On December 16, 1966, the Iranian government asked of Pierre Arpels some-thing that others could only dream of: would he fly over to Iran to create the empress’ coronation crown?
Shah Reza Palhavi was to crown himself Shahanshah and then – in a shocking, modern twist – he would also crown his wife, Farah Pahlavi, Shahbanu during the coronation ceremony. For the first time in 2,500 years of Iranian history, an empress was to be crowned and named regent in the unlikely case the emperor died, which explains why a crown had to be commissioned. An empress’ crown simply did not exist yet. It also spoke volumes to the tremendous responsibility and prestige surrounding such an order.
When he arrived in Iran, Arpels was escorted to the National Treasury in the Central Bank of Iran, where he chose from the high-security vault 1,541 stones. The highlight of the crown, however, was the two emeralds of jaw-dropping quality that were set at the front: a 150ct hexagonal-shaped emerald weighing 4.3 pounds and a 50ct shell-shaped emerald. While creating the crown, Arpels received more orders from the royal family – sets made up of diadems, necklaces and earrings for the princesses, and a spectacular necklace and earrings set for the empress. In total, approximately 2,000ct of emeralds were used.
While the coronation marked a high point in the maison’s history, it was, in some ways, just another day for the jeweller of choice for royals, aristocrats and stars.
Since it opened its doors on 22 Place Vendôme in 1906, Van Cleef & Arpels can count among its list of clients the crème de la crème of high society who sought the maison out for its inimitable flair and savoir-faire.
From Princess Faiza and her mother Queen Nazli of Egypt, the Maharani of Baroda, Princess Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor to Princess Soraya of Iran, the list goes on. Hwever, perhaps the most prolific client was Wallis Simpson, better known as the Duchess of Windsor, who inspired the maison to create an innovative and technically-advanced design – the Zip necklace. The necklace features a tassel at the bottom of the necklace that, when pulled up, zips together the sides of the necklace and transforms it into an elegant bracelet. “The Zip necklace delights in the art of diversion: to ‘divert’ the design codes of the zip fastener,” says Caroline Cariou, the heritage director at Van Cleef & Arpels. “So an invention that was intended to close and discreetly hide away [something] became a necklace that openly displayed its delicacy and refinement.”
The design was first suggested to the maison by the duchess around 1938 but, due to the complex design, was only completed in 1951. The platinum and diamonds zip necklace that was originally intended for her is stored as part of Van Cleef & Arpels’ collection archives.
Another notable, signature design is the Mystery Setting, an in-house method of setting stones invented by the maison in 1933. The unique technique makes it looks like there are no prongs or claws holding the stones in place. The epitome of the Mystery Setting is shown by the beautiful peony clip, originally created in 1937 for Princess Faiza of Egypt.
Made up of 640 Burmese rubies and 239 diamonds, the clip is notable for its deceivingly smooth, curved lines.
The original design depicted two parts to the clip – a closed and opened flower which could either be worn together or separately, speaking once again to the maisons’ deep interest in playing with the transformability and flexibility of jewellery and design.
Q&A with Catherine Cariou, heritage director at Van Cleef & Arpels
Having created so many iconic pieces that have made their mark in the high-jewellery world, it is no wonder that the maison also has a private collection with enough archival pieces to rival those of a small museum.
Made up of 900 jewellery pieces, timepieces and accessories, plus hundreds of thousands of sketches, retail cards and catalogues, the collection works to preserve the brand’s rich heritage. Cariou discusses what it takes to put together a collection that does justice to the reputation of a 210-year-old haute joaillerie maison.
What makes Van Cleef & Arpels’ private collection so special?
It illustrates the historical, artistic, stylistic and technical evolution of the maison and testifies to the timelessness
and the dynamism of the Van Cleef & Arpels style.
For almost 30 years, with passion and an infinite [amount of] patience, a collection [of] jewellery pieces, timepieces, objects and accessories has been created.
How does Van Cleef & Arpels source pieces for its museum?
There are different ways to purchase pieces for the collection, [at] auction sales – particularly in the US and Geneva – vintage jewellery fairs, and from private owners. [Buying from] private owners is the most interesting way to purchase jewels because it is less anonymous than [going through] the vintage market.
And it is fascinating to discuss with the seller who, generally speaking, inherited the jewels and can deliver anecdotes and stories about them.
How do you choose which pieces to include in the museum?
This vintage collection is a living treasure, the “messenger” of the maison and a priceless collection [of] jewellery history and the decorative arts. Creations that compose this collection have a particular resonance. The ambition of this collection is to restore all these ideas with fidelity and to reveal the identity of Van Cleef & Arpels.
What is the future direction of Van Cleef & Arpels’ museum?
The 1910s is the decade least represented in the museum. There are only seven pieces from that period. We would like to fill this gap, but pieces like jewels and objects of art from that time are very rare. We would also like to find beautiful evening necklaces from the 1960s.