Historic Poetry for the Wrist
By Dale King and Julia Hebert
Van Cleef & Arpels, the company renowned for its exceptional jewelry, fine men’s and women’s fragrances, and watches that are dubbed “poetry for the wrist,” imbues its pieces with magical, mystical qualities – and has for 119 years.
Based in Paris, the prestigious design and fabrication firm was born in fairy-tale fashion after Estelle Arpels, daughter of a Parisian precious stones dealer, and Alfred Van Cleef, son of a diamond cutter from Amsterdam, were married. They became partners in business, as well as life, and drew upon the talent of members from both families to expand
In 1906, Van Cleef & Arpels opened its “jewelry salon” at the now-famous address of 22 Place Vendôme in the French capital. Many locations worldwide would follow.
Van Cleef & Arpels had been making sumptuous bejeweled watches since the 1920s, but it was not until 1935 that the Maison created the model which would define the marriage between beauty and functionality: the Cadenas watch.
Inspired by Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, the Cadenas timepiece resembled a bracelet rather than a watch. At the time, it was considered gauche for genteel women to wear wristwatches in public, so those who did had to view the time with a furtive glance. The Cadenas line made that task easier, and will do so again.
Like its revived timepiece brand, Van Cleef & Arpels has also adapted to a new era. It has an e-boutique on its Web site and allows
shopping and catalogue browsing online.
Solving the Mystery of this Luxury Brand
The firm has spent generations riding the crest of the high-end fashion jewelry and fragrance market, responding to trends, creating its own and even patenting a “Mystery Setting” process, the likes of which will be revealed to all later in this article.
Throughout its varied, fanciful history, Van Cleef & Arpels has leapt from milestone to milestone, often based on the substantial abilities of family members who worked in unison to make things happen. Estelle’s three brothers came on board around 1900. Alfred and Estelle’s daughter, Renée Puissant, served as artistic director from 1926 to 1942. Her arrival boosted brand identity, and her savvy led to the appearance of amazing creations.
In the 1930s, Estelle’s brother, Julien, also had sons – Claude, Jacques and Pierre – who entered the business. By the 1970s, the mantle had been passed to a new generation: Phillipe Arpels and Dominique Hourtouille (Jacques’ children) and Caroline Daumen (Pierre’s daughter).
Van Cleef & Arpels turned a fluke into a fashion statement in 1930 when it created “the minaudiere,” a type of evening bag/vanity case that became wildly popular. A friend and client, Frances Gould, wife of American railroader Jay Gould, inspired it. She was running to a meeting with Charles Arpels and threw her necessities into a metal Lucky Strike cigarette box. Arpels took that impromptu carry-case idea and made it his own.
Perhaps the firm’s most intriguing contribution – one that bears a 1933 patent – is a technique of setting gems “invisibly” onto jewelry, enhancing the aesthetics of each piece. In actuality, the gems are held within an unseen metal grid on the underside. The process of meticulously placing the tiny stones can take up to 1,000 hours.
The Jeweler of Royalty
Throughout the decades, Van Cleef & Arpels has enticed clientele from the ranks of royalty (the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco), Hollywood stars (Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich, Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren, among others) and leaders of finance, the Mellons, Kennedys, Vanderbilts and the Onassises.
The coming rebirth of Cadenas watches is being hailed throughout the Van Cleef & Arpels network, which includes four Florida locations: Palm Beach, Boca Raton, Naples and Bal Harbour, Miami.
“The Cadenas watch is made up of a double snake chain […],” said Catherine Cariou, the firm’s heritage director. “The dial is notable for being completely slanted, enabling only the person wearing the watch to tell the time.”
Slightly updated from the 1930s-era timepiece, with a larger dial and enhancements to the stone, setting and clasp, the new
Cadenas was unveiled at the 2015 Salon Internationale de la Haute Horlogerie. “It’s an eternal watch, thanks to its design that is simultaneously extraordinary and restrained,” said Catherine.
“It was appreciated by women in the 1930s, and it’s appreciated by women in the 2000s.”