In the dreary days of the early 1930s, as the world sank into economic depression, the Parisian jewelry house of Van Cleef & Arpels bucked the somber mood and forged its revolutionary and decidedly luxurious serti mystérieux, or mysterious setting. The now-famous process involves cutting rubies and sapphires to meticulous specifications and setting them on a concealed gold net so that no visible metal appears in the design. The technique makes it possible to create voluptuous, gem-encrusted, three-dimensional shapes using the malleable gold net. Each masterpiece requires countless hours of craftsmanship; a floral brooch, for example, might call for 800 perfectly matched and cut rubies.
Seventy years after its inception, the mysterious setting remains one of the jeweler’s most coveted signatures. Today, as the century-old house attempts to polish its sleepy image for the 21st century, its iconic designs—the mysterious setting as well as the clover motif and the Cadenas (padlock) watch—are attracting the most attention from a new, younger group of followers.
“Many clients know Van Cleef & Arpels because their grandmothers wore our jewelry,” says Nathalie Guedj, the company’s U.S. president and CEO. She insists, however, that the latest designs are clearly not from Grandma’s jewelry box.
Taking inspiration from the company’s abundant archives, a new stable of designers is reinventing some of Van Cleef & Arpels’ tried-and-true themes with a sense of modernity and whimsy. The latest floral-motif pieces feature stylish bouquets that wrap around two fingers,and a signature butterfly brooch now appears as a daring double butterfly ring—one in white and the other in yellow diamonds. Its signature Cadenas watch is outfitted with a sleek bracelet. And the house’s 1940s Snowflake design has been reinterpreted in lighter, ethereal diamond creations.
Van Cleef is also widely known for its clever interchangeable jewelry. New ideas include adjustable link necklaces that can be worn as belts and watches that can hang as pendants around the neck or be double-wrapped around the wrist.
While many new themes are interpreted with fashionable flair, Van Cleef & Arpels continues to pursue lavish haute joaillerie, which, Guedj points out, is the brand’s heritage. The latest collection, christened Midsummer Night’s Dream, made its debut in November in the company’s Beverly Hills store. The diamond jewelry, inspired by the Shakespeare comedy, is meant to reflect fantasy, love, and fairies. Paying homage to Van Cleef’s legacy, the collection in-corporates many of its long-standing techniques, such as the graceful, supple construction depicted in delicate flowers, fairies, and butterflies. The Envol necklace, for example, features two oversize jeweled butterflies—one mysterious-set with 445 rubies and the other pavéed with diamonds. The jeweler’s master craftsmen spent some 800 hours creating the design in its Paris atelier.
“There is a renewal of Van Cleef & Arpels,” says Guedj. Not coincidentally, this renewal has been accompanied by a cash infusion in the business since 1999, when Compagnie Financière Richemont SA purchased the brand from the Arpels family. Van Cleef is one of the latest additions to Richemont’s lineup of luxury watch and jewelry brands, which includes Cartier, Piaget, Jaeger-LeCoultre, and Vacheron Constantin. “It is hard for a family to properly finance a luxury business today,” Guedj notes. “We now have the financing and talent to invest in much greater quantities of gemstones and diamonds and in training the next generation of craftsmen.”
With only two craftsmen possessing the ability to cut and set the gems required to create the popular mys-terious setting, training has become a high priority in the Paris atelier. Artisans will spend four to seven years mastering the intricate technique that links Van Cleef & Arpels’ illustrious past to what could be a prolific future.
Van Cleef & Arpels, 800.VCA.5797