The Innovation of Van Cleef & Arpels

Elizabeth Taylor wearing the ruby ring gifted to her from Richard Burton, 1973 / Alamy

Early in their marriage, Richard Burton announced to Elizabeth Taylor “one day I’m going to find you the most perfect ruby in the world!” After four years of searching, he accomplished this mission and purchased the Puerta ruby at Van Cleef & Arpels. The stone was 8.25 carats of unheated Burmese origin ruby with a deep red hue, by all standards and exceptional stone. Taylor recalls opening her Christmas gift in 1968, saying “I couldn’t stop screaming… I knew I was staring at the most exquisite ruby anyone had ever seen.” By the 1960s, Van Cleef & Arpels had indeed built a reputation for sourcing some of the most spectacular gemstones in the world. 

Echoing this passionate gesture is the origin story of the house of Van Cleef & Arpels itself, which was born from the marriage between Estelle Arpels and Alfred Van Cleef in 1895. The union was romantic, but it also brought together two established French jewellery industry families. Estelle’s father had dealt in precious gemstones and Alfred’s father had been a lapidarist and diamond broker in France during the reign of Napoleon III, having trained in the workshops of Messrs and David et Grosgeat. Soon after the wedding, Alfred partnered with father-in-law Salomon Arpels to establish the business. Family involvement grew when Salomon passed away and Estelle’s three brothers joined the business, opening the flagship store at 22 Place Vendôme, Paris, in 1906. At this prestigious location, the house flourished, attracting a clientele seeking sophisticated jewellery creations. 

Fine Jewels & Timepieces. Leonard Joel Auctions
Van Cleef & Arpels rubelite and diamond earclips | Sold for $27,500

When it came to innovative jewellery design in the 20th century, Van Cleef & Arpels were leaders. The complicated ‘invisible’ settings were one such innovation perfected and patented by the house in 1933. The technique, still used by the house today under the term ‘Mystery Set’, involves setting precious gemstones without the visibility of prong or metal element. An early example of the technique is the double holly leaf brooch the Duke of Windsor gifted Wallis Simpson for Christmas in 1936. Invisibly set with rubies and baguette-cut diamonds, the brooch achieved a staggering $806,000 USD at the Christie’s auction of the Duchess’ jewels in 1987. 

The Duchess of Windsor was not only a buyer, but an influencer of mid-century Van Cleef & Arpels designs. In 1938, she suggested to creative director of the company and daughter of Estelle Arpels and Alfred Van Cleef, Renee Puissant, that the zipper be a motif in future designs. After years of experimentation and refinement with jewellery designer René-Sim Lacaze, the iconic zip necklace was released in 1950. The ultimate transformative piece is a testament to the innovative spirit of Van Cleef & Arpels, with the ability to be a sautoir style necklace or a ‘zipped up’ cocktail bracelet. 

Fine Jewels & Timepieces. Leonard Joel Auctions
Van Cleef & Arpels diamond bracelet | Sold for $90,000


By the 1950s, the maison was well established as purveyors of exceptional jewellery, however there was an opportunity for further creative development. In a bold move, the house opened ‘La Boutique’, stocking a range of wearable ‘daytime’ fine jewellery inspired by nature, animals, couture fashion, and orientalism. Iconic creations from this range remain highly collectable, such as the ‘Chat Malicieux’ clip and the ‘Lion ébouriffé’ designs. Actress Grace Kelly was one celebrity who sported whimsical designs, including a sapphire, emerald and diamond duck clip. The Princess also owned pieces from the emblematic ‘Alhambra’ range, introduced in 1968. Whilst the house had experimented with using the stylised four-leaf clover motifs in designs as early as the 1920s, it was not until the 1970s that it was perfected. Reflecting the more casual cultural spirit of the time, the long necklaces set with quatrefoils of turquoise, malachite, lapis, and other bright precious stones were pictured worn by stylish celebrities such as Françoise Hardy, Romy Schneider, and of course Princess Grace. Having undergone various redesigns and reimaginings since the initial 1968 release, the signature design continues to be one of the most popular Van Cleef & Arpels ranges today. 

The October Fine Jewels & Timepieces auction features several pieces of signed Van Cleef & Arpels pieces from the 1960s and ‘70s. Capturing the enduring innovative
spirit of the maison, these are iconic additions to any jewellery collection. 

BETHANY MCGOUGAN / Head of Fine Jewels & Timepieces

Banner Image: Van Cleef & Arpels, 18ct gold necklace | $8,000-12,000

September 2022