Getting a glimpse into the rarified history of Van Cleef & Arpels is a treat. After all, this is one of the finest jewelry maisons in the world with a history dating back to Paris 1896. It once counted the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Elizabeth Taylor, and Princess Grace of Monaco among its faithful clients, as well as a slew of other actresses, royal figures, and style icons.
So you can understand how hard pressed I was to turn down the opportunity to meet Nicolas Luchsinger, vice president of retail and director of the Heritage Collection, at the Birks flagship store in downtown Vancouver for a trip through the annals of Van Cleef & Arpels. A self-professed jewelry enthusiast (he confessed to collecting auction catalogues as a teenager), Luchsinger was a knowledgeable guide as we journeyed through Van Cleef & Arpels's illustrious past, right up until the present day.
The way Luchsinger tells it, the history of Van Cleef & Arpels "began as a love story" with the marriage between Esther Arpels and Alfred Van Cleef in 1896. The two newly joined families founded their namesake jewelry business in the same year, opening their first flagship store at 22 place Vendome. Stores in ritzy resort towns like Cannes and Monte Carlo followed in subsequent years.
As trends came and went, the jewelry house changed also, their designs influenced by the great aesthetic movements and social happenings of the day. During the 1920s, Art Deco, the Orient's intricate handicrafts, the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb, and a visiting maharajah from India who attended the British coronation with an assortment of fine stones all inspired Van Cleef & Arpels's designers in one way or another. Haute couture, changing fashions, wars, and Hollywood also shaped the house's creations. For example, WWII inspired heavier jewelry pieces that alluded to the weight and heft of war arms. The war's metals demands also created a shortage of platinum for jewelry makers, so yellow gold came back into style.
Despite the house's ability to keep up with the times, some style signatures have emerged as distinctly Van Cleef & Arpels over the years. Recurring design motifs like fairies, nature, birds of paradise, and ballet dancers keep devoted fans coming back for more. Van Cleef & Arpels is also famous for their transformable jewelry, each design a dazzling masterpiece of mechanics, luxury, and workmanship. One of their most notable transformable designs is the Zip necklace, famously commissioned by the Duchess of Windsor. As Luchsinger demonstrated, the necklace works just like a zipper and can be worn as a zipped bracelet, partially zipped necklace, or unzipped belt. The between-the-fingers Lotus ring, which transforms from a single finger to a double finger ring, is another brilliant example of the house's knack for versatile design.
The Alhambra and Perlée, though, are perhaps Van Cleef & Arpels's most ubiquitous design motifs these days. Claude Arpels was inspired by the famous Spanish landmark of the same name; he created the first Alhambra pieces crafted from plain yellow gold in 1968. Subsequent bracelets, necklaces, and rings have featured such eclectic materials as turquoise, black onyx, lapis, mother of pearl, wood, rock crystal, and coral. The Perlée's oversized pearl look was inspired by Van Cleef & Arpels's 1920s Art Deco designs, which had a fine pearl-dot detail between stones.
Our interview ended with a look at Van Cleef & Arpels's timepieces from their Poetic Complications collection. Like the Zip necklace and the between-the-finger rings, they're marvels of jewelry design and engineering.
It's fitting that Van Cleef & Arpels was born of a romance, and through it, the romance of jewelry lives on: beautiful, luxurious, meticulously crafted--and, more often than not, a token of love.