Rapaport Magazine

Then and Now

From the early 1900s through today, a pantheon of great jewelry houses — Tiffany & Co., Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels — built brands that are synonymous with luxury jewelry, creating an enduring artistic legacy.

By Phyllis Schiller

Cartier, Tiffany & Co., Van Cleef & Arpels…the names bring instant recognition in the jewelry industry. Of the trio, two were established in Paris, one in New York, but all three became embedded in the American consumer’s mind as the epitome of luxury jewelry makers. Although today these are modern corporations that need to keep their eyes not only on the design “prize” but the bottom line of making a profit, they started as family-run businesses built on an appreciation of fine gemstones and a passion for using them to create beautiful works of wearable art. Firmly entrenching their reputation as award-winning designers at international expositions and as purveyors of legendary diamonds and quality gemstones, they catered to the elite, from princes to presidents, society’s movers and shakers and Hollywood royalty.

Creativity Through the Years
   In their early decades, these three titans of the jewelry industry turned out innovative takes on the major design movements of the decades, from Edwardian to Art Deco and beyond. “Each of these houses was able to produce extraordinary jewelry with its own distinctive style, but they also had the matrix of a design movement to cling to,” explains Audrey Friedman, co-owner, with husband Haim Manishevitz, of Primavera Gallery, New York City. “During the various jewelry movements, they followed the fashion but did it in the way their clients would want.”
   A lot of inspiration for these companies’ modern pieces comes from their previous successes, points out Friedman. Which makes sense, she says, since the designs are distinctively theirs and proven moneymakers. “Everything old is new again in certain areas. Tiffany has reworked the Schlumberger bracelet with enamel, but now, instead of having the gold lozenges, they’ve put in diamonds. Van Cleef has gone back to their Alhambra jewelry, which was popular in the sixties. Cartier has the panther jewelry. They’ve gone back to something that was successful in the past, but they’ve modernized it to keep it current.”
   The reissue of the Alhambra jewelry, says Benjamin Macklowe, vice president of the Macklowe Gallery in New York City, “has certainly been the single most successful design rollout of the past 15 years. You can’t walk down the streets of New York City without seeing somebody wearing it. Women feel very comfortable with it. And I think that points to the tension every jeweler has to find jewelry that is significant looking but not so fancy that a woman won’t wear it. And women feel that they can wear this design anyplace.”
   Cartier has been clever about their panther jewelry, agrees Simon Teakle, Simon Teakle Fine Jewelry, Greenwich, Connecticut, “bringing it forward from the 1920s through the Art Deco years and then the 1940s when the Duchess of Windsor wore it. But each time, it’s been slightly different and new.”
   “You can’t sit in the past, you have to evolve,” continues Teakle. “Styles and fashions change, the whole social fabric changes. Look at the way people dress now versus a hundred years ago, the way people wear jewelry. Where Cartier and Van Cleef in particular have been very successful is they’ve been able to keep the integrity of who they are and the flavor of who they are but keep the styles current.”

   Begun as retail and blossoming out into jewelry design prominence, Maison Cartier was founded in 1847 by Louis-François Cartier. His son Alfred took over the reins in 1874. He expanded the business beyond Paris, with a London branch, opened in 1902, and a New York store, in 1909. A third generation of Cartier sons took their places, with Louis managing the Paris branch, Pierre, the New York branch and Jacques in London. In 1942, Louis and Jacques Cartier passed away and Pierre returned to France, becoming head of Cartier International. He retired in 1947. Jacques’ son Jean-Jacques was put in charge of the London branch and Louis’ son Claude went to New York. Today, Cartier is part of luxury group Compagnie Financière Richemont SA.
   Cartier took a preeminent position in jewelry making during the Edwardian era in its masterful use of platinum, introducing the white-on-white platinum and diamond combination in its garland style setting, ornately accented by floral designs featuring bows, swags and other nineteenth-century motifs. “The list of great designs continues,” says Teakle, “as a through-line to the great Deco jewels and the ‘objets,’ like the incredible clocks that they made, going through to the 1940s and 1950s when the Duchess of Windsor was buying.”
   “I think Cartier is a cornerstone for modern jewelry as we know it,” continues Teakle. “If you go back to the first half of the twentieth century, whether you’re dealing with the important gemstones they handled or the creations of designs, the output was incredible.”
   “From Edwardian to Art Deco,” says Macklowe, “Cartier is always going to be the standard bearer.” The tutti frutti bracelets, he says, with their glorious combinations of diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds, “are the top of the heap in terms of jewelry, as are the mystery clocks in terms of objects. And rightly so. I think those were innovative and quite beautiful. But I think there’s something about the perception of traditional French good taste that Cartier’s Art Deco jewelry embodies, and that’s why it will always, always, always be popular and will always carry a huge premium over any intrinsic value it will bring to the table.”

Van Cleef & Arpels
   Van Cleef & Arpels was a match made in love and jewelry tradition when Alfred Van Cleef, son of a skilled stonecutter, went into business with the brothers — Charles and Julien — of his wife Estelle Arpels, daughter of a dealer in precious stones, establishing Maison Van Cleef & Arpels at Place Vendôme in 1906. By 1912, the company began opening branches in popular resort towns, garnering customers among the elite who vacationed there, eventually opening a New York branch in 1942. Over the years, descendants of the Arpels family helmed the company until, in 1999, the firm was acquired by Compagnie Financière Richemont, S.A.
   Among the many creative offerings Van Cleef & Arpels pioneered over the years, the so-called “Mystery Setting” stands out. The patented technique sets faceted gemstones so that no prongs are visible on the face of the jewel and it appear to be free floating. Each gem is secured by being meticulously inserted into thin gold rails less than two-tenths of a millimeter wide on the underside.
   “Of course the mystery set jewelry is always going to carry a huge premium,” says Macklowe, “especially — and here’s the interesting thing — the mystery set jewelry made in France. It is much more expensive than the mystery set jewelry made in the United States, even though I don’t see a real difference in quality. But it’s a French company and you’re paying for that cachet.”
   In terms of designs, Macklowe continues, “1907 right up to today, Van Cleef has done designs that are really worth collecting — which is why even secondhand VCA sells very well.”
Teakle cites Van Cleef’s great Art Deco Egyptian Revival pieces and “what I call their Grace Kelly era in the 1950s and then their bold, heavy jewelry from the 1960s and 1970s. In its way, each period is catering to a different type of collector, depending on the nature of the style of jewelry they’re wearing, but each in itself is a very compelling period.”
   According to Macklowe, “their whimsical jewelry, some of the animals and such, are just delightful. But the material that seems to be most ascendant in terms of its popularity is the ‘powerful woman’ jewelry of the 1960s and ’70s. The long necklaces with large medallion pendants seem to have a very strong appeal, where their price today greatly outstrips what it was 15 or 20 years ago.”
   Janet Levy, principal, J. & S.S. DeYoung, New York City, points to “Van Cleef’s ballerinas, their flame pins…very refined and elegant jewelry designs. They used top-quality gemstones. They really took the time to design pieces.”
   In the 1960s, says Friedman, “when jewelry became very flamboyant again and took inspiration from the 1920s and 1930s, Van Cleef started doing beaded sautoires with big tassels hanging from the bottom, reminiscent of the ’20s but in a whole different proportion. They were big and they were jeweled and you wore them with matching earrings and maybe a matching bracelet.” Another iconic design Friedman cites is the zipper necklace, “which was a tremendously innovative piece. They did really elegant jewelry.”

Tiffany & Co.
   American firm Tiffany & Co. was established by Charles Lewis Tiffany, who originally partnered with a school friend, John B. Young, to establish Tiffany & Young on New York City’s lower Broadway. When Young retired in 1853, Charles Lewis took control of the company. Changing the firm’s name to Tiffany & Co., he concentrated on producing classic silver designs. The success of these pieces was proven at the 1867 Paris World’s Fair, where Tiffany & Co. was the first American firm to win top honors for silver craftsmanship. A silver design studio was established under silversmith Edward C. Moore.
   When Charles Lewis died in 1902, his son, Charles Louis Tiffany, the successful glassmaker and designer, guided the company’s creative output with his innovative jewelry. Over the years, a number of talented jewelry designers added their individual stamp to the firm’s repertoire of distinctive styles, starting with Paulding Farnham in 1885, known for his bejeweled orchids. In 1956, Jean Schlumberger created dramatic colored enameled pieces and exotic flora and fauna. In the later twentieth century, the company forged collaborations with such leading lights as Donald Claflin (1965-1977), Angela Cummings (late 1960s to early 1980s), Elsa Peretti (1974 to present), Paloma Picasso (1980 to present) and Frank Gehry (2005 to present). The company was sold in 1978 to Avon Products, Inc. who sold it six years later in 1984 to an investor group led by William R. Chaney. Tiffany went public again in 1987.
   Tiffany was the only jewelry house, points out Friedman, “that had a great designer, gave him a department and let the jewelry became the fashion must-have. Tiffany has in some ways been more original than the other jewelry houses because they have these star designers who get a lot of publicity and draw a lot of attention and create jewelry that’s distinctive in a certain way and distinctive to the jewelry house.”
   “For me,” says Teakle, “the real Golden Age of Tiffany was at the end of the nineteenth century. At the time, they were dealing in very important gemstones, such as the 128.54-carat fancy yellow Tiffany Diamond, and you had the creative force of Louis Comfort Tiffany and Paulding Farnham. It was fresh, it was new, with very dramatic color combinations and stone combinations, which, to this day, people are emulating. And Tiffany in the Art Deco period was creating fantastic pieces of jewelry.”
   Points out Macklowe, “Tiffany was among the first big jewelry houses to start using nontraditional designers, with Schlumberger being the first example. His whole take was fashion and fantasy. And Paulding Farnham’s Renaissance Revival work is gorgeous — the most sumptuous colors — and was far superior to the European work being done at the same time. And Louis Comfort Tiffany completely changed the way Americans saw jewelry. He brought it into a realm of artistic exploration that hadn’t been done before, where it was less about showing your wealth and more about showing your taste.”
   Agrees Levy, “when Louis Comfort Tiffany took over the design aspect of the business, he brought an organic, natural sense to their pieces, with very creative use of colored stones, but not necessarily the most valuable ones. They would throw in garnets, opals, pearls, different combinations for the purpose of making something beautiful, not necessarily valuable, but for the artistry. That sense was revived in the 1950s when Tiffany was responsible for introducing stones like tanzanite and kunzite to the marketplace and they became innovators in the field of recognizing the beauty of a colored gemstone and incorporating it into their new jewelry styles. Schlumberger’s use of nature, flowers and animals, his use of enamel, continued this kind of naturalistic motif in the jewelry. Certainly there was a sense of whimsy and fun in the jewelry Schlumberger created and that was taken up by people like David Webb. It’s all connected.”
   Overall, sums up Levy, “it’s good to have these titans around. They have the resources and marketing to keep jewelry in people’s minds. It’s like the De Beers diamond slogan — even children knew that a diamond was forever and it became part of our culture. These firms hopefully will take the view that they are not just in business to make money but to uphold traditions and create excitement for their products and the industry as a whole.” 

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - May 2013. To subscribe click here.

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