When Estelle Arpels, the daughter of a dealer in precious stones, met Alfred Van Cleef, the son of a stonecutter, it was the beginning of a love story that would have an enduring legacy more than a century later. The young couple married in 1895, bound together by their pioneering spirit and shared passion for precious stones. The following year, Estelle’s father, Salomon Arpels, helped Alfred start a jewelry business.
In 1906, after the passing of Salomon Arpels, his son Charles Arpels and son-in-law Alfred Van Cleef founded the Maison of Van Cleef & Arpels, a boutique in Paris’ Place Vendôme. They were among the first jewelers to settle in the highly coveted locale. Their original boutique had an exceptional location—right across the street from the Hôtel Ritz, which was a magnet for European aristocrats and important American business and industry tycoons. Place Vendôme evolved into a symbol of international elegance and Parisian luxury. Estelle’s two other brothers—Julien and Louis—eventually joined Van Cleef & Arpels, a name that would become synonymous with the most exquisite jewelry in the world.
The successful Maison opened boutiques in holiday resorts like Deauville, Vichy, Le Touquet, Nice, and Monte-Carlo, attracting the most stylish trendsetters as customers. Renėe Puissant, the daughter of Estelle and Alfred, the founding couple who started it all, entered the family business and became the Artistic Director of Van Cleef & Arpels.
One of the first standout pieces by the company was a bracelet with red and white roses, fashioned from rubies and diamonds. It won the grand prize at the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in 1925. Six years later, Paris’ Exposition Coloniale drew an astounding 33 million visitors. Displaying the diverse cultures and crafts of the European colonial empires, the exposition was a monumental historical event. For this exposition, Van Cleef & Arpels transformed the traditional Chinese hat design from France’s Far Eastern colonies into a jewelry set called the Chapeau Chinois. Its surprisingly modern style captured the company’s creative boldness and the design is still popular today.
The extraordinarily innovative "Mystery Set," a technique whereby the stones are set in such a way that no prongs are visible, was patented by Van Cleef & Arpels in 1933. Still practiced today, the manufacture involves the production of a single clip, taking more than 300 hours to create. Only a very small number of master jewelers have the expertise to execute this intricate setting. Mystery Set pieces are extremely rare; only a few are produced each year.
In the same year, fashion model Hélène Ostrowska married Louis Arpels, the youngest of the three Arpels brothers. She was idolized as a representation of quintessential French elegance and voted onto the world’s “10 Best Dressed List” in 1949. She retained this designation for the next decade. “Diamonds go with everything,” was a phrase that Hélène was famous for saying, as she could even be seen wearing diamonds on her shoes.
When World War II began, members of the family relocated to New York to help grow their business across the Atlantic. The famed New York City boutique on 744 Fifth Avenue, opened in 1942, still stands to this day. In New York, the Maison broadened their use of gold, semi-precious stones, and other materials.
In 1954, the company opened the “La Boutique” jewelry line at 22 Place Vendôme. These playful, whimsical cartoon-style animal clips were irresistible to many and, being more affordable than the Maison’s typical prices, were intended as an accessible line for a broader, younger range of clientele. Even Grace Kelly and Jackie Kennedy Onassis collected pieces, and they were especially popular as gifts.
Princess Grace purchased numerous jewels at the Monaco store. She loved the Maison so much that in 1956, Van Cleef & Arpels was named the Official Supplier to the Principality of Monaco. Princess Grace would later wear a tiara made by Van Cleef & Arpels to the wedding of her daughter, Princess Caroline, in 1978. The platinum diadem, set with round, marquise and pear-shaped diamonds and weighing an astonishing 77.34 carats, was originally a necklace that was transformed for this occasion. In addition to the La Boutique clips, Princess Grace collected Alhambra necklaces in the malachite, coral, and tortoiseshell variations. The Alhambra collection was one of the Maison’s signature designs. Its emblem signifies luck, love, fortune, and good health. The first long Alhambra necklace was made in 1968 and the emblem is incorporated into many different jewelry pieces today and remains an iconic staple of Van Cleef & Arpels.
Inspired by their travels to the China, Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt, India, and beyond, the Arpels brothers—Charles, Julien and Louis—incorporated a number of precious stones and pearls from their trips into their jewelry designs. In 1966, Van Cleef & Arpels was chosen to create the jewels for the coronation of the empress of Iran, Farah Pahlavi. 1,541 stunning stones of emeralds, diamonds, rubies, and pearls were used in her pieces. Because of this experience, Persian decorative motifs and styles became a lasting source of inspiration for their work. During his travels, Charles met his future wife, Malou, whom he married in 1970. She was born in Pakistan but had lived in India since the age of 20. Malou’s personality and taste strongly influenced the Indian inspiration of the High Jewelry creations for Van Cleef & Arpels New York. Forever pioneers of the industry, they were also the first French jewelers to ever open a boutique in Japan in 1973.
Now, 110 years after the first boutique opened its doors, Van Cleef & Arpels has secured for itself a lasting legacy as one of the finest jewelry houses in the world. In addition to exquisite jewelry pieces, the company also offers watches and perfume. The Maison’s flagship store at Place Vendôme is still thriving. For the store's 100th anniversary in 2006, it was redesigned by Patrick Jouin to incorporate a hybrid of Art Deco elements and 18th-century-style wood paneling. The new look embodies the simple elegance and dynamic creative energy that defines Van Cleef & Arpels. They have expanded their reach across the entire globe, with standalone stores in Geneva, Milan, Shanghai, New York City, Beverly Hills, Chicago, Houston, Las Vegas, Naples, Palm Beach, Aspen, and more.
Top jewelry dealers such as Macklowe Gallery, J.S. Fearnley, Solvang Antiques, Pat Saling, Kentshire, Leah Gordon, Brad Reh, Jack Weir & Sons, Moira Fine Jewellery, D.K. Bressler & Company, Craig Evan Small, Kimberly Klosterman Jewelry, Betteridge, Vivid Diamonds & Jewelry, Robin Katz, Glen Leroux Antiques, Shreve, Crump & Low, Drucker Antiques, and Royle offer a wide variety of Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry spanning all decades.
Favored by iconic figures like Grace Kelly, Jackie Onassis, the Duchess of Windsor, Elizabeth Taylor, and members of royalty, Van Cleef & Arpels has long established themselves as a pillar of the jewelry world. Brilliantly bold, creative, and timeless pieces with a touch of whimsy will always be at the heart of the legendary jewelry house. Van Cleef & Arpels’ far-reaching influence has inspired countless others and will, without a doubt, continue to set itself a cut above the rest.