Jewelry House Histories: A brief intro to Van Cleef & Arpels

French jewelry house, Van Cleef & Arpels, was co-founded by Alfred Van Cleef at the turn of the 20th century. Alfred learnt his trade from his father, a gem cutter, who came to Paris from Amsterdam. He married Estelle Arpels, the daughter of a dealer in precious stones, and together with his father-in-law, he set up a jewelry business, later to be later joined by Estelle’s brothers, Charles, Julien, and Louis. By 1906, the business had moved to the fashionable Paris square, Place Vendôme whence the house became increasingly popular with the rich and famous, from the Duchess of Windsor and Jackie Onassis to Eva Perón and Empress Farah Pahlavi of Iran. The maison expanded rapidly, successfully opening stores worldwide. Today, the Arpels family is still involved with the firm, although it is now owned by the Swiss luxury goods group, Richemont.

In 1926, Alfred and Estelle’s daughter, Renée Puissant, took over the company’s artistic direction. For the next 12 years, she worked with the designer René-Sim Lacaze, forging a unique and bold style for her family’s business. Julien’s sons, Claude, Jacques and Pierre joined the company too, each taking up a different post. Jacques took over in Paris, Pierre took the company to Japan and Claude went to the US, opening a boutique at 744 Fifth Avenue, where the jeweler still trades to this day.

Although the prolific Maison was, at the time, known for creating diamond-set evening jewelry, the 1950s saw it take a more frivolous, easy-to-wear direction. Lines that employed precious and semi-precious stones that referenced the natural world, as well as dancers and fairies were added. These could be worn during the day and appealed to a younger, “aspirational” audience. The Alhambra necklace became a well-loved staple, which continues to be in production, with a limited-edition holiday piece being released every year. 

Van Cleef & Arpels: Mother-of-pearl and onyx "Alhambra" necklace. Van Cleef & ArpelsMother-of-pearl and onyx “Alhambra” necklace. Sold for HKD150,000 via Christie’s (November 2019).

Each decade saw Van Cleef & Arpels bring a new innovation that would capture the zeitgeist, as well as bespoke pieces designed for royalty, such as the pearl and diamond jewelry created for the wedding of Prince Rainier III of Monaco and Grace Kelly and the crown for the coronation of Empress Farah Pahlavi of Iran.

The Coronation set of Empress Farah Pahlavi.

The Coronation set of Empress Farah Pahlavi. Image via Siroos777 on Wikimedia Commons.

In 1999 Richemont, the Swiss luxury goods group, acquired a 60% stake in the company and by 2003 it became the owner of Van Cleef & Arpels in its entirety. 

The Mystery Set

In 1933, Van Cleef & Arpels pioneered and patented a technique called the Mystery Set. This allowed for the setting of stones in a way that showed no metal prongs around the stones. It was originally used for decorating the minaudières but soon was applied to jewelry too. It took many hours and extreme skill to achieve this technique, and set the maison apart from its competitors by showcasing the unparalleled craftsmanship used to create their products. 

Van Cleef & Arpels lines you should know:

La Minaudière

The Maison is behind several innovations that pushed the world of jewelry to new heights. The 1920s and the craze for all things Orient, from Egypt to Japan and India, informed its designs. Claude came up with the firm’s ‘minaudière’ in 1930, a compact case that could carry a lady’s comb, lipstick, watch, cigarette holder and mirror. Legend has it that he was inspired by the opera singer Florence Jay Gould, who once met him with her belongings in a Lucky Strike cigarette case.


Le Passe-Partout

1938 saw the launch of the Passe-Partout, a line of jewelry designed to “mix and match”. Often it was made up of two large flower clips and a flexible gold chain that could be combined and worn as a necklace, choker, bracelet or two brooches.

Le Zip

In the following decade, Van Cleef & Arpels showcased its technical prowess with a zip necklace, which could swiftly be transformed into a bracelet. 

Alhambra Necklace

As the Swinging Sixties rolled on, Van Cleef & Arpels released the Alhambra necklace, its motif inspired by the four-leaf clover. The simple but instantly recognisable design proved popular with the maison’s fans, such as Elizabeth Taylor and Princess Grace of Monaco; the latter often layered several necklaces to make the look her own. Each decade saw a new incarnation, using stones such as onyx, tiger’s eye and turquoise. During its five-decade history, the Alhambra motif has been continually refreshed, making it one of the firm’s most recognisable ornaments. To mark the centenary of the maison, Van Cleef & Arpels released a limited-edition of the mother-of-pearl Magic Alhambra necklace.

Maintaining your Van Cleef & Arpels Jewelry

Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry is delicate and requires special care. Avoid exposure to soap and chemicals and let perfume and cosmetics dry completely before wearing your jewelry, as they could affect color and form. Do not bring your piece in contact with water or high temperatures, such as prolonged sun exposure. Clean your jewelry with a soft, dry cloth. If unsure, take your piece to any Van Cleef & Arpels boutique, which will provide cleaning cloths and shining services.