Van Cleef & Arpels began when Estelle Arpels, the daughter of a French gemstone merchant, married Alfred Van Cleef, the son of a Dutch gem cutter. In 1906, they formed Van Cleef & Arpels, opening at Place Vendôme in Paris. By the late 1940s, the company, with stores throughout Europe and a flagship in New York City, was run by brothers Jacques, Claude and Pierre Arpels, nephews of Estelle. It was the dapper, dandy Pierre who created the Pierre Arpels watch, in 1949. It reflected the spirit of the times – a modernist rejection of ostentation, with design principles honoring “the essence of things.” The absence of the two lateral attachments that usually secure the case to the strap of a watch give the impression that the round dial is suspended in space, preserving the fundamental purity of the perfect circle, which Pierre (who kept a Japanese zen garden on the terrace of his Paris apartment) viewed as the epitome of design.
Pierre originally created the watch for himself, replicating it only for family and a few close friends upon request. It wasn’t until 1971 that the watch went into commercial production, under the name PA 49. The collection today, called Pierre Arpels, differs little from the original. The white lacquered dial is adorned only by simple baton hands, four Roman numerals, and a central honeycomb pattern depicting a black-tie shirt front. Today, the collection includes diamond options, and contains the ultra-thin manual-wound movement 830P made by Piaget.
Van Cleef & Arpels remained a family business until 1999, when it was acquired by the Richemont Group, which has remained deferential to the heritage of the brand.