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Bejeweled History

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

It was a simple little brooch made of sapphires and diamonds, arranged to symbolize the flag of Argentina, but it had a unique provenance: it was originally owned by Eva Perón, the charismatic wife of Argentine dictator Juan Perón and a political force herself. Its estimated presale value was $80,000 to $120,000, but what was it worth as a piece of history, a relic of a bygone era? On April 6, 1998, the spectators at Christie's auction house in New York soon found out.

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.

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.

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."

He relishes the opportunity to serve his well-heeled clients. "We have a lot of regular customers. We are their jewelers; just the way they have a lawyer, a doctor, they have a jeweler. We end up knowing a great deal about people. We have to be close to people: mutual trust; sometimes even friendship. At this level of business, you have these relationships. This kind of purchase is always linked to a special event in people's lives. Clients ask for things. We do special orders. We do anything they want. That's the fun part of the business, the exciting part of the business--to see a sketch on a piece of paper and see it come to life."

Recently, a customer asked him to create a special piece of jewelry for his wife, who was expecting twins. "The kids were born on May 8. Just at that time, we came upon a 58.58-carat emerald. I said, he cannot turn it down. We designed a very important piece of jewelry, and we went to see him. The weight is what clinched it, and he bought it."

Ettagale Blauer is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado and author of books on jewelry and wristwatches.