A Captivating History

The Brooch of the Duchess of Argyll

As jewelry history goes, discovering provenance of a jewel remains a most exciting feat, for jewelry truly takes on its meaning when worn. Through the ages, jewelry has been given as a token of love and a display of wealth. Flower jewels and posy brooches were often given as tokens of affection. In portraits and now photographs, we look to find the original wearer of unique and important jewels. 

Margaret of Argyll, 1930

This brooch by Van Cleef & Arpels finds its story in the painting Portrait of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, by Gerald Brockhurst, the most sought-after portrait painter of the early 20th Century. The Duchess of Argyll, a socialite, fashion icon and popular topic of the daily gossip columns of the 1930s and 40s in London, brings great intrigue to the jewel. At the time of this sitting, circa 1931, she had been named Debutante of the Year and is around 19 years of age. First engaged to the Earl of Warwick, Charles Greville, but first married to the amateur golfer, Charles Sweeney of Pennsylvania, her escapades were hard to track. 

Did one of these suitors give the Duchess this lovely brooch? We may never know how the Duchess came to own or wear the present lot, but the exquisite design is memorialized in her portrait that now hangs in the Tate Modern

Van Cleef & Arpels

Alfred Van Cleef, the son of a diamond cutter, formed Van Cleef & Arpels with his father-in-law and dealer in precious stones, Salomon Arpels, in 1896. Following Arpels’ death in 1903, Van Cleef and two of his brothers-in-law, Charles and Julien, opened their first Van Cleef & Arpels boutique shop across from the Ritz hotel in Paris. Their success was swift, as is evidenced by the fact that a third Arpels brother, Louis, joined the company in 1912 to assist with the new branches being opened in holiday resort towns such as Nice, Deauville, Vichy, Lyon, and Cannes.

Van Cleef & Arpels became one of the titans of the jewelry world in the following decades, winning accolades, important commissions, and further expanding their global reach. In 1925, their red and white rose bracelet fashioned from rubies and diamonds won the grand prize at the Paris Exposition internationale des Arts décoratifs et industriels modernes. Eight years later, they received a patent for their famous Serti Mysterieux, or “mystery setting”, a technique which employs invisible prongs. Each stone is painstakingly fitted on to gold rails less than two-tenths of a millimeter thick, with each piece requiring 300 or more hours of work to finish. In the 1930s they were commissioned to make the crown of Queen Nazli of Egypt and in 1966, they were tasked with making the crown of Empress Farah Pahlavi for her 1967 coronation. Pahlavi’s crown took 11 months to complete and featured 36 emeralds, 36 rubies, 105 pearls and 1,469 diamonds.

Van Cleef & Arpels became the first French jewelers to open boutiques in Japan and China, and they now have stores across the globe, including the Middle East and South East Asia, and standalone boutiques in Geneva, Zurich, Munich, London, Milan, Shanghai, Paris, Boston, New York, Melbourne, and more. A brand whose name is synonymous with luxury, their jewels have been a go-to for royalty, film stars, and entrepreneurs for decades and continue to be to this day.

Auction Results Van Cleef & Arpels