The Zipper's Simple Genius
The zipper: A device used for fastening clothing, consisting of two tooth tracks, each bordering one of two edges to be joined and a piece that either interlocks or separates them when pulled. A simple, quotidien mechanism that Van Cleef & Arpels has reimagined as an ornate piece of jewelry. It takes a true genius to conceive of something so simple in design — that was Chicago inventor Whitcomb Judson, who patented the apparatus in 1892. But it was Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, who in 1938 suggested to Renée Puissant, then the artistic director at Van Cleef & Arpels (and also the daughter of Alfred Van Cleef) that the maison should create a piece of jewelry inspired by this functional item. They weren’t able to finish such a piece until 1950, but once they did — in round and baguette diamonds, set in platinum — it became an instant icon, for both the duchess and the jewelry brand.
There have been many different versions made since then (yellow gold, white gold, platinum, colored stones hard stones, diamonds), but I still prefer one of the more traditional versions, in yellow gold (either with diamonds or diamonds and one colored stone). For me — as a jewelry dealer — it would be more meaningful to own a vintage version of the necklace, but Van Cleef still creates new versions today, usually in their high jewelry collections that are presented each year. I’ve only ever handled a few of them in my career; perhaps two or three have passed through my hands.
Often, you’ll see in fashion shoots or on the red carpet that the zipper is styled in an irreverent way — under a leather jacket or paired with a sheer dress. It’s not treated as a precious item. Therein lies its beauty: that while it is decorative and precious — and certainly expensive — it is also a simple, functional object and thus can be translated to many different looks and styles. It’s so timeless that it can embody anything and be embodied by anyone, and it doesn’t matter the costs or materials. The design is so universal that almost anyone can relate to it. You can be an expert and love it as a feat of design, but anyone can enjoy its simplicity, function and playfulness.
Its attitude may be tongue-in-cheek at times, but for all practical purposes, the Van Cleef Zipper must be treated with the utmost care, as it can be extremely difficult for even the most skilled jeweler to repair it. Think of taking a piece of clothing to the dry cleaners because the zipper is not functioning — usually, they recommended replacing the zipper altogether. That is not possible with a piece of high jewelry, and each tooth must be finished perfectly so that it can fully function as it is intended to do.