Van Cleef & Arpels is always about the design, and this is obvious when walking around the brand's L'Art de la Haute Joaillerie exhibition at the Musée les Arts Decoratifs in Paris.
The jeweller opened its first shop in Paris' Place Vendôme in 1906 but it was the 1920s when the house's reputation for creative daring began to soar. Many prestigious pieces were created, most notably a parure that included a brooch and bracelet that won the grand prix at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs (the exhibition in 1925 that defined the art deco movement). These pieces were decorated with diamond and ruby roses with emerald leaves and regarded as the epitome of the flora and fauna theme VC&A continues to use.
For inspiration the jewellery house has looked to various civilisations: Egyptian, Japanese, Chinese and Persian, but it frequently falls back on exquisitely intricate flora and fauna designs, such as the masterpiece ruby and diamond chrysanthemum and peony brooches created using the Mystery Setting technique that the house patented in the 1930s.
Since the 1920s the house has been designing transformable pieces such as an emerald bead and diamond collar, featuring different cuts of diamonds, made for the famous socialite Daisy Fellowes between 1926 and 1928, which can be converted into a bracelet. Charles Arpels invented the minaudiere, the jewelled vanity-box clutch bag, in 1930 for the wife of a railroad magnate after he watched her toss her essential items into a Lucky Strike tin box. His minaudieres were made of precious metals set with gemstones in the art deco style.
The VC&A story began in 1895 with a romance between Esther (Estelle) Arpels, the daughter of a precious stone merchant, and Alfred Van Cleef, the son of a diamond broker. Their passion for jewellery, and marriage, signalled the start of a partnership between Alfred and Estelle's brothers, Charles, Julien and Louis, that laid the foundations for the Parisian jewellery house.
The house has served clients from the Duchess of Windsor to Elizabeth Taylor, Marlene Dietrich, Princess Grace and Princess Charlene of Monaco. Some of their orders feature in the archive documents and drawings on display.
The Duke of Windsor brought gems for them to set for the duchess; and the Maharani of Baroda, who went under the pseudonym of "Mrs Brown" in the order books, brought emeralds and diamonds from her husband's mine in 1950 to be made into a spectacular necklace.
Van Cleef & Arpels L'Art de la Haute Joaillerie, Musé les Arts Decoratifs, Paris, until February 10, 2013. lesartsdecoratifs.fr
The Duchess of Windsor was renowned for her sophisticated style and spectacular jewels. She was a creative client, often dreaming up ideas to challenge the jewellers of Place Vendôme. When the dress zip was patented in 1939 she asked Renée Puissant, the daughter of Estelle Arpels and Alfred Van Cleef who took charge of the artistic direction between 1926 and 1939, to make a zip necklace for her. It took the workshop years to perfect and was a major design creation: a functioning zipper action with interlocking gold teeth set with precious stones that could be a necklace or bracelet. Transformable pieces are part of the house's DNA.