The Story Behind Van Cleef & Arpels Ballerinas

Van Cleef & Arpels is French luxury jewellery, watch and perfume company. It was founded in 1896 by Alfred Van Cleef and his father-in-law-Salomon Aprels in Paris. Their pieces have been worn by style icons such as Farah Pahlavi, the Duchess of Windsor, Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor.

The story behind their beautiful Ballerinas brooches has many different layers. Before the 1967 premiere of the Jewels ballet in New York City, dancers Suzanne Farrell and legendary choreographer George Balanchine went to Van Cleef & Arpels to meet with the press. Claude Arpels, a founder of the firm and his brother Pierre Arpels were friends of Mr. Balanchine and ballet enthusiasts, so offered their space to hold interviews.

Journalists reported that Claude Arpels had suggested the idea of a ballet based on jewels to Mr. Balanchine. Other stories said that the choreographer’s daily walks on Fifth Avenue by the Van Cleef & Arpels window-display of treasures sparked the idea for the ballet.

The ballet in three acts – Emeralds, Rubies and Diamonds – might have been inspired by Van Cleef & Arpels ballerina brooches. It was well known that Balanchine was a huge fan of the jewellery, having reportedly bought his wife Vera Zorina a ballerina brooch around 1944, that depicted her in an arabesque.

Van Cleef & Arpels officially started making the badges in homage to their beloved ballet soon after it opened a New York City flagship in 1939. Designer Maurice Duvalet created a sparkling troupe working in concert with the French manufacturer John Rubel. Legend states that Rubel found inspiration watching flamenco dancers at a cafe on the Lower East Side. This inspired outing might have resulted in the first of the Van Cleef & Arpels series.

The 1941 piece depicts a Spanish dancer with a fan. Duvalet looked at cultural references and created designs inspired by the marquee names in the world of dance.

Another jewel made in 1942 was inspired by an eighteenth-century French dancer, Marie Anne de Cupid de Camargo. Often referred to as La Camargo, the dancer was famous for shortening her ballet skirt to calf-length so the audience could see her movement. Van Cleef & Arpels design is based on the 1730painting by the artist Nicolas Lancret.

A group of American jewellery collectors quickly acquired Van Cleef & Arpels ballerinas. Marjorie Merriweather Post, Jessie Woolworth Donahue and Babara Hutton were all lucky enough to snap one up.

In Paris, during the 1940s many of the ballerinas made were daytime jewels rendered in gold with turquoise and ruby skirts and rose-cut diamond faces. More extravagant formal designs were usually made in New York and created in rubies, emeralds, platinum and rose-cut diamonds. The one feature that remains throughout is the rose-cut diamond faces.

The legends about the rose-cuts in the original series are that they came from the Spanish Crown Jewels. They were supposedly stones transported to Mexico in the 19th century and sold at an auction in New York much later. This theory has never been fully confirmed but is certainly within the realms of possibility with what was going on at the time. Napoleon’s armies were marching into Madrid in the early 19th century, so there would have been a need to hide or dispose of jewels.

What is known for sure is that Van Cleef had an abundance of these rose-cut diamonds during the 1940s and used them on all the ballerinas. The stones with facets all over the top create a crown-like shape which gave these pieces a wonderful texture.

Van Cleef & Arpels ballerinas remained in the jewels collection from the 1940s through the late 1960s when they were retired. Thankfully, over the last couple of decades, the dancers have been stars in the collection once again. One of the most stunning of these modern examples is a remarkable 12 brooch set that debuted in Paris during the 2018 Fall Haute Couture week. The dancers were inspired by the Grimm’s Fairy Tale, The Twelve Dancing Princesses.