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Bejeweled History

For a Century, Van Cleef & Arpels Has Been Creating Distinctive Jewelry for the Rich and Famous

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The previous year, as a gift for Simpson's 40th birthday, the king had purchased another magnificent piece of jewelry, a softly draped ruby-and-diamond necklace fashioned as intertwined ribbons. While the baguette diamonds were rigidly set in parallel channels, the rubies seem to be held by mere dots of metal, tiny prongs that make the stones look as if they are barely connected to each other or to the necklace itself.

The setting was the culmination of the stone-gathering process that is at the heart of every important piece of jewelry made by Van Cleef & Arpels. This one features 123 beautifully matched Burma rubies. Bringing together such a collection of rubies was remarkable in and of itself; beautiful, richly hued and well-matched rubies are the rarest of the colored stones. The piece was sold at the 1987 auction for $2,603,333.

In 1939, Louis, Julien and Claude Arpels (Julien's son) participated in the French government's exhibit at the World's Fair in New York. The fair opened on April 30; four months later, Hitler invaded Poland. It was clear that the Arpelses were going to be in America for some time.

But this was not exactly terra incognita. America was the home of a species they knew well: millionaires with a taste for jewelry. After the World's Fair, the family established an office at Rockefeller Center, in New York City. In 1940, they opened a store on Worth Avenue, the tony shopping street in Palm Beach, Florida. By 1942, they had moved the New York City shop to 744 Fifth Avenue, on the corner of 57th Street, where, with additions and renovations, they remain to this day.

After establishing themselves in the United States, the Arpelses embarked on the next phase of jewelry design, making do with materials that were available in place of those that were not. Like precious metals, gems were difficult to come by during the war. The pipeline that supplied the classic gemstones used in fine jewelry--rubies, sapphires and emeralds --had virtually closed down. Instead, jewelers turned to new sources for new stones. The result was an innovative look that became known as Forties jewelry.

Big, bold and brassy, these pieces are as recognizable as they are different from the Art Deco style that preceded them. Where previously jewelry was defined by its use of many small stones, exquisitely set in precise platinum mounts, suddenly it was all bright surfaces set with enormous aquamarines and citrines.

Classic designs gave way to the whimsical, such as a series of gem-set ballerina brooches made by John Rubel. (Like the Arpelses, Rubel, a jewelry maker, had fled the war in France. During Van Cleef & Arpels's first years in New York, much of the work the firm sold came from his workshop.) These brooches, which were destined to become highly sought after at auction some 40 years later, featured ballerinas wearing tutus fashioned from diamonds and colored stones, with diamond-solitaire faces.

While Van Cleef & Arpels prospered in America during the war, their European business virtually ceased to exist. Jewelry making in France came to a standstill, not only because of the anxiety and danger created by the war but also because there were prohibitions on the use of precious materials. From 1940 onward, customers who wanted new pieces of gold jewelry had to provide the jeweler with the full amount of gold needed; in the case of platinum, the amount was 135 percent of what was actually used, leaving the remainder for the war effort.

When the Arpelses left France, they were forced to leave behind the entire inventory of jewelry. They left this treasure with Alfred Langlois, who had been an exclusive supplier to Van Cleef & Arpels since 1933. His relationship with the firm was one of great trust. Langlois had worked for the firm for several years before entering into the exclusive contract. He ran a workshop of 15 craftsmen that had made some jewelry for Van Cleef & Arpels. The firm felt that the jewelry would be safer with Langlois than if family members tried to stay in Paris and run the business themselves.

After the war, some Arpels family members returned to France and found that Langlois had served them well, according to Henri Barguirdjian, the current president and chief executive officer of Van Cleef & Arpels in North America. "Langlois had conducted the business and gave them a full report. He detailed every penny he made for them," Barguirdjian says.

As life returned to normal after the war, the remaining Arpelses returned to France, but they continued to commute to New York regularly. Although the firm's premises remained the same, the world had changed irrevocably. Van Cleef & Arpels, in recognition of those changes, opened a boutique adjacent to the Paris shop in 1954, offering a collection of less expensive and less formal jewelry. The boutique line featured limited editions of jewelry instead of one-of-a-kind, gem-heavy pieces.

The next generation of Arpelses arrived in the mid-1970s when Philippe Arpels and his sister Dominque Hourtoulle--the children of Claude Arpels's younger brother, Jacques--and their cousin Caroline Daumen--the daughter of Claude's and Jacques's brother, Pierre--joined the firm. A member of the Arpels family was at the helm until 1993, when the firm decided to look outside the family for professional leadership.

The man the company chose was eminently qualified to honor Van Cleef & Arpels's history while bringing it into the twenty-first century. Henri Barguirdjian is a member of the Barguirdjian jewelry family in France, whose pedigree can be traced back to the late nineteenth century. After a five-year stint at Harry Winston in New York, where he rose to president of the retail division, Barguirdjian lived in Paris for two years, where he headed Chaumet, a French jewelry firm that dates back to 1780. Van Cleef & Arpels then came knocking on his door.

Unlike many CEOs of jewelry firms, Barguirdjian has a hands-on approach to the design and creation of the jewelry sold at Van Cleef & Arpels. He oversees every aspect of the business from an office tucked into a corner of the Van Cleef & Arpels's North American headquarters in New York, with the company's workshops within easy reach. Ninety percent of the jewelry that the firm sells is made there; the other 10 percent comes from the Paris workshop. The New York shop does everything except invisibly set jewelry. With 25 craftsmen in New York, the company is able to make almost anything a client desires, and often does so under very tight deadlines.

For Barguirdjian, the customer is always right. "If it takes six weeks to make something and the customer wants it in three weeks, we make it happen. It may happen at the very last second; it is not unusual to have them finish the polishing as the box is waiting and the piece is to be delivered."

He relishes the opportunity to serve his well-heeled clients. "We have a lot of regular customers. We are their jewelers; just the way they have a lawyer, a doctor, they have a jeweler. We end up knowing a great deal about people. We have to be close to people: mutual trust; sometimes even friendship. At this level of business, you have these relationships. This kind of purchase is always linked to a special event in people's lives. Clients ask for things. We do special orders. We do anything they want. That's the fun part of the business, the exciting part of the business--to see a sketch on a piece of paper and see it come to life."

Recently, a customer asked him to create a special piece of jewelry for his wife, who was expecting twins. "The kids were born on May 8. Just at that time, we came upon a 58.58-carat emerald. I said, he cannot turn it down. We designed a very important piece of jewelry, and we went to see him. The weight is what clinched it, and he bought it."

Ettagale Blauer is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado and author of books on jewelry and wristwatches.

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