MENTION PARISIAN JEWELER VAN CLEEF & ARPELS to an expert, and he or she will rhapsodize about the company's enhancement of stones with the minimum use of metal, and its famous clientele, including such style icons as Marlene Dietrich, Princess Grace of Monaco and the Duchess of Windsor. But the real gem of Van Cleef is the craftsmanship—the seemingly invisible settings, and the sway and movement in the designs. Today the pieces are created as intricately as they were when the house, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, opened. All the high jewelry pieces are still made in Fort Knox--like ateliers above the Place Vendôme shop. Of course, getting into those ateliers is still a rare privilege reserved for clients who are willing and able to pay the price for made-to-order pieces—a trend that, according to president Stanislas de Quercize, has been on the rise in the past year (a necklace sold for $1,830,000, an industry high for 2005).
Among its competitors, Van Cleef is considered the couture house, and Thierry Gautier is the gatekeeper of sales. Gautier thinks of himself as the clients' best advocate and has the patience to deal with the demands of the megarich. He once canceled his New Year's Eve party because of a sudden request from St. Bart's. Then there are the unusual orders: the Parisian who wanted a diamond necklace for her cat and the husband who asked that a bracelet be sealed in a chocolate Easter egg.
Still, the basic procedure remains the same for everyone. First the client articulates what he or she is looking for. After about 10 days, several drawings are produced. Once a design is agreed upon, a mock-up in metal is created with rhinestones and colored glass. The final price and the delay period come with the mock-up. The latter often poses more of a problem than the price.
One client ordered a Mysterious Settings ruby brooch composed of rows of small rectangular stones in invisible settings (a technique invented by Van Cleef in 1933). Although the client wanted it "for next month," Gautier explained why it would require a year by taking her to the atelier and demonstrating how three teeny rubies might need an entire day to be cut. "After seeing the process, she understood," he says.
Gautier delivered the brooch himself. "At Van Cleef, we never use messengers," he explains. "Part of the service is arriving with the piece and showing the client how to wear it and how the piece moves."