The marriage of Esther Arpels to her cousin Alfred Van Cleef in 1895 cemented the union of these two families originally from Ghent and Amsterdam respectively. Their fathers had both entered the jewellery trade after moving to Paris in the 1860’s, Esther’s father was a jewellery salesman and Alfred’s father was a lapidary craftsman. Alfred initially followed his father into the lapidary profession before setting up his own jewellery retail company and eventually deciding to combine his talents and resources with those of his wife’s brother Salomon (also known as Charles) who was a diamond broker. They registered their company on February 10th 1906 and only four months later were receiving clients in the elegant surroundings of their Vendôme boutique. Two years later they were joined by another of Esther’s brothers Jules (also known as Julien) who specialised in gemstones and in 1912 by her youngest brother Louis who was a “marketing genius”. With Esther also involved in the business, it was a true family affair.
Very few early pieces of VCA have survived and in fact the oldest item in the company’s archive collection is not a piece of jewellery but rather a gold, ebony, enamel and carved hardstone bell push in the form of a client’s yacht which was commissioned circa 1907. Advertisements from the early years show an impressive array of fine jewellery from long ropes of pearls to large sapphire and diamond rings, gem set bracelets and stylish drop earrings. The Maison was obviously very successful from the outset as only three years after opening in Place Vendôme they had opened a second boutique in the fashionable seaside resort of Dinard, followed in 1910 by one in Nice and in 1912 Deauville , by which time the firm was employing fourteen members of staff.
The onset of the First World War interrupted their rapid expansion as all but Alfred were called upon to serve, he was excused due to health problems and remained behind to manage the company. Esther was enlisted as a nurse and during the course of her work she cared for a wounded lieutenant called Émile Puissant. He was later introduced to her daughter Renée and the young couple went on to marry in 1918 with Émile joining the family business. He became the administrative director and proved instrumental in driving sales through advertising as well as introducing seasonal discount sales which at this time was unheard of in the rarefied world of fine jewellery.
The company continued to prosper and during the 1920’s created not only fabulous jewellery but also vanity cases and cigarette boxes as well as their first wristwatch. They won a Grand Prix at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in 1925 with a beautiful ruby, diamond and emerald rose bracelet and brooch. After the tragic death of her husband Émile in 1926, Renée joined the Maison as artistic director and worked closely with the designer René-Sim Lacaze. Over the next thirteen years this collaborative partnership would produce many pieces of truly exceptional jewellery and propel Van Cleef and Arpels to the forefront of French haute joaillerie. In 1933 the company registered a patent for the ‘Serti Mystérieux’ or mystery setting with which they have become synonymous. This technique of setting small stones close together with no visible sign of metal created the illusion of the gems being held invisibly in place. It was also around this time that Charles Arpels launched the Minaudière. The story goes that after witnessing his friend and client Florence Jay Gould putting her lipstick, powder, cigarettes and lighter into a Lucky Strike tin to go out for the evening he decided to create an entirely more glamourous version for women to carry their essentials in.
In 1939 VCA exhibited very successfully at the New York World’s Fair which coincided with the opening of an office in the Rockerfeller Centre and expansion into the American market. A workshop soon followed which was dedicated to making jewellery designed to cater specifically for the American taste and aesthetic. Back in Europe however, the Maison was in turmoil as the onset of war and German occupation had forced most of the family (who were of Jewish decent) to flee France leaving only Renée to hold everything together. The Place Vendôme boutique managed to remain open but the company was forcibly Aryanised and Renée withdrew to Vichy, working from the branch there, before tragically taking her own life after the Germans invaded the Free Zone in 1942.
In 1944 the company was returned to the Arpels family with Julien’s sons Claude, Jacques and Pierre now appointed as directors. In the years that followed they would guide the company to even greater success both at home and oversees with new innovations in jewellery design, successful exhibitions and in 1954 the opening of a brand new concept, La Boutique, which sold jewels and accessories at a more accessible price point aimed at a younger clientele. Amongst these pieces were a range of charming animal brooches which proved hugely popular with many clients collecting them to form their own personal jewelled menageries.
When Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956 they chose a beautiful suite of pearl and diamond jewellery from the New York boutique, soon after naming the firm as an ‘Official Supplier to the Principality of Monaco’. High profile clients continued to patronise the Maison including the Duchess of Windsor, Barbara Hutton, Her Imperial Highness Princess Soraya and the Empress Farah Pahlavi for whom VCA made a stunning coronation crown and necklace in 1967. The following year saw the launch of the now iconic Alhambra design and in 1972 they created the famous Walska bird brooch which holds in its beak the 95 carat yellow briolette diamond previously belonging to the opera singer Ganna Walska.
In 1973, they became the first French jewellery house to open in Japan and begin exploring the Asian market whilst simultaneously continuing their expansion throughout Europe and the United States. The jewellery of the 1970’s was epitomised by bold and vibrantly coloured long pendant necklaces and earrings combining stones such as coral, turquoise, amethyst and kunzite set in yellow gold. Jacques son Philippe and daughter Dominique joined the company but they would prove the last generation to do so as the Maison was bought out by the Richemont Group over a number of years between 1999 and 2003.
Today the Maison continues to create innovative and stylish jewellery whilst also seeking inspiration in their extensive archives. Several retrospective exhibitions have been staged around the world over the last few years ensuring that Van Cleef & Arpels jewellery remains as celebrated today as it has been over the last 110 years.