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Bejeweled History

For a Century, Van Cleef & Arpels Has Been Creating Distinctive Jewelry for the Rich and Famous
Ettagale Blauer
From the Print Edition:
John Travolta, Jan/Feb 99

(continued from page 1)

The light-blue sapphires that form the undulating blue bands of the Argentine flag are held firmly in place by the invisible-setting technique. This technical tour de force has been a hallmark of Van Cleef & Arpels since 1936. (Both Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels received patents for the technique from the French patent office in 1935, but the technique had already been in use in small French workshops.)

The technique enables the jeweler to place gemstones side by side, row by row, without any visible means of support. There are no prongs, no wires, no metal beads holding the stones in place. The term "invisible setting" is perfect--it suggests a degree of mystery that is well deserved. The secret lies in the treatment of the stones themselves.

Underpinning the gemstones is a grid of metal, with tiny rods running in parallel rows. Channels are cut along the sides of each small gem, below the top facet. These precisely cut grooves allow the stones to slide into place on the rods. The surface of the jewel has the appearance of a garden of colorful stones, their facets capturing light and bouncing it back and forth.

Although invisible setting is nearly always done with rubies and sapphires, which are not enormously reflective stones, it is the multiplicity of all those tiny facets that gives the pieces their life. (Emeralds are rarely used, because they are more brittle; the number of stones that would be broken during the channeling process makes such pieces prohibitively expensive.) Rubies and sapphires lend themselves to the kind of designs for which the technique is best suited: the softly rounded curves of flower petals, feathers and leaves.

Successful invisible setting requires several tricks: the stones must be calibrated to the most precise tolerances in order to fit snugly together; they must be well matched in color and quality to give the most uniform appearance possible; and they must be channeled exactly so that when set, they create a smooth surface.

But fine jewelry--especially jewelry that emulates nature--is three-dimensional, not flat. The jeweler and the stonecutter, who work hand in glove to create this technique, must also allow for the curves of the design. The stones must be angled ever so slightly in relation to one another, so that they follow the arc of the petal or leaf. That means cutting one stone and placing it on the mounting, then cutting the next and placing it on the mounting, and so on.

Although the stones can be prepared in advance, when it comes to the setting, each one must be adjusted by trimming it a little here, a little there, turning little squares into tiny trapezoids. The tolerances are minute, the stones cut to within a hundredth of a millimeter. As with the most successful magic acts, the hard work should not show. And so it is with the very best invisibly set jewelry.

Great jewelry requires equally great clients. A firm such as Van Cleef & Arpels moves from the world of elegant commerce to the pages of history when its great works are worn by a regal clientele. Though Hollywood stars were "royals" in America during the period of jewelry design that began in the 1930s, the best-known royals were King Edward VIII of England and the American divorcée Wallis Simpson, who were destined to become the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

Those titles were a paltry substitute for what Simpson expected (she really thought she would be the queen of England!), but His and Her Grace made do, and spent a lifetime of luxurious exile in the public eye. After the war, these elegant refugees, deprived of the usual round of official duties, utterly devoted themselves to their appearance. The duchess was never seen without exactly the right jewel, or jewels.

"The Duke was known to have spent long hours in the pre-war years with Jeanne Toussaint of Cartier, and with Renée Puissant at Van Cleef & Arpels, both eminent designers in their field," Sotheby's senior director Nicholas Rayner wrote in his forward to the catalogue for the sale of the duchess' jewels, held at Sotheby's in Geneva in 1987. "The relationship between these two highly imaginative artists and their Royal client often produced jewels which were still considered avant-garde ten years after their completion."

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