Today let's talk about one of the most influential jewelry design houses, Van Cleef and Arpels. A favorite of royalty and celebrities, they are known for their amazing craftsmanship. This fabulous French jewelry house was started with a marriage in 1896 between Alfred and Estelle. Both came from families in the jewelry industry. Alfred was the son of a stone cutter, and Estelle was the daughter of a gem dealer. These two loved jewelry and loved to travel. They had an eye for color and detail, and an appreciation for whimsy.
Van Cleef patented a number of design innovations. Their pieces were so distinctive and so memorable that they have a timeless appeal. I created a list of what I consider to be seven of their truly iconic pieces.
Here we go!
1. The Zip Necklace
This is one of those pieces that's so unique, nothing like it exists. It’s called the Zip necklace because you can actually zip it! Leave it open, it’s a necklace. Zip it closed, it’s a bracelet. Ingenious!
The Duchess of Windsor, style maven of her day, inspired the design. Zippers had just been added to clothing, and she was convinced you could do the same with jewelry. This kind of intricate work doesn't happen overnight. It took Van Cleef over a decade to get it just right. The results, though, were worth it. No other company has ever created anything like this.
Diamond zip bracelet from Van Cleef
2. Alhambra Necklace
The clover leaf-looking long necklace was introduced in 1968. After all the glitz and glamour of the 1950’s, it represented a more modern, understated design. It quickly became a favorite of Princess Grace of Monaco, who wore it frequently.
Princess Grace wearing the Alhambra necklace
The design was inspired by the beautiful Alhambra castle in Granada, Spain. It had numerous quatrefoils that you could find in the architecture of the arches and doorways. The quatrefoil design is actually quite iconic in its own right. It’s found in Gothic castles and cathedrals all over the world. Once you recognize the pattern, you’ll swear it’s everywhere!
VCA trademarked their long necklace design, Alhambra®, and it instantly became synonymous with the brand. The four leaves symbolize luck, health, fortune and love. Besides the beautiful Grace Kelly, other musicians and actresses of the day wore the necklace. Although its popularity has gone up and down over the years, it’s always had fans. Lately, there’s been a resurgence, because today's celebrities have discovered it - Lauren Graham, Reese Witherspoon, Cameron Diaz, Mariah Carey, and Princess Kate.
Princess Kate wearing Alhambra jewelry
Van Cleef also has Alhambra earrings and rings so you can coordinate your jewelry. Over the years, they've also used a number of different gemstones. Today, tiger's eye, mother of pearl, carnelian, and malachite are part of their collection.
3. La Minaudière
The minaudière is a piece that speaks to my heart because it actually has a bit of feminist history. It was invented at a time when regular women, not just Hollywood movie stars, wore makeup. In the 1920’s, it was finally acceptable for women to wear makeup in public!
The story goes that Charles Arpels was horrified one of his friends used a Lucky Strikes cigarette case to carry around her lipstick. He begged her to let him come up with something, she said yes, and just like that VCA created the minaudière. It's essentially a gold or silver case to hold your makeup. They came in a variety of different sizes and patterns, and were wildly popular for years and years.
In case you’re wondering, "minauder" is a French word that means to smile coyly. Charles said he named it after his wife. Hmmmm…..
A variety of minaudieres
4. Van Cleef and the oh-so-mysterious mystery setting
What’s the mystery setting, and what’s so mysterious about it?! The mystery setting is essentially a way to hold gems in place without prongs. Whether it’s on a necklace or ring, you look at the piece and it doesn’t appear like anything is holding the gems.
Two rings showcasing the VCA mystery setting
This was a patented proprietary gem setting style developed by Van Cleef & Arpels. They received their French patent in 1933, and it was a huge breakthrough back then. Other big name jewelry houses, like Cartier, quickly filed their own patent for similar settings, but no one uses it as extensively as Van Cleef.
Stunning ruby and diamond flower brooch
You might be wondering how it actually works. Each gem is cut so it can be set on teeny tiny rails within the piece. There’s a cool video you can watch about how they create these pieces. It’s fascinating! VCA says each piece made with the mystery setting takes at least 300 hours to produce! Wow!
5. Ballerina pins
You all probably know by now of my love for brooches. So of course these beautiful ballerina pins made the list! The first ones were created in 1939, inspired by the one of the famous ballerinas of the time, Russian dancer Anna Pavlova.
Some of the famous collectors of the day - Marjorie Merriweather Post and Barbara Hutton - had these adorable, fun brooches.
Van Cleef stopped making these in the late 1960's but in 2018, released a special collection of twelve ballerinas inspired by a Grimm's Fairy Tale. And just this year, they put their little ballerinas in their watches. Simply gorgeous!
6. Ludo Bracelet
This bracelet was created back in 1935 by by Louis Arpels, whose nickname was Ludo. It’s still produced by VCA today.
Definitely a statement piece, it features an articulated ribbon with all those little hexagons. It could be made with gold or platinum, and be a bracelet or watch. Different gems can be used on the hexagons, as well as on the clasp or around the watch, making for a variety of combinations and color palettes. Very striking!
7. Jarretière bracelet
An iconic piece for an iconic star. The ruby and diamond Jarretière bracelet was specially made for a the beautiful and sultry film star, Marlene Dietrich. She loved it and wore it frequently - in her films, at award shows, out to dinner and the theatre. According to her family, it was one of her favorite pieces of jewelry.
Marlene gave her friend Louis Arpels thirty of her existing jewelry items, and trusted him to make her something beautiful. Knowing she was a fan of bold statement pieces, he created this amazing bracelet for her in 1937.
The bracelet's name, Jarretière, comes from the word for "garter." Garters have a similar buckle and clasp. The bracelet clicks in place, also like a garter.
Marlene was not the only owner of a
Jarretière bracelet. Another avid jewelry collector, The Duchess of Windsor, had one in sapphire.
Sadly, Marlene ran into financial troubles later in life (from taxes she owed the IRS) and had to sell almost all her jewelry. Not this piece, though. Her grandson found it after she died, and it was sold at auction in 1992 for an astounding $990,000.
Van Cleef and Arpels recently took this design from their archives and used it as inspiration for their 2019 Treasure of Rubies collection.
What’s your favorite?
Well, what do you think of all these designs? Were they familiar to you? Which one do you like the best? Let me know below in the comments.
And…. because of my love for Pinterest, I’ve created a board for all the Van Cleef eye candy – check it out here!