The incredible history of Van Cleef & Arpels is intertwined with some of the world’s most prominent and illustrious women of their time, as Allyson Klass finds out.
In 1895, Estelle Arpels, the daughter of a gems dealer, married Alfred Van Cleef, the son of a lapidary craftsman and diamond broker. The pair shared the same values of a sense of family, the spirit of innovation and a passion for precious stones. This would mark the beginning of their bejewelled destiny as it led to the birth of a maison in 1906 bearing both their names – Van Cleef & Arpels – at 22 Place Vendôme. The boutique still remains at this legendary address until today.
The business included Estelle’s brothers, Charles, Julien and Louis, all experienced gem traders. With the maison’s location across from the swanky Hotel Ritz, which boasted a well-heeled clientele ranging from aristocrats to business magnates from Europe and the US, word about the house’s exquisite jewels travelled beyond the continent quickly. Soon, leading women the world over were captivated. From the elegant 1920s through to the Jet Set era of the early ’70s, Van Cleef & Arpels won some of the most legendary names as patrons, and forever immortalised their individual styles into history’s most epic pieces – some of which the jeweller has continued to recreate over the years. Here are five ladies who shaped the world of high jewellery through Van Cleef & Arpels.
Empress Farah Pahlavi of Iran
For centuries, only the male rulers of Iran were crowned, but on Oct 26, 1967 – in a nod to the White Revolution mandate on women’s emancipation – the King of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, proclaimed Farah Pahlavi to be the first Empress of Iran. However, there was a hitch. Since no Iranian empress had been crowned in centuries, there was no appropriate crown for the coronation.
The honourable task of making the new crown was bestowed on Van Cleef & Arpels in 1966 when the Iranian government picked the maison’s design out of 50 proposals. This would be one of the most prestigious commissions in the house’s history. However, there was another challenge. It was tradition for the crown and coronation jewellery gems to be selected from loose stones in the Imperial Treasury and no item from the vault was to leave Iran.
Between spending days in Iran’s Central Bank basement vaults selecting gems to setting up an entire workshop in the National Treasury room with a team of the maison’s artisans, it took Pierre Arpels (Julien’s son) six months and 24 trips between Paris and Tehran to complete the extraordinary order.
The maison finally presented the empress with a white gold crown in green velvet set with two spinels, 38 emeralds, 34 rubies, 105 pearls, 1,469 diamonds and a 150-carat carved hexagonal emerald at the centre. Van Cleef & Arpels also created additional coronation jewellery, including a pair of matching earrings and a large gold and platinum necklace. The latter featured a large carved emerald as the central pendant, and was further embellished with emeralds, pearls, and white and yellow diamonds.
HSH Princess Grace of Monaco
In 1956, American actress Grace Kelly was named the Princess of Monaco when she married Prince Rainier III. To celebrate their union, the prince visited the Van Cleef & Arpels boutique in New York and met with Louis Arpels, who convinced him that elegant pearls were befitting of his fiancee’s beauty. The exquisite suite chosen included a resplendent three-strand pearl necklace with diamond swirl motifs, three-strand pearl bracelet with diamond blossom motifs, pearl earrings featuring a swirl of baguette and marquise-shaped diamonds, and a diamond blossom ring with a pearl. A few months later, the jeweller was named the Patented supplier of the Principality of Monaco. The princess would be seen wearing this royal pearl parure on numerous occasions throughout her life.
A client of Van Cleef & Arpels before her engagement, Princess Grace enriched her collection over the years with the maison’s high jewellery pieces, which included bracelets, tiaras and clips. For casual occasions, she also loved wearing the house’s creations such as adorable animal clips from the La Boutique collection and Alhambra necklaces that she collected in various precious materials of coral, malachite and lapis lazuli.
Princess Faiza of Egypt
Born in Abdine Palace on Nov 8, 1923, Princess Faiza of Egypt was regarded as the most attractive of King Farouk’s five sisters. The lively, witty and rebellious royal was known for her fabulous taste in clothes and jewellery, favouring Parisian haute couture and joaillerie. Needless to say, Van Cleef & Arpels was her maison of choice when it came to jewellery.
Princess Faiza owned a number of noteworthy pieces created by the house, one of the most magnificent being a platinum Art Deco collaret featuring 10 drop-shaped Colombian emeralds – totalling 165 carats – set with diamonds in varying shapes and sizes. Designed in 1929 and modified in 1937, it was acquired for her in 1947 by an Egyptian court’s representative in France. The striking showpiece was worn by the fashion- forward princess as a court jewel and remained her property when she went into exile in Europe with her husband after the Egyptian revolution in 1952. Following her divorce, the princess took the necklace with her when she moved to California, where her mother Queen Nazli and sister Princess Fathia lived.
Another famous Van Cleef & Arpels piece that belonged to the princess is the double Clip Pivoine from 1938. It featured two peonies set in the famous Serti Mysterieux or Mystery Setting, which was inspired by the 19th-century Roman micro-mosaic technique. Patented in 1933 by Van Cleef & Arpels, the method revolutionised the art of setting precious stones as it enabled the gems to be fixed without the mount being visible, allowing the stones’ optimum brilliance to come through. The flower petals are set with 706 square-cut red rubies and 239 circular-cut and baguette-cut diamonds. Princess Faiza sold both brooches separately a few years before her death in 1994. While one of them is now in the Van Cleef & Arpels archives, the whereabouts of the second piece is unknown.
Equally impressive is a diamond bracelet from 1946 set with about 58 carats of round, baguette and emerald-cut diamonds. Fashioned to resemble a belt, the remarkable piece featured channel-set diamonds mimicking flowing fabric.
Wallis Simpson, The Duchess of Windsor
An important Van Cleef & Arpels client with very sharp taste, American socialite Wallis Simpson favoured simple, clean couture outfits that provided the perfect backdrop for her enviable jewellery collection. Over the years, her husband – the Duke of Windsor (also known as Edward VIII, the former King of the United Kingdom) – bought and customised many pieces from the maison as tokens of his love to her. Among these was a diamond and ruby bracelet with the inscription, “Hold tight 27.III.36” (gifted to Simpson a few months before his abdication) and a two-feather clip featuring Mystery Set rubies and diamonds for Christmas in 1936.
The Duke of Windsor also commissioned Van Cleef & Arpels to create the Cravate necklace with rubies and diamonds for the duchess’ 40th birthday in 1936. Its clasp was engraved with “My Wallis from her David, 19.VI.1936”. It is believed that Simpson had the necklace redesigned later by René Sim Lacaze, a prolific jewellery designer at Van Cleef & Arpels, to incorporate additional stones. The new platinum setting featured rows of intertwined rubies and diamonds, which ended in a spectacular cascade of more rubies.
The duchess is also said to have been the inspiration behind the house’s emblematic Zip necklace. Her favourite fashion designer, Elsa Schiaparelli, had started adding visible zip details to her pieces and the duchess suggested the utilitarian item’s bejewelled equivalent to Renée Puissant – the founding couple’s daughter and Artistic Director at Van Cleef & Arpels in the Art Deco decades. Designed to be worn either open around the neck, or closed to grace the wrist as a bracelet, the necklace that would later be synonymous with the maison was realised in the late 1930s.
Elizabeth Taylor, actress
Inspired by Venetian door knockers with a lion’s head and diamond-set mane forming the collar is the 1971 Barquerolles necklace. Set in yellow gold, the scintillating piece transforms into two bracelets and a brooch. It was gifted by Richard Burton to Elizabeth Taylor, who wrote about the moment she first saw the piece: “I always know when something is right because my heart goes ‘click’ and my heart was clicking like a castanet when I saw this set. Richard loved it on me and he said, ‘Wow! You are so beautiful, nobody is going to believe you’re a grandmother.’”
(All images: Van Cleef & Arpels)
This story was published in the March 2021 issue of Prestige Singapore and was first published online here.