Van Cleef & Arpels showed nerve, and verve, when in 1935 its Cadenas watch gatecrashed an era that had slid inexorably into economic depression, post-1929. The exuberance that had risen from the ashes of the Great War had receded, but the Parisian jewellery house, formed earlier that century when Alfred Van Cleef fell in love with Estelle Arpels, was never one to subject its creativity to economic vagaries. The Cadenas watch broke free of every convention except one: a lady should only ever glance at her watch, so as not to offend the assembled company. Hence the Cadenas’s angled dial, viewed from the side and visible only to its wearer.
History has it that, like its equally famous Zip necklace of 1950, Van Cleef & Arpels designed the Cadenas watch with the Duchess of Windsor in mind. The Duchess nurtured a passion for jewellery, and was a loyal patron of the firm and number 22 Place Vendôme. The straight lines of the Cadenas’s gold case echo 1930s industrial design, while a double snake-chain bracelet extends into a rounded padlock-style clasp – hence the name, “cadenas” being French for padlock. This avant-garde aesthetic is the work of Renée Puissant, Alfred and Estelle’s daughter and a talented artistic director who is all too often overlooked as the designer, together with René-Sim Lacaze, of such fabulous inventions as the Minaudière vanity case and the Mystery Setting (which she protected by patent).
The return of an icon
The Duchess of Windsor wasn’t alone in falling for such an instantly recognisable jewel of a watch, a symbol of lasting union; this was the watch every elegant woman of the 1930s wanted. Yet despite its success, it wasn’t until eighty years after its invention, in 2015, that Van Cleef & Arpels returned to the Cadenas’s ingenious design. Building on the familiar rectangular geometry and the U-shaped attachments of the original, several subtle changes were introduced to the dial, the padlock clasp and the stone settings.
A sign of good manners in the 1930s, there is no more surreptitious glancing at the dial. Instead, the sweep of the hour and minute hands is now prominent against an enlarged, mother-of-pearl dial with slim gold indexes to clearly mark all twelve hours. Gem-setting, initially reserved for the top of the case and the clasp, takes on a new appearance, too. Dusted with diamonds in a sparkling snow setting or adorned with a gradient of pink sapphires mingled with diamonds, the Cadenas stays true to its origins – with the added bonus of modern technology for the clasp, which incorporates two tiny ceramic beads to ensure secure fastening. The hidden, polished side of the attachment lends itself beautifully to a personal, for-your-eyes-only engraving. As for the double snake-chain bracelet, as soft and supple as ever, it still encircles the wrist like a second skin, confirming the Cadenas’s jewellery alter ego, while the understated refinement of an alligator strap invites itself into the collection; the contemporary accessory to a watch which, from its very first appearance, has confounded expectations and, in doing so, unlocked the codes of watchmaking and jewellery.