It started with a wedding. In 1895, Estelle Arpels, the daughter of a stone dealer, married Alfred Van Cleef, the son of a stone cutter, in Paris. Alfred, with Estelle’s brother Charles, a talented salesman, set up shop on Place Vendôme in 1906, later joined by brothers Julien and Louis.
It took until 1926 for a female member of Van Cleef & Arpels’ respective clans to become involved. That was the year Renée Puissant, Estelle and Alfred’s daughter, came on board as creative director. Her influence is apparent in the kind of intricate yet playful designs for which the brand was to become known, such as 1936’s Cadenas (French for “lock”).
Not only beautiful to look at, Cadenas’ design – a bracelet with a padlock-style feature that concealed a watch, said to be inspired by none other than Wallace Simpson – served a practical function, concealing the timepiece in an era when it was considered improper for a woman to be seen wearing, let alone checking, a watch in public.
As such an example shows, the brands’ watches were intended to be des bijoux qui donnent l’heure (jewels that tell the time). The move into more classic wristwatches came from an equally practical problem: Pierre Arpels, son of co-founder Julien couldn’t find a watch he wanted to wear. He created the Monsieur Arpels (now the Pierre Arpels) – a straightforward round design, but for the three small spheres (the now-famous Trois Boules) that replace each pair of lugs.
French jeweler Pierre Arpels with French actress Claudine Augier, circa 1970. (Photo by BOTTI Giancarlo / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
While jewellery was to become the primary focus for the brand in the years that followed, as its incredible decorative clocks from the 1930s show, an interest in timekeeping remained. In its watchmaking today, Van Cleef & Arpels is famous for what it terms its Poetic Complications, which as the name suggests utilise feats of engineering to tell the time in the most whimsical and charming ways.
The Lady Arpels Pont des Amoureux, for example, houses two figures, a man and a woman who, powered by a retrograde movement, move towards each other across a bridge. At noon and midnight, they finally share a long-awaited kiss. The Midnight Planetarium, meanwhile, depicts the rotation of the five planets visible to the naked eye from Earth – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – in real-time. Elsewhere, the Lady Arpels Papillon Automate comes with a tiny butterfly automaton on its dial, the wings of which flap at different speeds depending on the wearer’s movements.
It’s a conceit almost as romantic as the union that created the brand over 120 years ago. Who couldn’t fail to be charmed?
If the Lady Arpels Pont des Amoureux is a little too saccharine for you, then how about the Lady Arpels A Day in Paris? It has a diamond-set bezel and mother-of-dial behind which is an open aperture from 10-2 o’clock where you can see a sculpted rose gold rotating disk with characters depicting a young woman and her children walking around Paris, discovering its sights from the Eiffel Tower to the Jardin des Tuilleries and Place Vendôme.