Women's Jewellery | Past Masters

Van Cleef & Arpels jewellery

Iconic jewels by the Parisian master of style and desirability are set to soar, says Vivienne Becker.

June 05 2011
Vivienne Becker

One of the great master jewellers, Van Cleef & Arpels has a design heritage revered among industry experts and collectors. It is also one of the hallowed names associated with the style icons of the 20th century, including Marlene Dietrich, Princess Grace, the Duchess of Windsor and Jackie Kennedy Onassis. And, as Van Cleef & Arpels remained relatively small and focused, devoted to innovation and quality, its early, rarefied jewels have long appealed to the educated connoisseur, the serious collector of “signed” jewels.

In the past few years, interest in vintage VCA has blossomed, thanks to the success of the contemporary brand and a growing appreciation of its strong, singular yet eminently wearable style. François Curiel, Christie’s international head of jewels says, “Van Cleef & Arpels is very special, due to the quality of its craftsmanship and timeless design. Iconic VCA jewels remain as wearable and chic today as when they were made.”

Five years ago, in response to demand, VCA launched its Heritage Collection of vintage pieces from the 1920s to the 1980s, from about €5,000 for, say, a 1950s animal brooch. Now, a major exhibition, Set in Style: The Jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels at New York’s Cooper-Hewitt Museum (until July 4), unrolls the full panoply of VCA creativity; masterpieces from its museum and private collections, all bound to spark a fresh wave of desire.

The company was founded in 1906 by Alfred Van Cleef, son of an Amsterdam lapidary, his wife, Estelle, and her brother, Charles Arpels. They opened a Paris shop on the Place Vendôme, combining the finest materials with superb craftsmanship. The next generation of Arpels – Claude, Jacques and Pierre – built on this early success, opening in New York in 1939 and continuing to lead in the creation of jewels of great classical splendour.

Innovation in both design and technology is the cornerstone of VCA’s style and desirability. The most sought-after iconic jewels, the classics collectors lust after, include the invisible-set pieces; the transformable Passe-Partout with its coloured-sapphire floral clips and springy serpent chain; the legendary Zip necklace, conceived in 1938 for the Duchess of Windsor; the honeycomb Ludo Hexagone bracelets; the ballerina brooches; and the gold lace jewels.

As the exhibition shows, VCA was an early exponent of the art-deco style, perfecting a mix of rigour, geometry and luxury. A good deco diamond bracelet can hover around $200,000, or an Egyptian revival bracelet up to $1m, as only about 30 were produced. Nicolas Luchsinger, director of the Heritage Collection, says, “At that time, Van Cleef only had one workshop in Paris. While other houses made excellent art-deco jewels, its retro jewels of the 1930s and 1940s are the most distinctive – unmistakably, immediately recognisable.” In New York, Lee Siegelson recently sold a spectacular 1924 Orientalist plaque brooch for a high-six-figure sum, while at the Masterpiece London fair (from June 30), Epoque Fine Jewels has a 1920s jade, onyx and diamond lapel watch (price on request).

Seminal pieces from each decade are steadily climbing in demand and value. A diamond-set Cadenas watch, dated 1936 and owned by the Duchess of Windsor, was sold at Sotheby’s Geneva last month; with an estimate of $50,000-$70,000, it fetched $409,230. Last November, a gold, ruby and enamel Chou clip, dated 1945 and designed to look like a lace handkerchief, fetched £43,924 at Sotheby’s Geneva. Also at Masterpiece London, Hancocks has a 1951 sapphire and old-cut-diamond ballerina brooch (£385,000), one of only 15. The ballerinas are among the most charming of VCA’s sculptural figures.

California-based collector and author Suzanne Tennenbaum owns, among other VCA masterworks, three Zip necklaces, a flock of birds and a pack of poodle brooches, which she wears several at a time. “Prices [for vintage examples] now are high,” she says, “and that means good pieces come out of the woodwork.”

Catherine Cariou, VCA’s museum and heritage curator, considers the 1930s the company’s most inventive era; pieces from this decade fetch a huge premium. The invisible setting technique, pioneered in 1933, set specially cut square rubies, emeralds or sapphires onto a grid-like framework so that no metal was visible from the front, producing a sweep of intense colour, like a mosaic – particularly challenging on curved surfaces, such as the famous flowers. At Christie’s New York last October, a collection of jewels from the 1940s to 1970s, which made a total $11.4m, included a 1974 invisible-set Pavot flower brooch that sold for $350,500.

Since so few pieces are produced, even recently made items can change hands for astronomic sums: at Sotheby’s Geneva last November, a brooch-and-earrings set of invisible-set ruby and diamond Cadix flowers, made in 2000, sold for $760,804, more than double its estimate.

David Bennett, Sotheby’s chairman of jewellery for Europe and the Middle East, was involved in the sale of the Duchess of Windsor’s Van Cleef jewels in 1987. “To me, clearly, VCA is in the top league of 20th-century design,” he says. “They were very courageous, always at the forefront of fashion. At auction, a VCA signature is always fiercely contested.” Collector Julia Muggenburg, who mainly buys rings, says, “VCA never looks old. I love its sense of humour, the way it goes hand in hand with fashion, its reduced sense of colour, and enigmatic strength.”

VCA of the 1960s and 1970s is relatively underexplored. Right now, its sumptuous, globular clusters of gems and hefty gold sautoirs with huge, Orient-, Morocco- or India-inspired medallion-type pendants are bang on trend, with strong colours and combinations of turquoise, pink tourmaline and carved coral and onyx. It was this style that was so loved the by late Elizabeth Taylor (Richard Burton gave her a Lamartine bracelet of coral and amethysts).

Brooches, especially animal brooches, are a good way in: Christie’s London sale in June has a 1960s gold poodle brooch with an estimate of £2,000-£3,000. Antiques dealer Sandra Cronan agrees that later pieces represent the best value; she has a 1960s cat’s eye chrysoberyl gold ring at £7,200. But demand and prices for good examples grow stronger. Van Cleef & Arpels is coming into its own.