What does it take to make a great jewelry house? You need skilled craftsmen, certainly, but also talented designers and diplomatic salesmen. Van Cleef & Arpels had all these but, more than that, from its foundation in the early 20th century, it had an unsurpassed understanding of gems. Which is why it was their jewels that glittered on the crowned heads of Europe, sparkled at the ears of heiresses and duchesses, and encircled the necks and fingers of the world's most celebrated beauties.

The appraise of a stone rests in its clarity, cut, crystal and,
above all, many would say, its color – and Van Cleef and Arpels were particularly skilled in sourcing stones of unusual depth and beauty. They were equally adept at acquiring the truly magnificent single gem necessary to form the centerpiece of some of the world's most spectacular jewellery.

In 1961, for example, a 30.35 carat emerald, bought from an Indian dealer in Geneva, became the inspiration for a sumptuous collarette that was composed of 22 precisely matched emeralds and 412 diamonds with a total weight of more than 70 carats. And in 1969, Jacques Arpels traveled to Ceylon in person to acquire a 43.16 carat sapphire, a perfectly crystalline, flawless stone that was subsequently mounted in a ring and flanked by two pear-shaped diamonds. Both these extraordinary jewels are now being offered by Bonhams in November's Eight Exceptional Jewels from a Private Collection sale in Hong Kong.

"What is particularly exciting, is that it's incredibly unusual to know precisely where a stone comes from," says Matthew Girling, chief executive of Bonhams. "Here we have documented evidence that the sapphire was selected by Jacques Arpels himself".

Like many family firms, Van Cleef & Arpels had a long tradition of expertise. Its roots lay in Amsterdam, the historic center of the diamond trade, where, in the 1860s, Charles Van Cleef became renowned for his talent as a gem-cutter. It was, however, the marriage of his son Alfred in 1895 to Estelle Arpels, the daughter of a dealer in precious stones, that established the foundation of a dynasty. Soon after, Alfred joined forces with his brothers-in-law, Julien and Charles Arpels, to launch Van Cleef & Arpels.

These three young men, with diamonds in their DNA, instinctively understood what women really wanted, and from the outset the business was a success. By 1906, they'd opened on Place Vendôme, in convenient proximity to the Ritz hotel, quickly followed by branches that mirrored the social whirl of pre-war high society – in Deauville and
in Biarritz, in Vichy and on the Riviera.

At the cusp of the new century, Paris was the unrivaled pinnacle of the fashionable world and no American steel magnate's daughter or English aristocrat would have considered her wardrobe complete without regular visits to the city's hautes couturiers and equally hautes joailliers. Van Cleef & Arpels became a must-visit destination for anyone with pretensions to chic, as renowned for its accessories – the jewelry house's bejeweled minaudière (a combination
of a clutch and necessaire) was the Prada handbag of its
day – as for its timepieces and tiaras.

But, as French journalist and essayist Robert de Beauplan noted, its clientele was as comprehensive as it was affluent: "Grand Dukes of Slav origin and Indian Rajahs, Spanish marquises and Corned Beef kings, great ladies and ladies of the demi-monde, crowned heads and crooks, financiers about whom one hesitated to predict whether they'd be worthy members of the Légion d'Honneur or guests of the Santé Prison, politicians in favor and fashionable painters touting for American women who wanted their portraits painted".

In the coming decades, the house was the place to shop for life's more memorable moments. It was here that the Prince of Wales bought Wallis Simpson the sapphire-and-diamond clip and sapphire-and-diamond bracelet she wore to set off her blue satin Mainbocher wedding gown. Here, Prince Rainier ordered the pearl-and-diamond necklace with matching bracelet and earrings on his engagement to Grace Kelly, and here, too, that John F. Kennedy found the emerald-and-diamond ring he slipped on the third finger of Jacqueline Bouvier's left hand.Movie stars from Dietrich and Garbo to Elizabeth Taylor, and political style icons, such as Eva Perón (who commissioned a brooch of the Argentine flag), all possessed at least one, if not more, Van Cleef gem in their jewelry boxes.

The firm's dominance of this elevated marketplace rested not only on its relentless drive for perfection and astute commercial judgment, but on consummate technical skill and constant innovation. Of the last, its most celebrated departure was the creation of the serti mystérieux or mystery setting. This revolutionary technique, patented in 1933, allowed stones to be set without any apparent means of support, creating the impression of a solid mosaic of color, a dazzling pavement of gems. This sleight of hand was only made possible through superlative artistry: the underside of the jewel was first formed out of a lattice of gold channels. The stones were then individually incised with a groove, which allowed them to be slotted into their allocated place, while a specially devised cut provided four additional facets, producing a miraculous contrast of light and shade. To create one of these covetable pieces took hundreds of hours.
Matching and selecting stones, however, is as much a part of the jeweler's art as devising the perfect setting, and the quest for desirable gems was aided by a worldwide network of agents, operating in secrecy. The most senior family members would be called in when negotiations became particularly delicate.

In 1956, for example, Claude Arpels, son of Julien, traveled to India to visit the Maharajah Sahib Bahadur of Rewa, whom he understood wished to dispose of certain stones. His stay coincided with the capture of a white tiger, and Claude was eventually led to admire the noble prisoner. En route, he discovered, arranged in the middle of a grove, a myriad of jewels draped on trees and pinned to flowers, from which he was invited to make his selection. Even then, the deal was not complete. The Maharajah had first to consult his astrologer. Evidently, the signs were auspicious, since a week later two emissaries appeared at Claude's hotel in Delhi bearing a casket, which included a cabochon emerald of more than 100 carats, amongst other items.

It was this personal attention that ensured that Van Cleef & Arpels remained at the pinnacle of this very competitive game. As Julien Arpels once explained to a shop assistant who admired his skill in selling: "It's very simple. I myself bought the stone; I had it recut to make the most of its brilliance; I devised a mount that would display it to best advantage. In a sense, this jewel is my child. That is why I can speak so passionately about it." And why others will admire the eight exceptional jewels from Van Cleef & Arpels being offered at Bonhams Hong Kong.

Lisa Freedman writes for the Financial Times and other publications.

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