It is one of the truisms of the art world that the fine-jewelry market defies recessions. Whether that’s because the very rich don’t even notice downturns, or buyers turn to hard assets in tough times, the demand for baubles is ridiculously undented by economic realities. Since December 2008, a string of jewelry records have been set at auction, topped off by the $24.3 million paid for the “historic Wittelsbach-Graff diamond” (formerly from the Bavarian royal jewels). Records have been set for a Rolex ($594,015), a 1942 Patek Philippe ($2.8 million) and a rare vivid pink diamond ($10.8 million).
These sales can be misleading, though, because the boom is really only in big-ticket items. Tiffany & Co., for example, recently reported revenues were up 9 percent in the third quarter; Zales, more of a mid-market retailer, saw them fall 13 percent.
Into this iffy climate, William Doyle Galleries, on East 87th Street, will host a somewhat suspenseful auction of a few hundred pieces of vintage and estate jewelry Sept. 29. Among the pricier ones is this signed 18-karat-gold, sapphire and diamond flower clip-brooch, made in New York. Suggested bids start at $24,000. It’s one of several pieces in the auction from the house of Van Cleef & Arpels.
The company was born when Alfred Van Cleef wed Estelle Arpels in 1896. The bride wore a sparkling tiara nearly half as high as her husband’s head, and it was a sign of things to come. The union joined not only man and wife but also two family businesses–diamond cutter and gemstone merchant. Van Cleef & Arpels shops in Paris and along the Riviera followed the nuptials, as did some innovations in design (the company’s “mystery setting”). In 1939, Van Cleef was invited to participate in the New York World’s Fair. With Hitler advancing on Europe, some family members opted to stay, opening a shop in Rockefeller Center the same year, shortly afterward relocating to 744 Fifth Avenue.
There, the threat of war, and subsequent luxury-goods taxes, was denting jewelry sales. Van Cleef (and rivals like Cartier and Tiffany) struggled to craft designs that were immune to the melancholy mood. Van Cleef’s solution was sculptural, three-dimensional pieces, often in the shape of flowers, leaves or ballerinas. This nature motif juiced sales, and it has stayed with it throughout the decades.
But as for Van Cleef & Arpels, no dynasty lasts forever. Although the company remains on Fifth Avenue, and at 22 Place Vendome in Paris, after some messy tax problems some years ago, it was acquired by Swiss giant Compagnie Financière Richemont SA. Ironically, the concern also owns its longtime archrival, Cartier.