Visitors to Van Cleef & Arpels Paris jewelry display learn story of firm's 100-year history

An exhibition at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris detailing the more than 100-year history of jewelry-maker Van Cleef & Arpels featured in excess of 500 exceptional jewelry items.
The jewelry pieces were shown together with archive documents and drawings at The Art of High Jewelry exhibition until February 10. The display of the history of the firm featured technical innovations by the firm's craftsmen and women down the generations.

The history of Van Cleef & Arpels began with a love story when, in 1895, Esther Arpels known as Estelle, the daughter of a precious stone merchant, married Alfred Van Cleef, the son of a lapidary and diamond broker. In 1906, their passion for jewelry and an entrepreneurial spirit led them to go into business with Estelle’s brothers, Charles, Julien and Louis, and open a boutique at 22, Place Vendôme in central Paris, in an area renowned for its elegance and luxury. Thus was Van Cleef & Arpels born.

The jeweler’s Paris address has never changed, and has become its hallmark. The jewelry house's reputation, which spread among the international elite, soon allowed it to open up branches in the most fashionable seaside and resort towns throughout the world.

In the 1930s, a second generation came on the scene. And from 1926 to 1942, the daughter of Alfred and Estelle, Renée Puissant, the Artistic Director of the firm, marked the collections with the stamp of her inspired creativity. Julien Arpels’ sons, Claude and Jacques joined by their brother Pierre after the war, were also initiated into the profession.

Gifted with an enormous energy and an innate business sense, Jacques seemed destined to take over the main office in Paris. After a visit with his father and uncle Louis to the United States, Claude decided to set up in New York in 1939, where he would head the business until 1990.

During this first half of the century, the jeweler also developed new expertise and creations that would become real signatures: an ingenious clutch bag called the Minaudière™ precious case, the Mystery Setting™ technique making the metal disappear under the precious stones, the convertible jewel Passepartout or the innovative Zip™ necklace inspired by the zipper.

The elegance and ingenuity of the creations, but also the use of the most precious and rarest materials allowed Van Cleef & Arpels to seduce royal and princely families, Hollywood icons and the most discerning clientele whose highest standards and impeccable taste demanded the best quality. Some of the legendary names include Prince Aga Khan, Queen Sirikit of Thailand, Indian Maharajas, Princess Fawzia of Egypt, the Empress of Iran Farah Pahlavi, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the Princess Grace of Monaco, Jacqueline Kennedy‑Onassis, Marlene Dietrich, Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor, Romy Schneider, Sophia Loren and Maria Callas.

One of the latest creations by Van Cleef & Arpels was the Océan set given by Prince Albert of Monaco to Princess Charlène at their marriage in July 2011: a white gold diadem set with diamonds and blue sapphires that transforms into a necklace.

Today, Van Cleef & Arpels continues to be renowned for its innovative techniques and designs which include only the highest quality gemstones. Successive collections have perpetuated a highly original style defined by poetry, culture, grace and femininity, which allowed it to exert its influence throughout the world.
The Decorative Arts Museum is a permanent collection of 1,200 jewelry items which traces the history of jewelry from the Middle Ages through to the present, exhibited in a specially-adapted gallery. Rings, necklaces, bracelets and brooches are displayed in chronological fashion alongside technical examinations of the skills involved.