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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 2)

Although a couple of the major gems in the Sotheby's sale brought more money, the outstanding piece of jewelry at the auction was the invisibly set ruby-and-diamond clip made by Van Cleef & Arpels of Paris in 1936.

The brooch, with its scallop-edged frame emulating the shape of holly leaves, comprises one leaf studded with gracefully tapering rows of invisibly set rubies, and the other pavé set with round diamonds. The vein of each leaf consists of a single row of tapering baguette diamonds. The original design for the brooch, rendered in full color, accompanied the photo of the piece in the catalogue. It reveals the remarkable faithfulness with which the craftsmen created the brooch. The six-inch-long jewel may have been the first piece Van Cleef & Arpels made using the invisible-setting technique. When it was sold at the 1987 auction, the brooch brought nearly $1.1 million, more than nine times the original estimate.

For a century, Van Cleef & Arpels has been steeped in a tradition of gemology and jewelry making. Charles Van Cleef was a Dutch gem cutter in the mid-nineteenth century who, restricted by limited business possibilities in Amsterdam, saw in the extravagant balls and receptions of Paris a boundless opportunity to sell his wares. He moved there in 1867, arriving just before the fall of Napoleon III's empire. In spite of the bad timing, Van Cleef's business prospered. He soon married, and his son, Alfred, was born in 1873. It was Alfred who, with the Arpels family, ultimately set up the firm that we now know as Van Cleef & Arpels.

In 1898, Alfred amalgamated his personal and professional life by marrying his cousin, Estelle Arpels, and forming a small jewelry business with two of Estelle's brothers, Charles and Julien. They quickly outgrew their small offices and, on June 16, 1906, opened a new shop at 22 Place Vendôme, the most elegant street in Paris, where the firm remains to this day, albeit in larger premises. The three principals were an ideal combination, each bringing a different talent to the mix. In 1912, they were joined by the youngest Arpels brother, Louis.

Van Cleef & Arpels may not have had the society-based French business that Charles Van Cleef had hoped for, but it did well with the royalty of other nations. Before the First World War, Paris was filled with titled Europeans, as well as Indian princes and untitled but wealthy Americans, who kept the jewelers busy. The firm was quick to set up satellite offices wherever customers were to be found, catering to the social set in their own stomping grounds, such as Deauville, Nice, Biarritz and Vichy. In a move that anticipated current marketing techniques, these branches were open only during the high season.

In some of its themes, Van Cleef & Arpels followed the styles of the times. The great fashion-making event of the early 1920s was the discovery in Egypt of the tomb of King Tutankhamun, in 1922. An explosion of Egyptian-motif designs followed.

The design world was captivated by the themes of hieroglyphics and the distinctive flat Egyptian profiles that defined the period. Exceptional bracelets were made in this style--they are small murals, strips of history both in design and in execution; the buff-top, or smoothly polished, colored stones used to fill out the bird and flower designs had the carefree abandon of a child at play with finger paints.

Red, blue, green and black set against white diamonds lent these pieces a particular liveliness; the small stones used provided the needed restraint. Fine platinum mounts, hallmarks of the period, enabled the jeweler to create precise portraits and scenes. Each small stone was cut to fit the mount; but, unlike the invisibly set jewels that would come later, the lines of these settings helped to define the pictures being painted through the use of gemstones. Among the Art Deco jewels, these bracelets are among the most coveted, not only for their beauty and technical brilliance but because they are eminently wearable.

The foundation for the firm's next phase was set when Alfred's and Estelle's daughter, Renée, married Emile Puissant, a young lieutenant she had cared for as a nurse during the First World War. Emile enjoyed a brief but highly successful career as a salesman and administrator in the Arpels firm until he was killed, at the age of 38, while driving his Bugatti. His widow took her own place at the firm as artistic director, proving to be the guiding light of design from 1926 until her untimely death, in her middle 40s, in 1942.

Throughout those crucial years, a flow of invisibly set pieces came into being. Although Renée could not draw, she was ultimately responsible for the look of the jewelry. Working together, she and designer René-Sim Lacaze were instrumental in creating the look of the firm's pieces between the two world wars.

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