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The search for precious stones at Van Cleef & Arpels


History isn’t all about dusty papers and old books at jeweller Van Cleef & Arpels. Janet Hart-Da Silva meets the woman in charge of a glittering archive

Janet Hart-Da Silva ,

To Catherine Cariou, the past is very much part of her daily life. As the Paris-based heritage director of Van Cleef & Arpels, she travels the world in search of the company’s vintage designs to add to its large and growing private collection. ‘It is very important to the heritage of our brand that we collect together as many of our previous works as possible. We want to preserve our techniques and be able to reference them whenever our team of craftspeople need to,’ Cariou says.

With possibly the most enviable job in the jewellery business, Cariou is one of a select few specialists in the world with the knowledge and experience to carry the weight of such an important role. ‘My job is part Sherlock Holmes,’ she says. ‘I am often trying to put together the pieces of a puzzle, trying to solve a mystery. It is my job to authenticate jewels and to track down their history.’

Her daily routine is unpredictable. ‘One day is never the same as another. I can find myself taking a last-minute trip to the Middle East or Asia to follow a lead from a private seller or take part in an auction in Geneva, New York or London,’ she says. The exact price paid to a private seller of an haute jewellery piece is never disclosed but, according to Cariou, one of her recent purchases from Sotheby’s, a bouquet brooch and earring set, cost $160,000.

Private sellers can appear at any time. ‘Only last week a lady turned up at our headquarters in place Vendôme with a set of jewels,’ Cariou says. ‘They formed part of her family’s estate and she wanted to know if Van Cleef & Arpels was interested in purchasing it.’ After painstakingly searching the company archives, she discovered that the matching earrings and brooch of Burmese rubies in a delicate platinum setting were indeed by Van Cleef & Arpels. ‘I had an idea that they were from the 30s,’ she says, ‘so after going through the original order books and records I spotted a photo of a model wearing the exact jewels. The image was dated 1938, so I was able to find the pan card and obtain a complete record of the items. I bought the set, which may go on show as part of our exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York.’

So what exactly is a pan card? ‘It’s like a jewel’s DNA,’ Cariou explains. ‘Every item ever made has a hand-written card filed away in the archives with an artist’s sketch on one side, the model number and the name of the purchaser. Each of the thousands of jewels created by the house from 1917 is individually numbered so it can be traced. On the reverse of each card there are detailed notes about the settings the jewels, carats and design dimensions.’

These precious pan cards have allowed the company to launch its Heritage Collection. This line of unique pieces and limited re-editions comprises more than 200 pieces resurrected from the archives and reproduced by the team of 30 hand-picked artisans who are based in the workshop in place Vendôme. The cards have also proved vital in tracking down the origin of the counterfeit jewels that pop up from time to time at auctioneers.

Sadly, there isn’t a Van Cleef & Arpels museum. This is in part because pieces from the collection of over 600 vintage jewels are forever traversing the Atlantic and being flown to Asia for exhibitions. They are also loaned to designers for catwalk shows and photo shoots and often pop up on celebrities at red-carpet events.

After 10 years of jewellery hunting for Van Cleef & Arpels, Cariou must surely have some favourites? ‘I am always on the hunt for our Mystery Setting jewels,’ she says. ‘These are the most sought-after by collectors.’ The patented Mystery Setting is a unique system that holds the stones in place. Instead of the traditional claw-like setting, the Mystery Setting is like a set of train tracks. Each stone is finely cut with a groove on two sides, no thicker than a cigarette paper. The gems are then carefully slid on to the tracks and the setting is completely hidden from view. ‘It can take up eight hours to cut just one stone and up to a year to complete the actual item which is why they cost thousands,’ Cariou says. ‘And they are worth every cent.’

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