Love and beauty always seem to be the driving aesthetic behind any Van Cleef & Arpels watch. Just think of the exquisite Pont des Amoureux Poetic Complication launched a few years back featuring two lovers making their way to the middle of the famous Ponts des Art in Paris. The man impatiently counts the minutes, while the woman languorously represents the hours. They steal a fleeting kiss at midnight before the watch’s retrograde function pulls them apart to start their journey again.
It combines incredible horological skill with a romance not normally seen on a watch and isn’t surprising when you know the brand’s story.
Towards the end of the 19th century a young woman called Estelle Arpels, the daughter of a precious stone dealer, met a young man called Alfred Van Cleef, the son of a stone cutter.
They married in 1895 and, through a shared desire to go into business together, they decided to set up the Maison of Van Cleef and Arpels, using their familial expertise, and help from Esther’s father Salomon, to create exquisite jewellery.
It was not until 1935 that the House, now under the creative direction of Alfred and Esther’s daughter, Renee Puissant, would branch into watches and, unusually it was creating a timepiece solution for women that gave them this start. Being Van Cleef & Arpels, it wouldn’t be any old watch but one that combined story-telling with fine craftsmanship.
The result was the Cadenas watch. Cadenas means ‘lock’ in French and is a known symbol of the union between two people. In the early 20th century, it was considered vulgar for a woman to wear a watch. The Cadenas got round this social stricture by hiding the dial under the loop of the lock.
It would be another 14 years before the brand was to create a man’s watch, the Pierre Arpels.
Van Cleef & Arpels continues to create watches for men and women, using both movements designed for the brand, such as the planet module, which was designed for the breath-taking Midnight Planetarium Poetic Complication by Christian van der Klaauw, and ones from other brands in the Richemont stable (the Pierre Arpels contains a Piaget manual wind).
Van Cleef & Arpels was the first French jeweller to open boutiques in Japan and China and now has them all over the world, including Brazil, Russia and Kazakhstan.
It is now as renowned for its exquisite jewellery as it is for its beautiful, playful watches, which always seem to tell a love story. Esther and Alfred would have approved.