Friday, March 25, 2011


By Polly Guerin


Diamonds may be a girl’s best friend but then there are rubies, emeralds and sapphires to color one’s life with vibrant fine jewelry designs that any princess in a romantic novel would cherish. Van Cleef & Arpels the legendary French jewelry brings to the fashion stage a world of beauty, fashion, mystery, storytelling and magic! The luxury jeweler has revisited its iconic surrealist Zip necklace and the gem-setting procedure known as the Mystery Setting at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York in the exhibit “Set in Style,” which showcases several themes: Innovation, Transformations, Nature as Inspiration, Exoticism and Fashion on display with all its historical dazzle until June 5, 2011. Even if you cannot afford this luxury---it is well worth admiring the detail of these exquisite works of art, the Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry for themselves.


On view are over 350 jewels, timepieces fashion accessories and objets d’art, many of which were created for the American market. Since its boutique opening in 1906 at 22 Place Vendome in Paris Van Cleef & Arpels has played a leading role in style and design innovation in the world of the fashion cognoscenti. Its timeless pieces have been worn by royalty as well as heroines of the silver screen, queens, princesses and famous women including style icons the Duchess of Windsor, H.S.H. Princess Grace of Monaco and Dame Elizabeth Taylor to name a few. By far one of the most unique designs is the Zip necklace that the jeweler recently introduced in Paris with four new spectacular versions at their Place Vendome boutique.


Van Cleef & Arpels is renowned for transforming objects from one form into another, hence the theme Transformations and the Zip necklace has a zipper that really works. What you’ll see on display, is the iconic surrealist Zip design, which was originally commissioned by the Duchess of Windsor in 1938, but only got as far as the sketch stage, being too difficult to engineer in platinum and diamonds as she had requested. However, the first yellow-gold version was produced in 1951. The highly technical piece the Zip necklace can be worn as a necklace or zipped up to form a bracelet, giving the piece great flexibility. It was the ultimate design solution by the firm’s head designer Rene-Sims Lacaze, and artistic designer Renee Puissant, daughter of Alfred Van Cleef and Estelle Arpels, begins in 1926. The next two decades are a highly creative period for Van Cleef & Arpels.


Truly remarkable is the Mystery Setting an innovation in which matched gemstones are grooved and set in channels so that the setting is invisible. The Mystery-Set Ribbon bracelet, circa 1943, for example, emeralds are softer than sapphires and rubies, making exact cutting difficult; they are also harder to match for color, so Mystery-Set emeralds are particularly rare. Van Cleef & Arpels is also the originator of the Minaudiere patented in 1934, a vanity case the size of a small clutch that is popular with fashionistas worldwide.


When Van Cleef & Aprels opened its doors it was an era of high collars and frilly lace, but the luxury jeweler has kept pace with the times of change. Whatever the period, VC&A has understood the line between fashion and jewelry as a powerful emotional sensibility that greatly influences contemporary design. The celebrated women and their choices of adornment are also a significant part of jewelry-design history. Among the great ladies legendary opera singer Maria Callas showed off her jewelry onstage and off like including the flower brooch fashioned with rubies, diamonds and platinum, and always a favorite the adorable poodle brooch of the model owned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in gold diamonds, rubies.


The history of Van Cleef & Arpels is a saga of the merging two families that formed an alliance of legendary consequences. Both families had long been in the diamond and colored-stone markets in the Netherlands and Belgium. The daughter of Salomon Arpels, a dealer in precious stones, married Alfred Van Cleef, whose family were sheet merchants living in the 19th arrondissement of Paris. That same year, Alfred Van Cleef and Salomon Arpels established a jewelry business and in 1906, they registered the “Van Cleef & Arpels” trademark and opened a boutique in the tony haute couture enclave at 22 Place Vendome. Progressively, the second generation joined the business and in 1942 the Arpels family immigrated to America and opened their first boutique in New York, on 5th Avenue. Venturing further the firm later became the first French jeweler to open boutiques in Japan and China.

Visit VC&A at The Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum is located at 2 East 91st Street. ♥

Polly Guerin, a former professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and RWA Blog’s fashion historian is currently working on a book entitled the Cooper-Hewitt’s of Old New York in which the founders of the Cooper-Hewitt museum, Eleanor Gurnee and Sarah Cooper Hewitt, granddaughters of Peter Cooper, are featured in the chapter, “A Tale of Two Sisters.”

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