Monday, 30 November -0001

LEGENDARY TREASURES

One exclusive jeweller not only made luxuries for high society’s crème de la crème, it was their confidante, too, says Vincent Meylan

Written by Vincent Meylan
Paris: 3 October 1966. The invitation stipulated ‘black tie’. Gathered round the dinner table was the crème de la crème of Paris high society.

Presiding over the company was the Duke of Windsor. On the right of the host, one of the city’s most successful lawyers, sat the duchess, and on his left the Maharani of Baroda. For obscure reasons concerning matters of precedence and a long-standing falling-out over a piece of jewellery (because, it was said, a jeweller had bought it from one of them and sold it to the other), the two women detested each other. Aristotle Onassis, the Greek millionaire, had come as a neighbour. Maria Callas, the celebrated diva, had made her excuses, on the other hand.

Her romance with Onassis was flagging; he had been unfaithful to her for years and was very likely about to leave her – at least that was what everyone had been secretly saying.

The menu, carefully noted down by the hostess in her guest book, was worthy of a five-star restaurant: consommé aux perles de la Volga, turbot braisé au champagne, riz créole, agneau de lait à la broche. The wines were of a quality to match: Dom Pérignon 1949, Château Talbot Magnum 1945. The setting was refined and the company select. The guests all moved in the same circles, and were consummately au fait with the manners and mores of this urbane world.

Admittedly ‘society’ was by now a more mixed affair than it had been. Gigolos who had made good, femmes fatales with colourful pedigrees, captains of industry of dubious principles – all were now granted an entrée. It was much more fun and less stuffy.

But the dress code was still strictly observed. Ladies always, but always, wore long. The ladies around the table that evening boasted impeccable coiffures. Every one of them had her hair dressed by Alexandre de Paris, who had swept it up into one of his trademark bouffant chignons. This was not an era that could ever be accused of being afraid of luxury. It had to be discreet and in the best of taste, naturally, but luxury was de rigueur. The Duchess of Windsor, the Maharani of Baroda, Lady Deterding, Madame Patino and Florence Gould were all decked out in sumptuous jewels. Can it have been coincidence that they all came from the same jeweller: Van Cleef & Arpels?

Created at the beginning of the 20th century, Van Cleef & Arpels were not merely purveyors of jewels to these men and women, but also their confidants. Only they knew for whom Onassis bought that ruby-and-diamond clip; the origins of the magnificent stone set in the Duchess of Windsor’s bracelet; or the identity of the princess, impoverished by war or revolution, who had come to sell her royal jewels in secrecy.

Today Van Cleef & Arpels is part of a multinational group, but the Maison has retained its identity, its spirit, and its taste, the legacy of the Van Cleefs, the Arpels, and all the remarkable skilled artisans known as les mains d’or who have worked, and who continue to work, in the workshops at 22 Place Vendôme. 

Van Cleef & Arpels: Treasures And Legends, by Vincent (Antique Collectors’ Club, £55).


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