It all started with a love story. When Estelle Arpels, the daughter of a a precious-stone dealer, met Alfred Van Cleef, the son of a stonecutter, in the late 19th century, little did the world know that an ever-lasting romance, set to span centuries, had begun. A tale as rich in whimsy as it is beauty, and one that has inspired 125 years of craftsmanship and storytelling.
“The founders of the maison were a couple in love,” Rainer Bernard, Head of Research and Development at Van Cleef & Arpels, tells us as we sit in the Geneva-based headquarters on a frosty winter morning. “Their story pulls a thread through every product we create. You can see it in all of our pieces – family figurines, love birds, Romeo and Juliet – and we weave cultural elements, like dance, opera, fairies and astronomy through the creations too. This is where we feel at home. This is our playground.”
Estelle and Alfred in 1895
Estelle and Alfred married in 1895 and in 1906 they joined forces with Estelle’s brothers – Charles, Julien and Louis – to open the first Van Cleef & Arpels boutique at 22 Place Vendôme, Paris where the store still remains to this day.
From the beginning the brand attracted aristocrats, influencers and socialites, and quickly became the couple’s jeweller of choice, too. The Duchess of Windsor, who amassed quite a collection of Van Cleef & Arpels over the years, wore the brand’s Mystery Set Jarretière bracelet on her wedding day. It was also famously reported that actor Richard Burton once promised Elizabeth Taylor he would “find [her] the most perfect ruby in the world,” and after four years of searching, presented her with the 8.25 carat Van Cleef & Arpels’ Puertas Ruby. On their wedding day, Prince Rainier III of Monaco gifted Grace Kelly a Van Cleef & Arpels pearl and diamond jewellery suite, and soon after, the brand became the official supplier to the Principality of Monaco.
Princess Grace of Monaco, aka Academy Award-winning actress Grace Kelly, was an enormous fan
Fast-forward 125 years and the enduring appeal and unwavering allure of Van Cleef & Arpels is just as strong as ever. Case in point? The Lady Arpels Pont des Amoureux timepiece, which was first unveiled in 2010 as part of the Poetic Complications collection, and has been reintroduced in six new iterations and, of course, a new love story.
“We always start with the story,” says Rainer of the process when creating a new piece. “We always find ourselves in situations where we have an awesome idea, but we’re presented with a challenge because we really don’t know how to realise said idea. There is no book we can refer to, there are no standard solutions. So when I say we start with the story, that really is the case. It’s not just marketing stuff. We’re not just saying that because everybody says they start with a story. Here, it’s real.”
The story of the Lady Arpels Pont des Amoureux (which translates to ‘lovers’ bridge’, we hasten to add) starts with two figures searching for each other on the streets of Paris. Finally, they meet on a bridge in the centre of the City of Love. At the stroke of midnight and midday they kiss, after which the couple separate and the woman returns to the beginning of a jumping retrograde hour scale on one side of the dial and the man to his retrograde minutes on the other.
It’s a scene as romantic as they come. Romance is personified in every whimsical pastel hue, every painfully precise brushstroke and every minute that the lovers inch closer together.
A cursory glance at the watch face shows how romance has informed the Poetic Complications collection, but beyond the love story lies a technical prowess of meticulous movements and complications. The timepiece stole not only the hearts of those entranced by the narrative, but also the lovers of complicated watches.
The brand has taken the kiss to new heights with an on-demand animation that was developed by Jean-Marc Wiederrecht of Agenhor exclusively for Van Cleef & Arpels. Created to amplify the romantic narrative at the simple push of a button, the couple come together and the decisive kiss can be recreated at any moment, so the poetic scene can be relived again and again. The new Valfleurier Q020 base means that the wearer is always in control of the lovers’ destiny. In other words – love truly is on the wrist of the beholder.
First released a decade ago in 2010, the new Lady Arpels Pont des Amoureux has been reimagined in six new styles: a daytime model, a night-time one that includes a men’s watch, and four high- jewellery seasonal variations.
“The daytime version was brand new for us. It was a little bit strange when we started [working on it] because we’ve known the watch as a night version for so many years, but now we have this day version, which has been crafted in rose gold.”
The brand attracted aristocrats, influencers and socialites, and quickly became the couple’s jeweller of choice, too
“We also created a midnight version for men that has a bigger opening. It’s a 42mm watch, which we were a little sceptical about at first because all the other Pont des Amoureux are 38mm, but we were pleasantly surprised by how powerful it turned out.”
The bracelets of the four seasonal high-jewellery watches are set with gemstones to match the colours on the dials: pink, mauve and purple sapphires for printemps; yellow sapphires and spessartite garnets for été; yellow sapphires and spessartite garnets for automne; and blue sapphires for hiver. There are 734 gems in each bracelet, and between the four of them they use gems in 64 different cuts and shapes.
“The bracelets were made using what we call a snow-type stone setting which is an irregular pattern and the most complicated type of stone setting. If one single stone needs changing, we have to reset the whole bracelet,” Rainer points out. “That’s why I give all my stones names,” he laughs. “This one is Hans, this one is Boris...”
As Rainer walks us through the Van Cleef & Arpels atelier, talking us through each stage of creating the watch, we reach the enamelling room. Each Lady Arpels Pont des Amoureux is offered in a range of coloured enamel dials from intense to understated.
“We really wanted to create a soft, milky colour palette that can only be done using grisaille enamelling,” Rainer explains. “It’s not a classic enamelling technique, grisaille is comparable to watercolour, and involves painting several layers to get this milky effect.”
The cost of watches with enamel work is often high, at least in part because of the exacting work that goes into making them. It takes up to 40 hours to finish a single dial; each layer is painted through a microscope using a single brush hair before being fired in an oven to create a hard, deeply pigmented finish. This process is continued several times until the entire dial is coated. It would be remiss of us not to give this herculean task a go ourselves, so we pull up a chair, peer through the lens of the microscope that that has blown up the Parisian backdrop and instantly feel about as small as the figurines we’re about to paint. We’re quick to learn why there were no more than a handful of artisans capable of producing this kind of work. “Wristy business,” we think to ourselves.
We sit, amazed at the depth and complexity involved not only in watchmaking, but in the creation of a Lady Arpels Pont des Amoureux. It’s a genuine labour of love and we’re convinced now more than ever that watchmaking, very much like romantic relationships, can truly tell stories of such deep, beautiful and ever-inspiring sentiment.
From Harper's BAZAAR Arabia February 2020 Issue
Images courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels