Van Cleef & Arpels

(1898 - present)

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One of France’s most prestigious jewellery houses.

According to the Van Cleef & Arpels web-site, their history began with a marriage in 1895, Alfred Van Cleef (son of a stone cutter) wed Estelle Arpels (daughter of a precious stone dealer.) Both sides of the family worked in the jewellery industry. Alfred's father, Charles, was an esteemed Dutch diamond cutter who moved to Paris during Napoleon III's reign. As a teenager, Alfred apprenticed in the workshop of Messrs. David et Grosgeat and, later, decided to work in sales [1] His wife's family dealt in precious stones. In 1898 and the years after, Estelle's three brothers joined the couple in a new business enterprise, a jewelry salon. [2]

The family rented a modest office in Paris’s ninth arrondissement at 34 rue Drouot. Business thrived and, in 1906, a new location was opened at Place Vendôme. Salons were also opened outside of Paris in Nice (1910), Cannes (1921), New York (1939), Monte Carlo (1935), and Palm Beach (1940). Throughout the 20’s and 30’s, the family’s second generation assumed leadership positions. For instance, Alfred and Estelle’s daughter, Renée Puissant, served as artistic director from 1926 to 1942. In the 1930’s, Estelle's brother Julien also had sons entering the business: Claude, Jacques, and Pierre. By the 70’s, the mantel had again passed to a new generation: Phillipe Arpels and Dominique Hourtouille (Jacques’ children) and Caroline Daumen (Pierre’s daughter). VCA is now fully owned by Compagnie Financière Richemont SA, a Swiss company which deals in high end luxury goods.

Of Van Cleef & Arpels’s numerous contributions to the history of jewellery design, four in particular deserve note. The first is the introduction, in 1930, of a new type of accessory: the minaudière. The minaudière is a type of vanity case. Constructed from gold or silver, it takes the form of a box. When opened, it reveals various lady-like essentials: a comb, a case for lipstick, a lighter, small compartments for cigarettes, change, and powder. The inspiration for the design came from a friend and client: Frances Gould, wife of American railroader Jay Gould. Gould apparently rushed to a meeting with Charles Arpels, throwing her necessities into a tin Lucky Strike cigarette case. Arpels took the idea and made it his own. He named it for his wife. The French verb minauder means, roughly, to simper or smile coyly. Madame Van Cleef’s simpering, especially at parties, was famous. The minaudière was wildly popular for decades. Women carried them in custom-made fabric pouches.

VCA’s second major contribution is a patent, in 1933, for a technique of gemstone setting called invisible setting (serti invisible).[3] The setting is named for its appearance. When gems are invisibly set, it appears as if nothing is holding them in place: no prongs, bars, or bezels are visible. One is simply presented with a collection of continuous, geometric gems. As a matter of fact, the gemstones are secured on their undersides by a metal grid into which each stone is fitted and held in place by small grooves. Setting gemstones in this way allowed for a new aesthetic in jewellery design. Many of Van Cleef’s signature pieces feature the technique.

The third contribution is more general, namely, that of being a purveyor of exceptional gems and jewellery. Over the years, Van Cleef has made numerous important acquisitions, including the “Princie Diamond,” a pink diamond of 38.64 carats, and Empress Josephine’s Tiara. The firm has also created impressive pieces in every design period throughout the twentieth century. In the 1940’s, for instance, it created the widely-copied, charming ballerina brooches.

Fourth, Van Cleef started a commercial trend that continues to this day. In 1954, the firm opened boutiques that served as companions to their haute joaillerie salons, greatly expanding their client base. The boutiques offered collections of jewellery that were “young in spirit and reasonably priced” and updated yearly to reflect changing fashions. Other jewellery houses readily adopted this practice.

Famous Clientele. Throughout the decades, Van Cleef won over a clientele that included royalty from several continents (the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, King Farouk and the Court of Egypt, the Court of Iran), Hollywood film stars (Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich, Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Lauren among others) and industrial magnates as well as financiers (the Mellons, the Kennedys, the Vanderbilts, Florence Gould, the Onassises). The firm was, and is, known for creating opulent, impeccably designed and constructed pieces.


  1. Raulet, 13.
  2. When each of the brothers joined VCA is unclear. Raulet says that Charles and Julien Arpels became partners with Alfred in 1898, while Louis joined the firm in 1912. The Van Cleef and Arpels website states, in contrast, that Alfred and Charles became partners in 1898 and were joined by Julien in 1909 and Louis in 1913.
  3. The Van Cleef website dates the introduction of the invisible setting to 1933.

Sources Consulted

  • Some of the content in this article is contested by Jean Jacques Richard from France. His research can be read on his blogs here and here.

  • Raulet, Sylvie. Van Cleef & Arpels. New York: Rizzoli, 1986.
Fantastic photos. Informative, but contains information inconsistent with Van Cleef website.
Lots of flash, a small amount of information.