There is a saying: “A diamond is a diamond no matter where it is.” Even so, a diamond cannot shine its brightest until it has been cut and polished; processes that require immense attention to detail, planning, and calculation in order to achieve the most brilliant of gems. Is this any different to how royalty must evolve to reign magnificently over their kingdoms? Both are culminations of beautiful moments and difficulties, a combination of complicated cuts and corners.
But before diamonds and gemstones can sparkle and decorate the crown or adorn the neck of any king or queen, they must pass through the talented hands of true craftsmen. Knowing how to select the best of diamonds and gems worthy of adorning royalty requires a rare talent, and for this reason, the stories of these craftsmen are often told alongside the historical accounts of nobility. is is the history of Van Cleef & Arpels, the extraordinary jeweler whose story is interwoven with important royal figures across the continents.
For so many, falling in love is the beginning of a story. This too was the case for Van Cleef & Arpels when Estelle Arpels, the daughter of a precious-stones dealer, married Alfred Van Cleef, the son of a stonecutter. Their mutual love for gemstones led to their wedding in 1895 and ultimately to the founding of the Maison at 22 Place Vendôme in 1906. It was a business that Alfred set up with his wife’s three brothers, Charles, Julien, and Louis, all of whom had experience in selling and marketing gemstones. Their vision can be seen from their choice of venue for their first boutique, situated across from Hôtel Ritz – a lavish hotel in the heart of Paris that was well-frequented by European aristocrats and business magnates from the US. And not long after their opening, the name Van Cleef & Arpels became known across the continent for its exquisite jewelry.
Two outstanding pieces created by the Maison in its early years were the delicate bracelet and brooch imitating a bouquet of roses. Van Cleef & Arpels’ technique of setting the diamonds and rubies, so realistically outstanding, helped them win the Grand Prize at the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in 1925. This global-level expo held by the French government was to support designs from various fields, serving as a stage to showcase countless innovations, including new jewelry know-how and expertise.
Van Cleef & Arpels continued to develop new techniques and one of its most innovative achievements was its unique Mystery Set patented in 1933. By setting the stones without visible prongs, the Mystery Set allowed the stones to show their brilliance without anything to obscure their beauty, but the method required an additional 300 hours of work per piece, resulting in the production of very few pieces in Mystery Set each year.
Queen Nazli of Egypt (1894-1978) and Princess Fawzia Fuad of Egypt and Queen Consort of Iran (1921-2013)
Even as commoner, Nazli Sabri was considered a glamorous socialite. e maternal granddaughter of Major General Muhammad Sharif Pasha a prime minister and foreign minister of Egypt, Nazli was of both Turkish and French origin. Nazli attended the Lycée de la Mère-de-Dieu in Cairo and the Collège Notre-Dame de Sion in Alexandria before being sent to boarding school in France on her mother’s death. This led to her love of all things French, along with many other high society figures in Cairo at the time. On returning to Cairo, she was forced into an unsuccessful marriage with her cousin that soon ended in divorce. Then followed a failed engagement to another Egyptian socialite and Nazli became known in Cairo’s social circles as the stylish and beautiful woman with little luck in love.
Her journey to the throne purportedly started when Sultan Fuad of Egypt met her at an opera performance. The sultan, 25 years her senior, proposed to Nazli in 1919 and the marriage took place not long after that. After the wedding, Nazli lived in the haremlik until she gave birth to her son Farouk (His Sultanic Highness Farouk bin Fuad, hereditary Prince of Egypt and Sudan) in 1920. It was after his birth that she was given the title Queen Nazli of Egypt and moved into the Koubbeh Palace.
After growing up as a commoner in cosmopolitan France, her life as queen with its stricter rules was trying and her natural creativity found its outlet in jewelry. Queen Nazli’s collection was widely known as one of the most spectacular jewelry collections ever, and she commissioned several pieces from Van Cleef & Arpels for herself and her daughters. Two stunning pieces were a tiara and necklace that Van Cleef & Arpels created for her to wear to the wedding of her daughter, HRH Princess Fawzia to Prince Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the crown prince of Iran. The queen favored French fashion and ordered that the design combined Art Deco, which was popular at the time, with aesthetics from Egyptian necklaces. Upon seeing sketches presented by the Maison, the queen sent a letter through her royal secretary to Van Cleef & Arpels that she was “greatly pleased.” The necklace used a total of 673 diamonds weighing more than 204 carats. Round and baguette diamonds made up four strands that curved to meet with a six-carat diamond centerpiece before continuing on to a sunburst of round diamonds below. By setting the stones in platinum to create a monochromatic palate, the resulting necklace, in all its sumptuousness, was a masterpiece of class and elegance.
After the death of King Fuad I, the queen moved to California in the 1940s but to maintain her lifestyle as a former royal, she sold some of her jewelry, including the world-renowned diamond necklace. Queen Nazli’s necklace was not seen again until it resurfaced in 2015 at a Sotheby’s auction in New York. It is now part of Van Cleef & Arpels Collection.
Wallis, Duchess of Windsor (1896-1986)
“You all know the reasons which have impelled me to renounce the throne. But I want you to understand that in making up my mind I did not forget the country or the empire which as Prince of Wales, and lately as king, I have for 25 years tried to serve. But you must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.”
This speech by King Edward VIII of England, given one day after he announced his abdication from the throne created history for the British royal family. e woman he loved, who led him to give up the highest calling in the land, was not famed for her beauty and was also twice divorced. But this American woman, who could make Edward VIII forsake the throne for her, was certainly not ordinary. Wallis Simpson was known as a charming socializer, an intelligent and skillful conversationalist who was so witty that the Prince of Wales, infamously known to be an inveterate playboy, discarded all others to remain faithful to Mrs Simpson alone.
Edward loved to give Mrs Simpson jewelry as tokens of his love for her. Many pieces were commissioned and bought from Van Cleef & Arpels, from a diamond and ruby bracelet engraved “Hold tight,” to a 1936 Christmas gift of a Mystery Set ruby and diamond two feathers clip. To commemorate their marriage in 1937, the duke commissioned a bracelet, later named bracelet Jarretière or garter bracelet, engraved with the inscription “For Our Contract 18-V-37.”
Although she shook the British throne to its core, the duchess once admitted that, “I am not a beautiful woman. I’m nothing to look at so the only thing I can do is dress better than anyone else. If everyone looks at me when I enter a room, my husband can feel proud of me. That is my chief responsibility.” Although she never attained the title of queen, she achieved recognition as the world’s best-dressed woman for 10 years in a row. Her fashion style leaned towards the sharp and daring with accessories that blended in, complementing her clothes.
It is said that the Duchess of Windsor was also the inspiration behind the Zip necklace, when she suggested to the Maison’s creative director that the simple and utilitarian zipper could be interpreted into high jewelry around 1938. It was not until 1950 that Van Cleef & Arpels managed to produce the first Zip necklace, inspired by the duchess, that has since become an emblematic signature of the Maison.
The Duke and Duchess had no heirs and their wills stated that all their jewelry be sold on their passing, with all proceeds going to Institut Pasteur, a non-pro t foundation dedicated to the study of modern medicine. e Duke of Windsor also remarked that he wished that the gems be removed from their settings first because he did not wish anyone but “my Wallis” to be seen wearing those pieces.
Her Royal Highness Princess Soraya (1932-2001)
Her Royal Highness Princess Soraya of Iran was born Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiary and was nicknamed Raya by her family. Her father, Khalil Esfandiary Bakhtiary, was an Iranian with Bakhtiari roots while her mother, Eva Karl, was a Russian born in Germany. ey met and fell in love as university students and moved back to Isfahan, Iran, following their graduation and marriage. Raya’s family had a long history of involvement with the Iranian government and diplomatic corps as her uncle Sardar Assad had been a leader in the Persian constitutional revolution in the early years of the 20th century and her father was appointed the ambassador to Iran stationed in West Germany in 1950. Raya’s fairytale-like life started when she turned 19 and was about to graduate from a Swiss finishing school. ere are many accounts of how she met Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi – some say that they met through an introduction from relatives while she was still studying, others say that the shah saw a photo of her as he looked for a new bride following his divorce from Princess Fawzia of Egypt. (Princess Fawzia was the daughter of King Fuad I and Queen Nazli of Egypt, and was married to the Shah when he was still a crown prince.)
Whatever the circumstances, the shah got engaged to the emerald-eyed girl, proposing with a 22.37ct diamond ring. Not long before the wedding day, Raya became seriously ill and the wedding had to be postponed. To keep her spirits up, the shah was purported to have left a piece of jewelry at her bedside each day (historical accounts show that Raya was ill for several months but the number of jewels the shah gifted is less clear). The shah was familiar with Van Cleef & Arpels since the jewelry sets for his first marriage had been ordered from the Maison. Among the pieces he gave to Soraya were the ree birds clip, a symbol of love and harmony; platinum earrings with round brilliant and baguette-cut diamonds set like a ribbon laced through a fan; and Mimosa clips, in which brilliant-cut diamonds decorated a gold bouquet of mimosas.
Queen Soraya’s marriage lasted seven years before news of her divorce emerged because of her inability to produce an heir. e queen had visited doctors in Switzerland and France to no avail. She le Iran in February 1958 and returned to her parent’s home in Cologne, Germany, before the divorce was finalized in March that year.
After the divorce, she was given the title Princess Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiary and moved permanently to France. Princess Soraya began her career as an actor and her movies included I tre volti (The Three Faces) and She in 1965. Her memoir, Le Palais des Solitudes (The Palace of Loneliness), which was released in 1991, concluded that although divorced and forced to live in a foreign land, she maintained her princess title until her last breath.
Her Royal Highness the Grand Duchess Joséphine Charlotte of Luxembourg (1927-2005)
Princess Joséphine Charlotte of Belgium was the first child of King Leopold III and Princess Astrid of Sweden. In 1935, her parents were in a car accident in Switzerland, causing Princess Joséphine and her two younger brothers, Prince Baudoin and Prince Albert, to lose their mother at a very young age. King Leopold III remarried in 1941 to Mary Lilian Baels, who was later given the title of Princess of Rethy. In 1944, near the end of the Second World War, King Leopold III and his family were deported to Germany. Freed a year later, the family moved to Pregny-Chambésy near Geneva, where Princess Josephine studied child psychology at the University of Geneva, before returning to Belgium to take up her royal duties.
Princess Joséphine married Prince Jean, heir apparent to the throne of Luxembourg, in 1953. To mark her engagement, the princess received a set of Van Cleef & Arpels ruby and diamond jewelry from her father, including a flower clip and flower earrings that she wore regularly for the rest of her life. At her wedding on April 9, 1953, in Luxembourg, Princess Joséphine wore a Van Cleef & Arpels diamond and emerald necklace that could be converted into a tiara, as well as a platinum diamond bracelet.
Together, they had five children and once Prince Jean of Luxembourg succeeded his mother as the Grand Duke of Luxembourg, Princess Joséphine steadfastly remained by his side as the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg throughout 36 years until his abdication and her death.
Maharani of Baroda (1917-1989)
Sita Devi, the daughter of the Maharaja of Pithapuram, was born in Madras, India in May 1917. Her marriage to Pratap Singh Rao Gaekwad, the Maharaja of Baroda, in 1943 was the second marriage for both, something that was highly controversial. To marry her, the maharaja had to seek legal advice and throughout their marriage, the maharani was never referred to as “her highness.” Devi, with her adept socializing skills and opulent, jet-set lifestyle was nicknamed “The Indian Wallis Simpson.” When life in India brought about headaches, the couple would retreat to Monte Carlo, where the maharaja had bought a mansion. With each visit, he would bring gifts – treasures from Baroda’s royal collections, including a pearl-encrusted carpet and the Star of the South or Estrela do Sol, a cushion-cut diamond weighing more than 20 carats.
The maharani was among Van Cleef & Arpels’ top clients. As was popular at the time, she liked to have the gems from her Indian jewelry reset into more modern designs and many of her orders to the Maison would be under the name of “Mrs Brown” to avoid having to ll out her endlessly long title. Orders included more than a dozen rings; practically almost every type of brooch that Van Cleef & Arpels had designed; cigar accessories; and powder compacts, candy tins, and wristwatches for both him and her.
Following her divorce in 1956, the maharani maintained her lavish lifestyle and insisted on keeping the armorial insignia of Baroda on her favorite Rolls-Royce. Selling some of her jewelry under anonymity, the maharani traveled the world with her beloved son, Sayajirao. She died in 1989, with many believing her death was caused by a broken heart due to Sayajirao’s passing four years before.
Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco (1929-1982)
It almost seems that Grace Kelly had practice in becoming a princess when Pierre Galante set up a princess-themed photo shoot for her in Monaco, little knowing that the beautiful American actor would one day catch the attention of the Prince of Monaco and become known by all as Princess Grace of Monaco.
Grace Kelly became a leading actor in Hollywood with performances in movies such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, and received an Academy Award for best actress for her performance in The Country Girl in 1954. As a representative from the US delegation while attending the Cannes film festival in 1955, she was invited to the palace for a photo session with Prince Rainier III. Still involved with French actor Jean-Pierre Aumont, Grace didn’t start her fairytale romance with Prince Rainier right away. Prince Rainier traveled to the US to meet her later that year, and according to many accounts, within three days, the prince asked for her hand in marriage and the modern-day Cinderella story began.
For their wedding in 1956, Prince Rainier gifted his princess consort with a three-strand pearl bracelet decorated with diamond flowers and a matching ring by Van Cleef & Arpels. Following the recommendation of Louis Arpels, who said that pearls suited Grace’s delicate beauty, the prince also gave her a three-strand pearl necklace and earrings.
Princess Grace would regularly wear her Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry, received as gifts at various occasions, be it the clips or tiaras that were specially ordered from the Maison. For informal occasions, the princess loved to wear her Alhambra necklaces. She collected them in several kinds of precious materials – from coral, lapis lazuli, and malachite to ivory, which she liked to wear for evening events.
Launched by Van Cleefs & Arpels in 1968, many believe that the idea for the Alhambra design came from Jacques Arpels, the nephew of the Maison’s founder, who managed the brand in the mid-20th century. Jacques liked to pick clover leaves, a symbol of luck, and gave them to his sta along with the poem “Don’t Quit” by John Greenleaf Whittier.
Is it possible that Princess Grace may have hung on to these lines of poetry as well, to give herself the strength in moving forward as the Princess of Monaco? “When things go wrong as they sometimes will, When the road you’re trudging seems all uphill, When the funds are low and the debts are high And you want to smile, but you have to sigh, When care is pressing you down a bit, Rest if you must, but don’t you quit.