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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 4)

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."

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