The firm of Van Cleef and Arpels had its beginnings in 1898, when Alfred Van Cleef (1873-1938) married his cousin, Estelle Arpels.
They settled at Place Vendôme in 1906 in front of the Ritz.
Even during the war, VC&A continued to be a successful business, as well as one of the top jewellery houses by continuing to produce creative and appealing jewellery. While they continued to design pieces with the extraordinary gemstones that they were known for, they also showed that they were able to break with convention by creating a line of jewellery made from wood. The ability to be classic, yet creatively flexible defines the style of VC&A, and contributed in large part to the firm’s continued success.
During the 20s, Van Cleef and Arpels produced jewellery inspired by Egypt and other ones influenced by China and Japan. Using jade, coral, pearls, and enamel, VC&A created pieces with naturalistic decorative elements such as dragons, fishermen, and pagodas, or Chinese ideograms.
The jewellery that VC&A produced during this time was also highly influenced by the modern clothing fashions of the twenties. One of the most characteristic pieces of jewelry was the sautoir. The sautoir first made its appearance during the late ‘teens – it is a very long necklace, usually of small pearls or stone beads terminating in a tassel, which was often jeweled, enameled or otherwise embellished, and often ended in another tassel of silk. The sautoir complimented the tunic dresses, which would have been belted at the hip – a very popular style during the twenties. VC&A created a multitude of variations of the sautoir, utilising the expanded color palette of gemstones that were newly popular.
The fashion of bare arms in the twenties also brought about another one of VC&A’s most characteristic pieces of jewellery – the wide bracelet. This trend lasted through the mid thirties. These wide bracelets were flat and flexible, and often done in geometric composition, an element that reflected the influence of Art Deco. They were typically made in platinum, and set with diamonds, often in combination with colored gemstones.
The new fashion for short hair made long pendent earrings the favored style. These earrings would be accented with motifs in the form of drops, cascades, or even bunches of fruit. Again, VC&A utilised their expanded gemstone and color palette to create original designs and interesting color contrasts to bring even more drama to these already dramatic jewelry accessories.
With the coming of WW2, it seemed prudent for the firm to leave France for New York City. The family opened a boutique in 1939, establishing VC&A as one of the first luxury jewelers to move to America.
The 1930’s brought about a shift in jewellery styles – white metals and strict geometry were going out of fashion, and VC&A abandoned geometric styles for more curves, with figurative and romantic motifs in highly polished yellow gold. Multi-purpose jewellery had become very popular during this time – thrifty-minded women wanted their jewellery to serve several functions. Necklaces could come apart to be bracelets, or have elements that could be removed and worn as clips or earrings. Brooches could separate to become clips or earrings. Van Cleef & Arpels developed many ingenious techniques to accomplish this, including “secret hinges” and “invisible articulations.” In fact, Van Cleef & Arpels produced some of the most technically demanding jewellery of any of the famed jewellry houses.
One of the most remarkable inventions that Van Cleef and Arpels developed was the serti invisible, or invisible setting, in 1933. This technique required months of work by master craftsmen, as each stone had to be precisely cut so as to fit perfectly next to its neighbouring stone into a gold framework which held the stones in place so that the setting was invisible. This technique allowed the jeweler to create an un-broken surface of color, and was truly revolutionary. The serti invisible was applied to many of VC&A’s most important and fabulous pieces, including many that were made for the Duchess of Windsor ; The Passe-Partout was another important stylistic development. It translated as “go anywhere”.
It transformed flat or rounded gold wire into a flexible coil, which could be used in many ways, and other jewelry houses used it as well.
Van Cleef & Arpels developed another important technique in the 1930’s that was widely adopted by other jewellery houses – the Ludo-hexagone. This involved small, hexagon-shaped gold elements attached to each-other so as to form a flexible band. Each element was usually set with a small diamond or colored stone in a sertie etoilé, or engraved, star-shaped setting, which was also widely adopted by other jewelers.
Another remarkable technical innovation was the Zip Necklace, designed by Renée Puissant for the Duchess of Windsor in 1951. This was designed as an actual zipper, bordered with diamonds and rubies that could actually be “zipped” closed to form a bracelet.
The jewellery that VC&A designed in the 1940’s and 1950’s emphasised romanticism. The Ballerina brooches, with the dancer’s face formed by a single old-mine diamond were a huge success. For some of them, the entire gown was composed of diamonds. Others incorporated colored stones, such as emeralds, or a combination of turquoise and ruby.
Floral designs became very popular in the 1950’s, a trend that would last throughout the 1960’s, along with animal designs.
The hugely successful Alhambra Collection was introduced in 1968, and has recently made an enormous come-back.
The designs created throughout the 1970’s were highly influenced by the Arpel’s trips to India, and were composed of multicolored stones and daring juxtapositions. These pieces were very stylised and were inspired by jewelry worn by the Maharajahs.
The 1970’s saw a resurgence of the sautoir necklace. Bolder and heavier, than the ones from the 20s, they were often composed of gold links that resembled nuggets, and some very elaborate pieces with quantities of precious and semi-precious stones, with large brooches and earrings to match.