Books: Van Cleef & Arpels: Treasures and Legends

Timothy Adams
March 20, 2015
By Vincent Meylan, hardcover, 344 pp., publ. by Antique Collectors Club, 2014, $95.00.
Van Cleef & Arpels: Treasures and Legends by Vincent Meylan delves into the glittering world of the venerable Parisian jewelry firm. Meylan explores the glamorous and exotic patrons who commissioned and collected these pieces, and the world in which they lived. Each chapter of Treasures and Legends is filled with both color and black-and-white photos of necklaces, rings, bracelets, brooches, and earrings. Some images show the firm’s pieces as worn by many of the prominent collectors over the past century. The original design sketches often accompany photos from the VC&A archives.

History buffs will enjoy the stories of royalty, particularly the maharajas and maharanis of Baroda (now Vadodara), India. The vast wealth of jewels that were collected in the Indian principalities is legendary, and Baroda, in Gujarat, was one of the wealthiest. The three-tier great ceremonial diamond collar necklace of Baroda, one of the crown jewels of the state, was made for Maharaja Khanderao in 1864. The necklace contained three of the world's most important diamonds: the Dresden Green, the Star of the South, and the Eugénie. At the time of its creation, it was the most valuable piece of jewelry in the world. The author traces the history of these and other magnificent jewels of Baroda, as well as the colorful and sometimes tragic stories of their owners, such as Maharani Seta Devi of Baroda. With India's independence in 1947, many maharajas had to sell their treasures to sustain their large homes. Seta Devi moved to Paris instead, where she was known for lavish parties and extravagant living. But eventually her money ran out, her beloved son was murdered, and she died in obscurity in 1989.

Other royal stories involve the coronation and crown jewels of the Shah of Iran, as well as the coronation crown of his third wife, Farah Diba. Intimate family photos and sumptuous coronation images highlight the story of the firm’s greatest commission. A first-hand account by Pierre Arpels adds to the interesting narrative of this journey to create these royal treasures. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s famous love affair was documented by many of the pieces of jewelry that he purchased for her at the great jewelry houses of Paris. The Duchess is seen wearing their pieces in many candid photos of them in social settings. Their wedding day photo shows the Duchess wearing her wedding gift: a large sapphire and diamond Mystery-set Jarretière bracelet from Van Cleef & Arpels.

Meylan also explores the role VC&A played in the world of Hollywood royalty. Marlene Dietrich was seen wearing her large ruby and diamond Jarretière bracelet in more than one film. At her death, Elizabeth Taylor’s estate contained more jewelry pieces from Van Cleef & Arpels than from any other jewelry house. Several of her impressive pieces are displayed in this book, and with them their stories of love and passion that defined Taylor’s life. Meylan names other luminaries, such as Barbara Hutton and Grace Kelly, as fans of the jewelry house.

The book ends with a chapter on the personalities in the family, including founders Esther Arpels and Alfred Van Cleef, their daughter Renée Puissant, and Esther’s brothers Charles, Julian, and Louis Arpels. Puissant in particular plays a fascinating role in the company’s history, becoming the artistic director of the firm in 1926. In the 1930s, under her direction, some of the firm’s most iconic pieces, including the “Mystery Setting” and the “Zipper Necklace,” are created. Van Cleef & Arpels: Treasures and Legends takes the reader on a historical journey filled with stunning pieces and interesting characters throughout the world—characters connected with a golden thread, their love of the beautiful art of Van Cleef & Arpels.

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