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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 5)

The onlookers could tell that something was afoot. How else to explain a regiment of Spanish-language television cameras arrayed along one wall of the auction gallery? All eyes were riveted to a striking blonde who arrived with an entourage just before the lot went on the block. She was all business--and she wanted that brooch.

But it soon became apparent that she had competition. Matching her, bid for bid, was an invisible telephone bidder. The scene resembled a tennis match: first the audience looked toward the blonde as she offered a bid, then its attention shifted to the telephone to wait for the counteroffer.

The presale estimate went by in a flash. After $500,000, it began to get interesting. Who would give in?

The bidding went past $600,000, then $700,000, then $800,000. Who was this anonymous bidder giving the blonde such a run for her money?

The crowd was on the blonde's side and groaned in unison every time the phone bidder upped the ante by another $20,000. When the invisible bidder offered $900,000, the blonde had had enough. Before her entourage knew what was happening, she was on her feet and, with an angry toss of her head, had stormed out of the gallery. The price for the brooch, including buyer's premium, was $992,500.

Who was willing to spend that kind of money for a piece of jewelry that represented Argentine history? Clearly, only two people had the desire to push the price of the brooch through the stratosphere.

There was the underbidder, Susana Gimenez, a top TV star in Argentina, who had flown from Buenos Aires specifically for the sale. And there was the successful bidder, who, according to the auction house, was a "private American male collector of historical objects."

Though Christie's has stood by this identification since the sale, last April, it never really made much sense. The person who played the role of purchaser of the brooch is the most fitting candidate: Madonna, onetime portrayer of Eva Perón in Evita, the film about her brief, theatrical life.

But perhaps the real winner was not Madonna but the maker of the brooch, Van Cleef & Arpels of New York. This little piece of jeweled history exemplified two of the famous firm's strengths: its mastery of the invisible-setting technique and its relationship with the most famous people of the day.

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."

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.

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.


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