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Your essential guide to Van Cleef & Arpels jewellery feature image

YOUR ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO VAN CLEEF & ARPELS JEWELLERY

THE MAGIC & MYSTERY OF
VAN CLEEF & ARPELS JEWELLERY

Dive into the dazzling world of Van Cleef & Arpels jewellery,
where legendary craftsmanship and audacious artistry collide.

From VCA’s fascinating history to the iconic collections we can't get enough of,
this is your go-to guide to the grand dame of the Place Vendôme.

THE HISTORY OF VAN CLEEF & ARPELS

HOW VAN CLEEF & ARPELS BEGAN... A MARRIAGE MADE IN JEWELLERY HEAVEN

Rather wonderfully, that VCA exists is all thanks to love. Picture the scene. It’s Paris, 1895. Esther Arpels, the daughter of a precious stone dealer, has just married Alfred Van Cleef, the son of a lapidary craftsman. United by their love for each other AND magnificent jewels, the enterprising couple quickly strike out on their own. Alfred, now also a lapidarist, starts a new jewellery company. In 1906, he then partners with Esther’s diamond-broking brother, Charles. An inspired union that will change the world of High Jewellery forever: Voila — Van Cleef & Arpels is born.

Store Van Cleef & Arpels Paris Guerre 1914-1918
STORE VAN CLEEF & ARPELS, 22 PLACE VENDÔME, 75001, PARIS GUERRE 1914-1918

VAN CLEEF & ARPELS: THE EARLY DAYS

That same summer, VCA threw open the doors of its 22 Place Vendôme boutique. (Still, to this day, the company’s HQ and flagship store.) The Maison’s inventive, immaculately crafted jewellery was soon the talk of High Society. Over the next six years, boutiques in Dinard, Nice, and Deauville followed, by which time Esther’s brothers—Julien, a gemstone specialist, and marketing genius Louis— had joined the firm, too. With Esther also involved, VCA was very much the ‘family jeweller’ of note.

THE 1920s: A DEFINING DECADE FOR VAN CLEEF & ARPELS

The Art Deco age saw VCA’s lines expand to include vanity cases, cigarette boxes, and the first of their now legendary ‘secret’ wristwatches. Astonishing bejewelled bracelets that transformed at a touch to reveal a hidden timepiece, the dual-purpose creations signposted the playful, mysterious spirit that would become VCA’s signature.

International fame came in 1925 when VCA won Grand Prix at Paris’ Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs. In time, VCA would become renowned for using nature as its muse (ladybugs and butterflies, we’re looking at you). The winning jewel, an emerald, diamond, and ruby set ‘Roses’ bracelet inspired by VCA’s love for flowers, was no exception. The floral motif would be one Maison Van Cleef would repeatedly revisit and reinterpret, as in the signed Mystery Set Pavot brooch and Rose De Noël Demi-Parure that we have available and the contemporary Frivole collection.

Van Cleef & Arpels ruby and diamond mystery set pavot brooch
VAN CLEEF & ARPELS FRENCH FASHION BOUTIQUE, 1920

Esther and Alfred’s daughter, Renée Puissant, became Artistic Director the following year. Puissant forged a close partnership with the designer René-Sim Lacaze. The duo’s bold, distinctive style saw Van Cleef & Arpels crowned as one of France’s leading High jewellers.

VCA’S MYSTERY SET JEWELS

Patented in 1933, Van Cleef & Arpels’ Mystery Set (Serti Mysterieux) technique highlights the Maison’s ground-breaking technical and artistic brilliance. The ‘invisible setting’ sees small gemstones set very close together, so they appear to float unsupported in a continuous, dazzling expanse. A captivating illusion demanding incredible skill and dexterity: each perfectly colour-matched gem must be meticulously cut before being seamlessly inserted into a concealed platinum lattice. Very few have ever conquered this exceptionally challenging, time-consuming technique (cutting a single stone can take eight hours). Those VCA master jewellers that have are known as the Mains d’Or. Even today, VCA’s invisibly set craftsmanship remains leagues ahead of its competitors.

Because of the precise cutting required and the basic tools available at the time, vintage Mystery Set jewellery typically features rubies, sapphires, and diamonds. Given their comparative softness, Emeralds were more challenging to work with successfully. Consequently, vintage Serti Mysterieux emerald jewellery is extremely rare.

Jewelry dealer in London Van Cleef & Arpels ruby and diamond mystery set ‘pavot’ brooch
VAN CLEEF & ARPELS RUBY AND DIAMOND MYSTERY SET ‘PAVOT’ BROOCH

VAN CLEEF & ARPELS’ MINAUDIÈRE

Like something James Bond’s Q might dream up, the Minaudière was devised by Charles Arpels in 1933. A masterpiece of design, the exquisite, compartmentalised case cleverly concealed all a sophisticated woman might need when out and about. Lipstick, powder compact, cigarette case, lighter and more — even a tiny, retractable watch. The ultimate jewelled vanity case, yet small and stylish enough to replace a clutch, the Minaudière quickly became a jewellery accessory in its own right. While designs have changed with the times, it remains a much-loved Maison staple.

Important jewels Van Cleef & Arpels ruby sertie mysterieux ludo hexagone bracelet, 1939
VAN CLEEF & ARPELS RUBY SERTIE MYSTERIEUX LUDO HEXAGONE BRACELET, 1939

COUTURE ALL WRAPPED UP: VCA’S LUDO BRACELET

Created in 1934 by Renée Puissant and named after Louis ‘Ludo’ Arpels, VCA’s signature Ludo bracelet was a sassy twist on the avant-garde accessory of the day: a woman’s belt. The original design consisted of a mosaic-like, articulated ribbon of small yellow gold briquettes — complete with buckle clasp — set with rubies, sapphires, and diamonds. Its multiple variations have seen hexagon motifs instead of briquettes, all manner of precious stones, and sometimes a Secret Watch concealed within the buckle. The Ludo collection now includes earrings, rings, and watches.

VCA DURING THE WWII YEARS

As the war in Europe loomed, VCA gained ground Stateside. The 1939 New York World Fair saw crowds wowed by the Maison’s latest creation: the Passe-Partout. Thanks to its remarkably fluid tubogas structure, the metamorphic jewel could take on multiple forms. Necklace, choker, bracelet, belt, or clip—the choice was entirely the wearer’s.

VCA quickly set up a New York office and workshop to focus on the US market. The Maison’s first fairy clip, ‘The Spirit of Beauty’, was created by the workshop in 1941 (and promptly acquired by the heiress, Barbara Hutton). With its delicate rose-cut diamond face, the magical, winged muse was created to symbolise hope in increasingly dark times. That same year saw VCA’s ballerina clips make their debut, too. Then and now, a collector’s dream, VCA’s meticulously crafted fairies and ballerinas capture the very essence of enchanting elegance. A masterclass in storytelling through artistry, the ballerinas look to pirouette gracefully on the wearer’s skin, while the fairies with their wings aloft evoke an otherworldly charm.

Handmade jewelry vintage Van Cleef & Arpels ruby and diamond ballerina brooch 1950
VAN CLEEF & ARPELS RUBY AND DIAMOND BALLERINA BROOCH 1950

In 1942 VCA opened its hugely successful Fifth Avenue boutique. Meanwhile, sadly, life back home for VCA’s founding families had taken a very different turn. Germany’s occupation of France (1940-44) had seen the Place Vendome store seized by the Nazis. Being of Jewish heritage, the families had fled France in fear for their lives. Only Renee — who relocated to VCA’s branch in the unoccupied ‘zone libre’ of Vichy — remained. When the Nazis took Vichy in 1942, Renee took her own life.

Thankfully, in 1944, the Arpels family regained control of the company. With Julien’s pioneering sons, Claude, Jacques, and Pierre, at the helm, it was the dawn of a new era. Under the trio’s visionary directorship, VCA’s sales and reputation soared.

THE ZIP NECKLACE — AN AUDACIOUS DESIGN

Introduced in 1950, VCA’s Zip necklace showcased another daring breakthrough. A design more than a decade in the making; the original concept had been Renée Puissant’s (inspired allegedly by The Duchess of Windsor’s suggestion that the functional fastening would make for an astonishing jewel). The adaptable piece could be worn open as a necklace, or zipped up as a bracelet. Inventive and fun, the precious ‘punky’ jewel highlighted VCA’s penchant for versatility. Over half a century later, the Maison would introduce the Zip Couture necklace that could also be worn ‘backwards’, securing its reputation as the ultimate jewel for a backless dress.

Ludicrously difficult to make, very few Zip necklaces exist. No wonder then that all eyes were on Margot Robbie when she rocked the 2015 Oscars in a magnificent yellow gold, diamond, and sapphire version. “It’s worth more than my life”, the Barbie star told reporters, “I better not lose it”. Reportedly worth $1.5 million, the necklace had taken more than 600 hours to create.

Margot Robbie Van Cleef & Arpels zip necklace
MARGOT ROBBIE & 'THAT' ICONIC VAN CLEEF & ARPELS ZIP NECKLACE AT THE 87TH OSCARS

VAN CLEEF & ARPELS FINE JEWELLERY: LA BOUTIQUE

Clearly, entrepreneurial chutzpah ran in the Arpels’ blood because 1954 saw VCA launch ‘La Boutique’. Aimed firmly at the younger woman, the more affordable line of modern daywear jewellery and accessories included ‘Charming Animal’ clips. Somewhat cartoonish, the clips reflected the decade’s obsession with animation (remember, the ’50s were a high point for Disney). An instant, highly collectable hit, vintage VCA animal clips remain hugely sought after. The Rose de Noel (Christmas Rose) collection — a joyful burst of colour going strong since 1970 — has also stood the test of time. But undoubtedly, La Boutique’s most successful creation is the Alhambra.

Van Cleef & Arpels jewellery in paper magazine from 2012
POSTER ADVERTISING VAN CLEEF & ARPELS JEWELLERY IN PAPER MAGAZINE FROM 2012

VCA’S ALHAMBRA: A CLASSIC REINVENTED FOR OUR TIMES

In 1968, with flower-power blooming, Van Cleef & Arpels tuned in and dropped the Alhambra collection. Symbolising luck, love, and timeless style; the now iconic quatrefoil motif was inspired by the four-leaf clover (the ‘lucky charm’ that Jacques Arpels loved to pick to give to his staff) and the Moorish architecture of Spain’s Alhambra Palace. High jewellery at its hippiest; here was a jewel for the Aquarius age that even the A-list could adore (Elizabeth Taylor and Princess Grace of Monaco were both early adoptees). More than 50 years later, it remains the Maison’s most instantly recognisable, successful design.

The Alhambra debuted with its now signature sautoir (an opera-length necklace featuring 20 motifs). An instant success, the Van Cleef & Arpels fine jewellery line has since expanded to include necklaces and pendants, bracelets, earrings, and rings — with variations in motif symbols, colours, and sizes, too. Alhambra jewels have featured mother-of-pearl, malachite, carnelian, lapis lazuli, onyx, diamonds, and more. Whatever the materials used, they’re always of exceptional quality. It’s why vintage turquoise Alhambra from the ‘60s is so rare (and today’s turquoise-coloured designs are blue agate.) There wasn’t enough good stone to meet demand.

Princess Catherine wearing Magic Alhambra
PRINCESS CATHERINE, THE PRINCESS OF WALES, WEARING MAGIC ALHAMBRA AT THE 2020 BAFTA AWARDS

Occasional limited editions and collection variations only add to Alhambra’s air of exclusivity. Queen Camilla’s sizeable Van Cleef & Arpels jewellery collection features several Alhambra pieces, including white gold and diamond Magic Alhambra earrings, and her much-loved Vintage Alhambra bracelet. Meanwhile, Catherine, The Princess of Wales, has worn a mother of pearl and yellow gold Magic Alhambra parure on various occasions, including the Coronation concert. But whether the butterfly, heart, leaf, and star motifs of the Lucky Alhambra collection or Byzantine Alhambra with its solid and openwork gold, the Alhambra’s underlying elegance shines through. This is a go-anywhere jewel that’s as happy gracing haute couture as a well-cut t-shirt.

VAN CLEEF & ARPELS BETWEEN THE FINGER RINGS

Pushing the boundaries of traditional jewellery design, VCA’s Between the Finger rings have become a symbol of the Maison’s ability to blend innovation with timeless elegance. Introduced in the 1970s, the rings’ USP is the open band that allows two motifs to seemingly float ‘tête-à-tête (head-to-head) on either side of the finger. The pioneering design lends itself to both high and fine jewellery, with motifs ranging from the abstract to flowers, ladybirds, butterflies, and, naturally, the Alhambra.

Demi Moore wearing Van Cleef & Arpels diamond-set Alhambra and between-the-finger rings
DEMI MOORE WEARING VAN CLEEF & ARPELS DIAMOND-SET ALHAMBRA AND BETWEEN-THE-FINGER RINGS

VCA: THE DYNASTY ENDS BUT THE DREAM CONTINUES

In due course, Jacques’ children, Philippe and Dominique, joined the ‘family firm’. They would be the last Arpels to control the company, which was finally acquired by the Richemont Group in 2003. The first French jewellery house to open in Japan (1973), the Maison is now an international brand with boutiques in more than 30 countries and every continent except Antarctica.

Not bad for what began as a young couple with a dream.

SHOP OUR COLLECTION OF VCA VINTAGE JEWELLERY

We have a stunning selection of Van Cleef Arpels vintage jewellery available, not all of which is represented on our website. Whether you are a seasoned collector or a new fan of the Maison, we’re here to help. To find out more about buying or selling Van Cleef & Arpels jewellery, just get in touch.

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