Diamonds Go With Everything: The Mastery of Van Cleef & Arpels April 19 2022
A handful of years ago, I was studying the History of Decorative Art and Design through a program based at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York. The spring of my first year there the museum was preparing for a big Van Cleef & Arpels exhibit. Security was beefed up; we suddenly needed to have our school identification badges on us at all times, and our bags were searched every time we left the building. I—still pretty naïve in a lot of wonderful things (like renowned vintage jewelry designers, apparently)—was sort of miffed what all the fuss was about. It wasn’t Cartier, it wasn’t from the Tiffany’s store I would walk by on Fifth Avenue on my way to the subway some days…what could be so great about it?
And then one day after the exhibit had opened, I snuck up in between classes. I was planning on strolling across the street to Central Park for some fresh air before forcing myself to the stuffy, dark (but wonderful and amazing) library to start work on a paper whose due date was quickly approaching. I decided all that could wait, though, and wandered upstairs to the gallery. As soon as I stepped over the threshold, I understood what all the fuss was about. There were all these glass globes placed over displays of glittering pins, brooches, necklaces, figurines, rings, and bracelets. There were butterflies and flowers, little dancing ladies and peacocks, and strands and strands of colorful, exquisite pieces of jewelry. I walked from station to station, bent down and as close as I could get to the glass dividers, wondering why I had ever thought this may not be the most beautiful thing in the world.
By that time, the exhibit had been open for several weeks, but had still drawn quite a crowd—and they all knew, long before I walked in the door—that Van Cleef and Arpels really is worth fussing about.
The company’s roots go back to the end of the nineteenth century. In 1895, Estelle Arpels (the daughter of a precious stone dealer) had married Alfred Van Cleef (the son of a stone-cutter), and in 1906 Van Cleef joined with Estelle’s brother Charles Arpels (a salesman) to form the Maison of Van Cleef & Arpels in Paris. A few years later Estelle’s brother Julien joined the firm, and a few years after that her brother Louis became part of the company.
Van Cleef & Arpels was one of the first European luxury companies to establish itself in America. In 1939 the company’s first US store was opened on Fifth Avenue in New York, headed by the second generation of Arpels (Claude, Jacques, and Pierre), who had taken over the company in 1932. After the end of World War II, Louis Arpels (of the first generation of brothers) moved to New York with his wife, Hélène Ostrowska, a fashion model from Monte Carlo. Hélène was noted for many years as one of the best-dressed women in the city and wore jewels on top of her jewels—sometimes even on her shoes. “After all,” she was once quoted as saying, “diamonds go with everything.” (Hard to argue with, Hélène. Well said!)
Over the decades, Van Cleef & Arpels has proved to be elegant and classic, while still retaining modernity and new technique. All the way back in 1933 the company was granted a patent for a proprietary gem setting style they called the Serti Mysterieux (“Mystery Setting”). This technique involved creating an invisible setting that allowed for stones to be set flush to one another without any visible metal mountings. Although not the first company to develop the technique (nor the last to use it), Van Cleeef & Arpels is undoubtedly the company that used it most frequently and most effectively. In 1938 the company was granted a patent for a technique to use invisible settings on curved and twisted surfaces. Some time ago, the four-leaf clover became the company’s emblem, symbolizing luck, fortune, and health.
In the past decades, Van Cleef & Arpels has developed a fragrance line, as well as a watch line, and designed handbags and scarves, and other fashion accessories. Here at Rice and Beans Vintage we are lucky enough to have a beautiful vintage Van Cleef & Arpels watch that recently came in to our inventory—check it out, I promise you won’t be sorry! And the next time you see an advertisement for a Van Cleef & Arpels exhibit, or pass one of their stores, do yourself a favor and check it out—it’s worth the fuss.
Written by Heather Cox for Rice and Beans Vintage.