Van Cleef & Arpels: fit for a queen

Van Cleef & Arpels designed this crown for the Empress Farah Pahlavi of Iran, who wore it at her 1967 coronation ceremony. Public domain image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

NEW YORK – For over 120 years, Van Cleef & Arpels has been crafting elegant pieces of jewelry cherished by royalty and loved by collectors of even modest means.

Love and jewelry go hand in hand and the 1896 founding of the company in Paris has a love story at its origin. Estelle Arpels, the daughter of a precious stones dealer, and Alfred Van Cleef, a stonecutter’s son, met and fell in love, marrying in 1895. Inspired to by the desire to create something together and a shared passion for precious stones, they founded the Maison of Van Cleef & Arpels, which became renowned for its jewelry, watches and perfume lines.

Tastemakers such as the Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Duchess of Windsor, Farah Pahlavi are among the many who have worn Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry. The company achieved international renown when it won the grand prize at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes, which kicked of a high point in the Art Deco period, with an ornate Roses bracelet and brooch made with diamonds and rubies. The piece embodies the simplistic style and floral naturalistic motifs that are the company’s signature.

This Van Cleef & Arpels Burmese sapphire (AGL) Burmese sapphire and diamond ring, featuring an emerald cut Burmese sapphire of 19.99 carats, earned $150,000 at Dallas Auction Gallery in May 2017. Photo courtesy of Dallas Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

In the 1920s, the company was transformed by another partnership that changed the firm’s artistic direction when Alfred and Estelle’s daughter, Renee Puissant, became the firm’s artistic director after her husband died. Working with draftsman and designer Rene Sim Lacaze, the two created stunning pieces from 1926 to 1939 that “positioned Van Cleef & Arpels at the forefront of jewelry design,” according to the company’s online history. Among their collaborations were a Japonesque Panier Fleuri brooch that defined a figurative style that characterized the firm in the mid-1920s, followed a decade later with the Collerete featuring rows of cushion rubies alternated with baguette diamonds.

Van Cleef & Arpels did not just create beautiful jewelry but innovative pieces also. A line of pieces with hidden elements, called Le Secret, included a daisy brooch with several petals that flipped over to reveal secret messages; a parrot brooch under whose wing rested a chick and a pendant style necklace of a branch, in which a baby bird is hidden inside.

This 18K white gold Alhambra necklace with full-cut diamonds weighing about 8 carats, Van Cleef & Arpels, achieved $43,750 in September 2017. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The firm is famous for its patenting of a technique to create jewelry with invisible prong settings in 1933, dubbed Mystery Set pieces, a technique so labor-intensive (a single clip would take about 300 man-hours) and complex that only a few pieces are made in a year.

“Each faceted stone is delicately inserted onto thin gold rails less than two-tenths of a millimeter thick,” according to the firm’s website. And once a Mystery Set piece is finished, the gemstones seem to be totally freestanding.

An important Van Cleef & Arpels 10.33-carat emerald-cut diamond ring in platinum attained $820,000 at Fortuna Auction in December 2017. Photo courtesy of Fortuna Auction and LiveAuctioneers

“Van Cleef & Arpels is renowned for manufacturing top quality jewels — from the artistry of original design process through the production of the final product. They have extremely strict quality control standards, which are implemented by craftsmen of the highest caliber; many of whom have learned their skillset from an early age,” said Jill Burgum, senior director, of Fine Jewelry at Heritage Auctions in Dallas, Texas.

Among the most well-known of their works was in 1966, when Van Cleef & Arpels was commissioned to make the crown of Empress Farah Pahlavi for her coronation in Tehran, Iran, taking place the following year; 50 jewelers around the world had submitted proposals. The Van Pierre Arpels and his team traveled to Iran to select the major gems from the National Treasury to use in keeping with Iranian tradition. Pierre personally chose each jewel and spent six months working in a room in the treasury to make the crown, as the jewels were not permitted to leave the country. In all, the crown featured 1,469 diamonds, 36 emeralds, 34 rubies and 105 pearls among other gemstones surmounting a 150-carat emerald weighing over 4 pounds. The crown still ranks today as one of the most important special orders in the company’s history.

An Alhambra necklace with 20 turquoise stations set in 18k gold, brought $40,000 at Heritage Auctions in June 2017. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Among other desirable pieces, Burgum said, “The Alhambra Collection is currently the most desirable and commercially successful line of Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry. Items are made in relatively limited production, showcasing a variety of materials, including diamonds, turquoise, tigereye, malachite, black onyx and mother-of-pearl stations, among others. Not only is the material a value factor but also the number of stations, too. The Alhambra Collection is immediately recognizable and has cache value.”

Offering tips for buying, Burgum said, Van Cleef & Arpels designs run the gamut from whimsical characters to beautiful ballerinas, delicate butterflies, complex invisibly-set jeweled objects, and remarkable diamond and gem-set jewels. “The best advice I can offer is to buy what you like. Ask yourself: does the piece make you happy?”

Speaking in broad value strokes, she said, “pre-1960s platinum-made pieces remain strong in the secondary market; as do certain collections such as the ballerinas and Alhambra. There is also added interest if the piece bears French hallmarks.”

This pair of 18K gold bracelets, Van Cleef & Arpels, provenance Jackie Kennedy Onassis, sold for $162,500 at Heritage Auctions in September 2016. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

“In terms of what to look out for — quality, signature and reference number are very important but be cautious. At issue is the increasing number of fraudulent items coming on to the market. I recommend acquiring your Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry from a reputable source whether that is directly from the manufacturer, an auction house or well-reputed estate jewelry seller.”

Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry makes the wearer feel like a queen with its timeless looks that feature the finest quality colored gemstones, sinuous curves and clean lines that are inspired by love and nature.