this affinity to Ancient Egyptian art is the flexible band bracelets from a 1924 collection, each decorated with ruby, emerald and sapphire pharaonic motifs.
Crafting a Distinct Style
As the company’s distinct style evolved and they gained acclaim throughout Europe, they began to enter exhibitions and in 1925 won the grand prize for “The Roses” bracelet at the ExpositionInternationalle des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. The platinum bracelet, complete with diamond and ruby rose motifs, accented by yellow diamond centers and green emerald stems and leaves was a true masterpiece. It incorporated modern design techniques while paying homage to the order and more delicate styles that marked the turn of the century. This type of design embodies the true artistic genius of Van Cleef & Arpels: its ability to adapt to the ever changing tides of artistic trends while remaining faithful to those characteristics that defined their brand from the start – femininity, nature and elegance.
The stock market crash of 1929 revolutionized jewelry in an unpredictable way. Shapes became softer and more delicate, while the size and scope of the jewelry grew quite dramatically. During the 1930s, we begin to see large and bold brooches and earrings, and wide bracelets worn on each arm in multiples. The experimental multi-colored combinations that were so popular in the 1920’s segued into a more monochromatic color scheme of all diamonds or a single colored stone, with emphasis being placed on the cut of the stones as well as the three-dimensionality of the pieces.
One of the great examples of this is Van Cleef & Arpels “mystery setting” or “Serti Mysterieux” patented in 1933. This unique gemstone setting technique takes distinctly chosen gemstones, custom cut to fit together side by side in a very precise way, and places them on a carefully formed metal grid-like structure which follows the curves and contours of the gemstones. The visual effect is that the gemstones appear to have no structure holding them together. This was primarily done with calibre-cut rubies and sapphires. This type of setting technique was such a remarkable advancement in jewelry, and these pieces by Van Cleef & Arpels are so coveted by collectors, they bring enormous premiums at auction today.
Expansion to the U.S.
In the late 1930’s Van Cleef & Arpels expanded their business to the United States, opening stores in Palm Beach and New York City. World War II in Europe was hard on the jewelry industry, and the Arpels family relocated to New York City to escape the war and take advantage of the economic prosperity that was growing in the U.S. Their firm, along with many others, would once again modernize their repertoire. Jewelry of this time is characterized by its substantiality and contrasted materials. During the war platinum was mainly used for military purposes, so the metal of choice in jewelry was yellow gold, and often-times rose gold, which was yellow gold mixed with copper. Common design themes from previous eras such as bows, flowers, and ribbons were reworked to reflect a more masculine wartime fashion sense with the bigger and bolder design sensibilities. With women wearing heavier fabrics that were often dark in color, brooches became the jewel of choice, as they could be showcased on clothing. Many of the Van Cleef & Arpels brooches of this time combine their previous design successes, such as the Mystery Setting, with the softer curved lines of the period.
Since the gravitational center of the arts was beginning to shift from Europe to the U.S., Van Cleef & Arpels’ New York atelier became the production center for many of their new designs. Along with the more audacious pieces, we see production of other popular motifs as well, including ballerinas, fairies, and flowers – all of which shared an underlying theme of light-heartedness and optimism.
Because of the many different influences in jewelry at the time, it is worth pointing out another major inspiration for jewelry houses for the era spanning the 1930s and 1940’s – the Machine Age – where elements of mass production were reinterpreted in yellow and rose gold. Perhaps the best example of this was exhibited by Van Cleef & Arpels with its ‘honeycomb’ or “Ludo” bracelet, which was essentially a wide flexible band of repeated hexagonally-shaped links, often set at the center with colored precious gemstones, finished with an elaborate clasp.
Expertise in Collectable Designs
Of many things that Van Cleef & Arpels did really well during the 20th century, one that stands out in particular is its ability to make jewelry that is extremely ‘collectable’, producing designs that catered to many different types of collectors, which included extremely high-end pieces as well as more commercial pieces. In fact, Van Cleef & Arpels were the first among the high-end jewelry houses of the time to come out with a ‘boutique’ collection, which offered jewels that were both fashionable and reasonably priced. By the 1960’s their boutique line, which incorporated pearls and semi-precious stones in necklaces and earrings, as well as the more playful animal motifs in brooches, was highly successful. Other jewelry houses would follow suit not long after.
Alain Bernard, president and CEO of Van Cleef & Arpels North America said it best when he stated, “There is truly an elegance that surrounds the house. They have the uncanny ability to go back into their archives and reimagine pieces that are perfectly in keeping with the modern woman.”
Today, we see these twin values of innovation and classicism live on through designs, such as the trademarked ‘Alhambra’ necklace introduced in 1968. Through its continued dedication to impeccable craftsmanship paired with a touch of whimsy, Van Cleef & Arpels continues to win over the hearts of jewelry collectors both on the retail and secondary market levels. They have produced some of the most iconic collections of jewelry and stand today as one of the most tremendous and well-respected houses of the industry.