Van Cleef & Arpels’ Heritage Collection

Van Cleef & Arpels’ Heritage department has been offering vintage jewels to clients for almost two decades. Now, the extraordinary beauty of its collection is finally coming to the fore, discovers Kim Parker

Style 18 Jun 2024

A jewellery creation in the shape of a ballerina performing a pirouette

Van Cleef & Arpels has drawn inspiration from the world of dance for many of the maison’s jewellery creations

For one week each spring, the medieval Dutch city of Maastricht is besieged by the great and good of the art world, as almost 74,000 visitors make their way to the annual fair organised by The European Fine Art Foundation (TEFAF). Established in 1988 and now considered one of the highlights of the sophisticated collector’s calendar (indeed, more than 200 private jets are said to land at the local airport throughout the exhibition), TEFAF Maastricht offers aficionados the chance to peruse a vast array of rare treasures and decorative objets from the past 7,000 years of human culture – including prehistoric relics, Old Masters’ paintings, modern sculptures, first-edition books and, of course, exquisite jewellery. Surrounded by an international roster of jewellers such as the Taiwanese designer Anna Hu, German family firm Hemmerle and the Indian contemporary maker Bhagat, you’ll find the whimsically decorated booth belonging to Van Cleef & Arpels, the French maison that has been crafting extraordinary jewels since 1906, when Alfred Van Cleef and his brothers-in-law, Charles and Julien Arpels, opened their first boutique in Paris’ storied Place Vendôme.

The brand has been exhibiting at TEFAF for over a decade, and here its vitrines sparkle with far more than its latest fine jewellery offerings. Displayed amid forest-themed backdrops or illustrations of meadow flowers is an eye-catching array of vintage jewels that demonstrate Van Cleef & Arpels’ extraordinary savoir-faire throughout the decades, as well as its signature leitmotifs such as nature, movement and the bold use of colourful gemstones. A Jazz Age sautoir featuring geometric arrangements of diamonds and shimmering pearl drops might be found next to a yellow-gold cuff adorned with tropical-hued gemstones from the mid-1960s, for example, or a lifelike floral brooch, complete with diamond-tipped anthers, from 1998.

‘We have more and more clients looking for that heritage aspect when buying their jewellery nowadays. For them the provenance, uniqueness and the narrative behind each piece is very important,’ says Natacha Vassiltchikov, deputy director of Van Cleef & Arpels’ Heritage collection, a department which sources the brand’s creations from between the 1920s to the 1990s, then authenticates, restores and offers them to clients. Founded almost two decades ago, the Heritage collection is distinct from Van Cleef & Arpels’ Patrimony collection, which preserves the maison’s archival jewels for posterity and educational purposes (including museum and exhibition loans), though the two departments will often collaborate on acquisitions.

A vintage bracelet of turquoise and amethyst
A vintage bracelet of turquoise and amethyst

‘Our objective is more commercial than the Patrimony department, so we keep up with collecting and fashion trends and can offer pieces that suit contemporary tastes, alongside many of our iconic designs, like animal clips or Ludo bracelets,’ explains Vassiltchikov. ‘Clients often come to us because they are looking to build up their collection with something unique, and perhaps don’t want a piece of “status” jewellery that they feel everyone else owns. I liken it to interior design schemes – the most interesting homes are the ones that mix a Roman bust with an Art Deco table or a modern lamp. Many collectors also prefer the more subtle charms of an antique piece than the “flashier” sparkle of a brand-new creation.’

To that end, any jewellery that passes Van Cleef ’s stringent authentication process and is accepted into the Heritage collection is meticulously reconditioned before being sold. ‘Our pieces aren’t destined to live in a box, they are going to be worn by their new owners. We create a forensic checklist of things that need to be adjusted, like a loose stone or a pin that needs straightening, and then each piece will go to a craftsman who methodically works through that list and makes sure everything is correct,’ says Vassiltchikov. A gentle cleanse then readies the jewels for re-sale, without disturbing the soft patina that may have developed over time. ‘It shows our pieces have already had a life,’ Vassiltchikov notes.

Leaf-shaped clips from the 1940s
Leaf-shaped clips from the 1940s

Though Van Cleef & Arpels’ Heritage collection now consists of around 120 jewels and precious objects (often found at auction, or through clientele who bring their antique jewels into store for appraisal), the house highlights a handful of special pieces at TEFAF each year to showcase the variety and depth of its offering. For 2024 it chose five eye-catching designs, including two asymmetric, leaf-shaped clips from the 1940s that pay homage to nature, an eternal source of design inspiration; a glamorous pair of 1960s drop earrings which juxtapose rose-cut sapphires with rubies and emerald drops as a testament to the multi-cultural influences of the era; a striking gold minaudière clutch that speaks to the house’s ongoing relationship with the world of haute couture, and an intricately openworked bracelet featuring turquoise and amethyst cabochons which evokes the dazzling hues and voluminous silhouettes that were popular during the 1970s, and have recently come back into vogue.

‘This is my favourite piece, it’s a real showstopper,’ enthuses Vassiltchikov. ‘The abstract pattern of the stones is beautiful, and even though it’s quite a large piece, it still has a wonderful lightness and wearability. I will be sad to see it go, but of course I will be thrilled for whoever takes it home.’