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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 3)

During this period, King Edward VIII, who was the Prince of Wales before he ascended the throne in 1936, purchased several dramatic designs, including two diamond bracelets: one set with rubies, the other with sapphires. These pieces are historic documents. Each carries, as do all Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry, the firm's name, the city in which the piece was made, and an identifying number. In addition to the usual hallmarks, each was inscribed with a personal message.

The ruby-and-diamond bracelet, purchased in 1936, features 40 substantial rubies set within a frame of diamonds. The inscription reads: "Hold Tight 27-iii-36" (March 27, 1936). At the time, Wallis Simpson was still married to Ernest Simpson, and the Simpsons, as well as King Edward, were spending the weekend at Fort Belvedere, the king's guest house outside London. In this soap-opera environment, the king gave Mrs. Simpson the bracelet. The inscription conveyed the message that Wallis should hang on until their "little problem" was straightened out.

The king apparently had good reason to believe that a resolution was near: at a meeting between himself and Ernest Simpson, thought to have taken place several weeks earlier, Simpson had agreed to end his marriage to Wallis if Edward "promised to remain faithful to her and look after her," according to an anthology of letters between the king and Mrs. Simpson that was later published.

By 1937, the little problem of wanting to marry a twice-divorced woman had been resolved, and in honor of their upcoming union, Edward presented Simpson with the sapphire-and-diamond bracelet.

Edward, who had never been crowned in a formal coronation, had abdicated in late 1936 in favor of his younger brother, George, and the couple were free to marry. To seal the deal, Edward, who would henceforth be known as the Duke of Windsor, gave Simpson what has become known as the marriage contract bracelet. It is a remarkable example of invisible setting. The sapphires in the central panel are cushion-shaped. The bracelet is inscribed "For our Contract 18-V-37" and was intimately connected with the actual marriage contract.

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.

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