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Few jewelry houses can match the elegance and craftsmanship of Van Cleef & Arpels. On this episode, Dan speaks with the brand’s president and CEO, Nicolas Bos, from its headquarters in the heart of Paris. The pair discuss the origins of the house and its famed Mystery Set, the emergence of gender-neutral attitudes in the field, and the executive’s undying love for the film “Barbarella.”
Nicolas Bon: I think it’s about personal taste and personal freedom. You really wear and enjoy what you like regardless of what you think people will think of you or the way they’re going to look at you. So, I think it’s a fantastic evolution. It’s just something that I enjoy. So, wearing a broach, wearing rings, be them originally masculine or feminine, I think it’s really about personal pleasure. To me that’s really something that I look at one of the important evolution that we are facing and which is a great satisfaction.
Dan Rubinstein: Hi, I’m Dan Rubinstein and this is The Grand Tourist. I’ve been a design journalist for nearly 20 years, and this is my personalized guided tour through the worlds of fashion, art, architecture, food, and travel, all the elements of a well-lived life.
When I close my eyes and think about a jewelry brand that is synonymous with classical beauty, sophistication, and a kind of universal appeal that crosses cultures and generations, I think of the French house of Van Cleef and Arpels. What started with a marriage in 1895, more on that later, Van Cleef has continually built its reputation by not simply being in vogue, but based on a heritage of innovation that really found its stride during the pre-war period, notably the 1933 invention of the Mystery Set that allowed Van Cleef to create otherworldly pieces where stones appear to float like they haven’t been set at all. Imagine a broach in the shape of a flower where petals are bursting with tiny rubies or feathers made from shimmering diamonds.
Or, you might know the brand for its Alhambra line of pendants, rings, necklaces, and bracelets in a string of its iconic clover shaped design. Today, the house is part of the Richemont group that includes Cartier, Panerai, Chloé, and Dunhill. And Van Cleef, or VCA for short, has more than 100 stores around the world.
Most remarkable to this grand tourist is how the brand has remained so true to itself and its heritage while never falling out of step with the times. In the modern age, that’s probably due in part to my guest today, Nicolas Bos, the president and CEO of Van Cleef, who has been with the house since 2000 and CEO since 2013.
Instead of coming from a sales or a management background per se, his career has been culturally and creatively driven. He was at the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art before joining the company. And since then, he’s championed long-term projects that have solidified VCA as anything but a wilting lily, like its ongoing support of a dance festival called Dance Reflections that comes to New York this fall and the company’s own jewelry school in Paris.
I’ve had the privilege of interviewing the debonair Nicolas a few times over the years, and he’s always something of a north star for the industry, bringing a cautious sense of can-do to a realm of design where tastes have to be as precisely calibrated as, well, one of their stunning creations. I caught up with Nicolas from his company’s headquarters in the heart of Paris to discuss the future of jewelry, the impact of gender-neutral attitudes in the business today, his love of the film Barbarella, and their latest collection with quite possibly the greatest name ever chosen.
Well, thank you so much for doing this. I really appreciate it. I’d love to just start at the beginning of your career because you found your way to the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art. And what kind of projects did you undertake there? And looking back on those moments, maybe what part of that job for you prepared you for your future life here at Van Cleef?
Well, I think that that start at the Cartier Foundation was for me a really almost life-defining period. I dreamt when I was younger to work in a cultural or artistic environment. For many reasons, I went into more business studies. And then I still dreamt of working in an environment that would at least associate business and culture and art, so maybe working within a publishing house or something of that nature.
And I got that lucky opportunity to start an internship at the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art. At the time, there were very, very few private institutions that were dealing with art in France. It’s a very public affair in France, art and culture. And it was just the dream environment because it was part of a private company. There was a logic that was somehow business because it was run by a company that had to use communications with marketing, with commercial development. But it was a true artistic institution with a team that was actually coming from art galleries, public museums, and that was really running exhibitions and artistic programs.
And I remember one of the first exhibitions I had the opportunity to work on was an exhibition that was dedicated to the history of the representation of the face in art. It was called À Visage Découvert, “Face Off.” It was in ’92. And it was one of the very first visible thematic exhibition in France, really associating prehistoric objects, middle age representation, contemporary art of course, painting, photography and so on, which was quite unusual at the time.
Was it controversial, in a way?
Not really controversial, but art is very compartmented in this country, and was. So, just to mix objects, elements, artworks from very different periods, different cultures, was not so usual. Middle Age belonged to the Middle Age museum, and Egyptian art belonged to the Louvre, and contemporary art belonged to Pompidou Center. But to mix them was not really controversial, but a bit unusual.
And for me, it was a fantastic eyeopener to so many categories of art and culture and to the idea of working around a team that can be pretty straightforward, pretty simple as the face, and then developing a whole project and curating and orchestrating an exhibition. So, I was not curator, of course, but it was a small team and we’re all very close friends. So I was given the opportunity to work with some artists, some curators very directly. And it was really a moment where I felt that I had found in a way kind of a home where I could mix business. I was working on the financial accounts and development of the bookstore and these type of things, but at the same time really learning every day and meeting artists and creators.
And was the exhibition successful?
It was very successful. And then there were many after this one. And probably it’s still something that is very important to me today, even in the way we work 30 years after. Every year when we create a collection of high jewelry, principle, the process is to identify a theme, a story, a source of inspiration, to share it with the team and then to develop a whole project that will go in over a few months, one year inspired by that theme. And that theme can be the novels of Jules Verne or certain stones, emeralds or rubies, or it can be the stars at night or oceans. But it’s always that idea of gathering creations around one single element and creating a consistent experience while associating more individual art expression in a way.
Kind of universal themes, in a sense.
Yes, very much so. And it’s very important because it’s true. One thing I really appreciated, but maybe I didn’t even fully understand at the time, is that it was an approach with no hierarchy. So some of this, the theme was very universal. Some of the artworks could be extremely simple in a way and accessible. Some of them, a bit more conceptual and maybe required more knowledge and background. But this idea of exhibition is that you can come with whatever level of culture and knowledge and you will still enjoy it. And this is something that I really still feel strongly about, the fact that there is no hierarchy between forms of culture. So, I love very popular science fiction movies and comic books, and I love also some very academic history or art history text.
What is your favorite science fiction film?
Two of them. Forbidden Planet—
Of course, the French animated one?
No, the first American one by Maddox, 1953 or 1954. The Forbidden Planet. This is where Robby the Robot appears for the first time. It’s actually based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It was usually popular. And then the representation of robots in the movies is coming actually from that. And one of the first techno soundtracks, very early electronic music in the ‘fifties’50s.
And another one that I love is Barbarella, the Roger Vadim French movie, for different reasons.
Yes, of course.
And Star Wars. First movie I saw, that’s also defining. I was seven when I went to the movie theater to see the first Star Wars, and still a very, very vivid memory. That’s pretty much my generation.
What is the French title for Star Wars here?
La Guerre des Étoiles.
Of course. And when you joined Van Cleef, the brand had recently been acquired by Richemont. Can you take us back to maybe the industry at that time? If you were to say in a book of history what the world of fine jewelry was at the time when you joined Van Cleef, like a snapshot in time, what would the jewelry world be like then?
Most of the great jewelry houses that used to be family companies, family-run companies were still in the hands of the families or had been sold very recently. So, if you look around the Place Vendôme, Chaumet, Boucheron, Van Cleef and Arpels, Mauboussin, they were really exactly at that time in the same process, whether they’d been sold in the past few years or they were going to be sold. But it was a time where a few brands, and probably Cartier was the most prominent one, had really managed to associate the tradition of jewelry with commercial development and, let’s say, international marketing. And they’d been very successful. And a lot of the family run companies were at a moment where they couldn’t necessarily follow that pace of development while remaining family-run businesses.
And so a lot of them decided to sell. It’s so very often the case with a third, fourth generation family-run businesses, some of the family members want to sell, some of them want to stay. They don’t necessarily have the same views on how to develop the brands. Plus, you can have some family stuff that’s going on.
So, it was a very interesting time because, yes, some brands like Cartier were really following what was at the time the early development of the world of luxury, be it fashion, accessories, and jewelry. And watches were part of it, but it was still early. It was not at all the scale and the scope that we see today. And some brands, like Van Cleef and Arpels and our close neighbors on Place Vendôme were engaging on that process.
And so, when I joined Van Cleef and Arpels, I was really part of the team that was put here in a way by the management of Richemont to somehow write the next chapter. And that transitioning from almost a century of a family-run business, it was a very, very interesting approach. It’s really, how do you embrace the new opportunities, the development of international luxury, while keeping what has made these brands so successful and turned them into respected references in our world. So keeping the identity, keeping the level of craftsmanship, keeping the attention to quality.
But before keeping them, it meant understanding them. Because a lot of things over one century become quite implicit. So, it’s not something that’s written. They tell you, I remember about the stones, of course this is the Van Cleef and Arpels quality. They say, okay, but how do we define that? The traditions in the workshop, how do you first understand them in order to be able to explain them to newcomers or to clients or editors?
So, there was a great deal of research, of working in the archive, talking with members of the family, with salespeople or craftsman that had been there for a very long time, or designers to understand what for them, because it was their daily life, what for them was this identity so that we could, let’s say, isolate some dimensions that were probably more distinctive. And that could be what we would decide to redevelop in the future aesthetically, even in terms of the philosophy of the brand was there. So, certain values that were particularly important.
And yes, that led us to really do this kind of thorough analysis, trying. And it was very, very important for me and for the whole team and the management at the time, not to break anything, if I may. So not to create a revolution, but really to ensure continuity while at the same time working on redevelopment. That was what the Richemont group was actually hoping for.
And if you were to go to, somehow, if you were to go to a party and someone came up to you and said, “I have never heard of Van Cleef before. What is it?” How would you describe the company from a total standstill, from ground zero?
There’s still a lot of people that have never heard of Van Cleef and Arpels, actually. I’m quite happy to answer that.
Really? This happens to you?
Yes, yes. Still, still. Of course, it’s not everybody knows or is interested in jewelry, and it’s a very big world.
So, how do you answer?
It’s one of the traditional jewelers that have developed, over the 20th century, high jewelry in France. So, it’s a house, a maison as we say usually, that has developed since its creation in 1906, a very specific style, very specific craftsmanship, a way to design and craft jewelry in a singular manner. And then, if that person has more time, I’m happy to dive a bit into that and explain what it stands for.
And can you tell us how the house began originally, sort of a truncated version of, I’m sure, what is a very long story?
Nicely enough, it began from a love story and a wedding. So, for a jewelry house, it’s always quite a good start. And the name Van Cleef and Arpels is really very simply coming from the wedding of Esther Arpels and Alfred Van Cleef. So they united their destinies and they associated their names to create a company. They were both coming from families of merchants that had migrated to Europe in the 19th century. And then, they started a company in Place Vendôme, at the time, and it’s quite interesting-
What year was this?
Sorry, it was 1906. So they got married I think in 1895 and started the company together in 1906. And it was one of the early jewelry houses and luxury companies to open retail that was accessible from the streets. Something that’s obvious today, but in the 19th century jewelers were working usually upstairs in private mansions by appointment for a clientele of elite aristocracy, great important families. And the late 19th century, early 20th century is really the opening of retail as we know it, and the opening of certain forms of tourism. And at that time, Paris is quite the center of the world in terms of style and culture. The Ritz, the hotel, has just opened a few years before.
Where was the first store?
That’s on Place Vendôme. So, really at the center of Paris, historical center across from the Ritz Hotel. And this is really where not only the traditional European clientele, but more and more Americans, Russians, South Americans, people from all around the world come to enjoy the city, to enjoy the art galleries, to meet with fashion designers, jewelers. It’s a very cool and hip place to be. And this is really where they start their company.
And I think from the very beginning, they associated a real attention to quality and craftsmanship. So, they develop really their expertise and their workshops a specific style that they really want to develop. And interestingly, probably in the first 10, 20 years of the maison, everything has been defined in terms of style, everything that we still follow today. And they also associate that with a real sense of commercial development. So, very early in particular, with the help of the brothers of Esther Arpels, they develop subsidiaries, they develop other stores with the idea of following their clients where they go. So, going to what were at the time luxury resorts in a way, but it was still very new at that time to develop that.
And were the products that they were selling, because it was a storefront, were the products of the day different from what other people were offering?
I think they really started with more traditional pieces. So, very elegant, well crafted jewelry pieces, exceptional stones, pearls. At the time, Paris was the capital of pearls and probably pearls were more important than diamonds. And very, very quickly they developed a specific style that probably has to do with the spirit of the time.
So 1906, 1910, the decorative arts in Paris and France are very much under the influence of the rediscovery of Asian arts. This is the period of Japonisme. So Japanese, Korean, Chinese art, representation of nature are very important. We are at the end of the Art Nouveau period. So they’re going from more naturalistic approach to a slightly more stylized and abstract approach that’s going to be the Art Deco style. So, you can feel all these elements as, let’s say, the founding dimensions of that style. And very, very early also they start to work with colored stones and they develop quite a strong inventiveness that’s going to lead them in the 1920s, 1930s.
Is that where the Mystery Setting comes from?
Exactly. I was going to that. That’s in the 1930s. And the Mystery Setting is typically in a way the result of technical research, which is how to make the metal disappear when you’re setting stones.
Okay, so if you could describe maybe something, a classic piece that would have the Mystery Setting to someone who’s listening.
Like a flower?
Yes, let’s imagine a flower. Let’s imagine a peony. If you look at the flower in nature, the petals are one single color, so you only see the color standing out. When you work in jewelry and you work with color, you work with colored stones. And the very nature of jewelry is actually to set stones into metal. And the more delicate, the more figurative, the more sophisticated the piece, the less apparent the metal because you want the shape of that petal, the shape of that flower to be everything that stands out and you don’t want the structure to be visible. But of course, you still need the metal to hold the stones.
And the idea of Mystery Setting is to look at it from a different perspective and not to hold the stone by the top, but to hold the stone by the back and to create a whole structure or whole grid that actually has exactly the shape of that peony flower, the shape of each and every petal made of tiny rails in red gold at the time. And on these rails, you slide little squares that have been cut into rubies. And once you’ve slid all your little rubies on the grid, the grid completely disappears. It’s just holding these rubies from the back. And you only see a surface, a volume of rubies. And that petal is purely red. And you have a rendering of the flower like never before because you don’t see any apparent metal. And this was really something quite new and different at the time in jewelry. And it has remained quite an important signature for the workshop still today.
And speaking today, how many craftsmen work at Van Cleef?
Today there’s about a bit more than a hundred craftsmen that are working two internal workshops in Paris and Lyon, and then a few hundred more that are working in independent workshops that we’ve been working with, some of them for two or three generations. And it’s a whole ecosystem of fine jewelry in France that we’re working with.
And the Alhambra collection is sort of wildly successful and iconic and also very widely copied, as I’m sure you know, and sort of part of the house’s legacy. And for those who are uninitiated, who don’t know the Alhambra, can you explain how that design came to be?
It’s a very interesting story in the history of jewelry and the history of Van Cleef and Arpels. So, it’s a design that was originally launched in 1968, so more than 50 years ago. And it’s actually originally a long necklace, a sautoir, which represents an alignment, a series of motifs that are carved in ornamental stones. So, it can be in onyx, or in tiger’s eye, or in coral, or in mother-of-pearl. Each motif is in the shape of a quatrefoil. So, it’s a stylized, slightly abstract version of a four leaf clover, which is also a motif that you can find sometimes in architecture, if you think of the Middle Ages for instance, or the Renaissance period.
So, it’s a pretty universal motif. But here, given a very, very specific translation in jewelry and with the association of the value of luck, which goes with the four leaf clover. And these different motifs are set into gold with a very specific setting, which is made of little gold beads. So, the setting itself is pretty unique. And they are positioned along a chain to create a long necklace.
So, it’s interesting if you look at the time, because this is really at the crossroad of the tradition of high jewelry and fine jewelry, the quality of stones, the setting, the way it’s been built, and the spirit of the time, which was very much inspired by Indian jewelry. It was the whole rediscovery, the late 1960s, of Oriental Indian style that could go into the more hippie, of course, look and movement. But there was a kind of luxury version of that spirit.
And it’s to high jewelry, the early ready to wear. If you think of Yves Saint Laurent, for instance, was becoming at the time too haute couture. So, it’s the same technique, the same philosophy, the same attention to detail as in high jewelry, but applied to slightly more simple motifs and simple pieces so that you can develop it at a more affordable price point and you can produce small quantities instead of only unique pieces.
And it was very emblematic of that spirit. And this is exactly the same years where some of the very early ready to wear collections start to develop in fashion. And you can see immediately, 1968-70, that that piece is understood as the perfect compliment to this new silhouette, this new evolution of fashion and costume of the time. And we’re talking at the beginning of the absence of hierarchy.
Once again, it’s a universal motif, can speak to everyone. It comes in different colors, it comes in different lengths, and it’ll remain and it has remained so far one of the, let’s say, most iconic or the most transversal pieces of jewelry. And it’s quite interesting when we look now at the archive to see that same design, that same piece of jewelry associated with silhouettes from the ’70s, the ’80s, the ’90s. So, going with very, very different looks, very, very different attitudes, but still quite relevant and a good match.
And why do you think that it’s still popular today, its longevity, that it kind of never goes out of style?
I think it’s a very easy to wear piece. It’s identified and a signature piece, but without being too specific, so you can once again wear it with very different outfits. So, there is an element of recognition. And, of course, when you have some luxury objects, if you think of some very famous watches, some very famous sports car, you like also to own something that’s been part of a history, that’s been recognized and identified but without bearing a logo, without bearing a visible name. Just the shape and the architecture of the piece makes it a signature.
And at the end of the day, sometimes we are asked, or we ask ourselves, how do you create an icon. Nobody knows. You can just see afterwards that it seems that the Alhambra collection today in our world of fine jewelry is one of the few. There were collections that are probably identified. And since it has remained relevant for more than 50 years, we can have hopes that it’s going to remain relevant for some more years.
And my next question is, I read that you have children, do you have children?
Yes, I have two.
So, as someone who’s been in the business for a few decades, and obviously you think about your consumer and what a woman today wants and what she desires. And I’m wondering if you’re…how do you see the woman of the future? Let’s say, what will someone in the year 2030, what will a woman who’s 30 years old, maybe your children or maybe their friends, they grow up, what will they look for, do you think, in this industry? Do you have an idea of where the culture of jewelry is going or how people are relating to jewelry?
I think it changes far less than we think. Of course, the world is changing. Of course, lifestyles and expectations are evolving. I think the relationship to jewelry remains quite strong and quite intimate. It has been the case for a lot of time. I think that one of the earliest pieces of jewelry that was found a couple of years ago is more than 140,000 years old. So, that’s actually a good sign. It has gone through pretty much all cultures, all civilizations, all periods. So, we can say that jewelry is really part of many, many lifestyles. So, that’s quite a reassuring factor.
And talking to some young women, young ladies or men these days, they still appreciate precious jewelry. They still appreciate symbols, they still appreciate the quality, the exclusivity. And so, I don’t see that disappearing or changing.
What we need, of course, to continue to make evolve and to follow is how do we talk about that. So, how do we advertise, how do we tell the story? There are probably dimensions today that are more important when we talk about sustainability and the sourcing and what commercial companies are giving back to society. Probably we’re talking now to an audience that’s more sensitive to that. But the piece itself, the pleasure to receive it, the pleasure to wear it, the fact that that bracelet, that necklace is something precious, that’s going to last forever because of the materials, because of the way it has been made, is still something that I think that has a very, very strong power of attraction pretty much across the regions and across the cultures.
And I’m curious, you mentioned men also, and I’m curious what your take on this new era of gender-neutral fashion and how it’s becoming seemingly more and more as years go by what we used to call gender-bending is now just sort of gender-neutral. I have a broach on, you’re wearing some rings, but they’re men’s rings. But I’m curious, what do you think about this new era where you might go out and see a guy decide to wear more jewelry, more women’s jewelry or whatever, or this kind of new part of fashion that people keep talking about more and more?
I think it’s great, honestly. I think it’s about personal taste and personal freedom and the fact that you really wear and enjoy what you like regardless of what you think people will think of you or the way they’re going to look at you. So, I think it’s a fantastic evolution. And I think it has to do with the quality of the piece or the interest value of the piece where I want to say which is quite interesting. I think a great evolution, not even commercially, just from a social standpoint.
If you look at a collection like Alhambra, for instance, I see and we see more and more men wearing it. But not a more masculine or a more abstract or a bolder version of the Alhambra, but just the piece itself, which honestly we didn’t see 10, 15 years ago. A lot of men would enjoy the piece, find it beautiful, but would not think of wearing it. And now they say I love it, I find it beautiful. Yeah, I find it beautiful on me as well. And doesn’t mean I am this or that, or I have that sexuality or I have that lifestyle. It’s just something that I enjoy. So, wearing a broach, wearing rings, be them originally masculine or feminine, I think it’s really about personal pleasure. So, to me that’s really something that I look at, one of the important evolution that we’re facing and which is a great satisfaction.
Are you selling more men’s jewelry as time goes by?
We’re selling more of our jewelry to men without having to create men’s jewelry.
And given the style and the identity of the maison, every time we tried in the past to create men’s jewelry, it was a complicated exercise. Because if we go abstract, big shape, geometric, this is not so much what Van Cleef and Arpels is about. But I’m super, super happy to see a man wearing a Perlée ring or an Alhambra bracelet. So, that’s an interesting evolution.
And if you look at history, there were more periods, even in Europe, where men were wearing more jewelry than women. So, it’s only in the last 150 years that that vision has developed that jewelry is for women. You look 18th century or before, men were covered in jewelry. So, I’m quite glad that we’re coming back to that.
Why do you think men lost that? Was it an industrial or a machine, like a technology thing that men…like the typewriter? I don’t know, I’m just curious. I don’t know. Why do you think that shifted when men stopped wearing jewelry?
It had to do a lot with evolutions of religion and society. In the 19th century, the idea of breaking from the, at least in France or in Western Europe, breaking for things that were associated with the old regime and aristocracy. And also a view that it was frivolous to be wearing visible signs of jewelry. So, it’s something that has to do with morals. If you look at the late 19th century, men that wear jewelry are the likes of the symbolists or Oscar Wilde, artists. They are a bit the people outside of society where they used to be really at the heart of it. So I think it was more a moral thing than an aesthetic choice.
And can you explain the sort of, not life cycle, but the sort of creative cycle from concept to release of a jewelry collection? What is that process, that creative process like in the studio?
It’s a pretty simple process. If I’m thinking, for instance, of the high jewelry collections, it’s in general a three-year process between the time we decide on the theme. So, for instance, we’re going to do a collection that’s going to be dedicated to the Brothers Grimm’s fairytales. Then it’s about six months, one year where everybody’s doing their own research. So, reading the tales, looking at all the ways they’ve been interpreted over time. So, that’s true for the studio but also, once again, for experts of the different teams, marketing teams also, communications.
And then we start to sketch. We give some directions how we want to organize the collections, but that’s mostly based on the history, what has been successful, less successful, what we feel is expected. What we hear also from clients that sometime they would appreciate more a wider bracelet or more simple necklaces, that of course plays a role.
And then progressively we build, we refine the drawings until from the early sketches we come to very final detailed drawings. At the same time, we begin to work on feasibility, so finding the stones, developing the craftsmanship that’s going to go alongside the different projects.
And we think also about the environment in which we want to launch a collection. Because for us, it has to be, and it’s coming back away to the idea of the thematic exhibition, it has to be an overall immersive experience. So, everybody’s talking about immersive experience these days, but it’s been what we try to do for a long time. So, if you launch a collection on the Grimm Brothers’ fairytale, you want to launch it in a place that makes sense. For instance, this one was a few years ago, we launched it in a palace in Vienna. You want to work with designers, with fashion designers for the way you’re going to present the jewelry and models. You want to create an atmosphere, music, a certain theatrical ambiance around the presentation. You want to create a whole book about the collection that’s going to be also a reminder of the theme.
So, it’s pretty much the whole company that starts to work with that background of the Brothers Grimm. And then, the following year, it’s going to be Seven Seas, and the year after it’s going to be emeralds. And it’s also a great way to renew the approach and to fit creativity because you never repeat a process since the origin of it and the source of inspiration is always of a different nature.
Do you find it in today’s age of social media and lots of different ways of communicating, is it more difficult now? Is it more challenging at least to communicate these new collections? Or in a way, is it more freeing because you can maybe not as restrictive in the past. Twenty years ago, there were newspapers, magazines, and television, radio and that was it. Do you find it more challenging now, or more creative in a way?
I think it’s a bit of both. I think it’s many more opportunities, as you say. We have now many more medias, many more platforms where we can tell a story, and that’s really a blessing. It takes three years to build the collection. Maybe sometimes it takes five or 10 years to develop an object. If I think of an automaton for instance, the pace of social media is right now. So, if we try to follow that, I think we kind of lose our soul. So, the challenge is to stay at the right distance, to use them as another vehicle that we can benefit from, but not to become a kind of slave to that reason or to that appetite for more images, more elements.
So, for instance, because it’s not what we do, we don’t work with celebrities, we don’t work with influencers. There are a lot of things that we don’t do, although they appear to be a part of what brands are supposed to do these days. But if we don’t feel they’re relevant to our collections, then we just don’t go there. But it doesn’t mean that we are not going to use another aspect of social media that is great for us.
And why don’t you work with celebrities? I’m curious.
Because I’m still very nostalgic of the time where celebrities were clients and they were placing special orders, and Marlene Dietrich or others who are coming and working with the designers to create some of the most beautiful pieces in our history. So now, to be in a system that’s purely commercial, where you have to pay them…It doesn’t mean that we don’t have good friends among artists and actress and actors, but it doesn’t seem that something that relates to Van Cleef and Arpels.
I think you should do things, once again, for a reason. So, if we were very, very close to the world of movies, for instance, and there are some brands that are, then it would make a lot of sense to be present. And maybe there are new ways to be present. It’s more commercial than it was before. But since it’s not our world, we don’t feel that we have to go by that. So we prefer to work more on exhibitions or education or to continue to print books.
And even though jewelry is an art form, it’s also kind of a method of communication for women. What do you personally want a Van Cleef and Arpels creation to communicate in the year 2023? I can’t believe I’m saying it’s 2023.
It’s kind of strange.
But I think, of course, it says something about the person who wears it. So I think it says that you have a certain taste for slightly understated, refined pieces. That you like a certain inspiration from nature. That you like sometimes a certain lightness, a certain sense of humor also that’s present in quite a lot of our pieces. And that you see jewelry as an expression of, I don’t know, sophistication is not the right word, but it’s an expression of beauty as opposed to something that jewelry can be, an expression of power, an expression of strengths. There are some brands that are very much about that, and I like them very much for what they are. This is not so much what we are.
So even if you look at the way we look at nature and animals, the animals that you will find at Van Cleef and Arpels, they are very often light, there are birds, there are dragonflies, butterflies, or they are lions or elephants. They are very cute, almost as if they are coming from a cartoon. So they don’t say I’m strong, I’m powerful. They say I like a bit of fun and lightness.
No black widow spiders or anything like that?
And one of your latest high jewelry collections called Legend of Diamonds, it works with a rough stone, which I think is rare for the house. Can you explain how this collection came about?
Yes, with pleasure. As I was saying, we like to take a starting point for a collection. Sometimes, it has to do with stories, sometimes it has to do with technique, and sometimes it has to do with stones. And we’ve done a few collections on stones, one on emeralds, one on rubies. And of course, we wanted for a very long time to do a collection on diamonds. But in diamonds, at the very high level of quality, you don’t find the diversity that you have in emeralds or rubies, for instance. So the starting point of that story was an opportunity we had to work, as you were saying, from an exceptional rough diamond.
And what is a rough diamond, if you could explain?
A rough diamond is really what you find in a diamond mine. So, a diamond mine is really inside a mountain. It’s a volcanic environment where millions of years ago, some carbon has crystallized in the shape of diamonds. And there was an exceptionally large white diamond, about 910 carats that was formed in a mine in Lesotho, which is a mine that usually produces exceptional quality diamonds. And we got the opportunity to really work from that stone from the very beginning, which is not something that we do usually. We work from already polished and cut stones. But here it was an opportunity to create a whole collection from that same rough.
And it’s true that in today’s world where the idea of traceability, sustainability are quite key, especially when it comes to pressure stones, it was also a very interesting journey to go to the mine to follow exactly that stone from its very physical origin to the way it was integrated then into pieces of jewelry.
So, we work from that rough. Then, of course, we work with diamond experts, dealers, diamond cutters to make the best of that rough. And something that was new for us is that instead of buying existing cut stones, we could decide with the stone cutter exactly how many stones we wanted, what were the shapes, how many pairs, how many single stones. So, we kind of designed the collection of stones in order to design the collection of jewels. And then out of this collection, we created 25 exceptional pieces associating these diamonds from that rough with the technique of Mystery Setting in rubies, emeralds, or sapphires. So, it was really a signature technique associated with this unusual stone.
And it was a one of a kind collection for us, and a one of a kind exercise also to be working along the whole story of the stone from the very beginning to the very end. And even working with some laboratories to have, and it’s still very unusual, although it’s something I think that we’ll develop, to have a certification that indicates not only the physical qualities of the stone, but also their origin, the mine of origin. And that can retell you exactly where they’ve been extracted, who has cut them, where they’ve been sold. So, you have that full history, full cycle that you can follow.
Okay. And the world of jewelry recently lost artist Daniel Brush, who passed away last year. And you wrote a preface to his monograph a few years ago. Can you share a bit about him and what made him such a creative force?
Daniel was really an outstanding character. He was trained a jeweler. He was practicing jewelry at a level of quality, of attention to detail that I don’t believe I’ve ever seen elsewhere. And he was using, in a way, his competence, his skills of jeweler to create objects of poetry and magic. And then he was more kind of an alchemist in a way than a jeweler. He was creating the most sophisticated, the lightest objects with the hardest materials. He was setting stones into steel and aluminum, which is almost impossible. Doing that all by himself, creating his own alloys in his studio downtown New York.
He was influenced as much by popular culture, old toys, as he was by Japanese poetry and theater or abstract impressionism. Actually, his work reminded me a lot of the work of Barnett Newman and that generation, which he loved.
He was a man of incredible culture. And so he had worked with Van Cleef and Arpels in the ’80s. I met him about 10 years ago. We’ve developed a few projects with him and the School for Jewelry Arts, exhibited his work and worked on a few additions. And to me, he is an extraordinary character because he was at the crossroads of so many traditions and he was using the highest level of technique to go beyond it and to create pieces that were almost impossible by non-traditional standards. And a fantastic guy to be around. And his place in New York looked like, I think that even the most crazy directors wouldn’t think of a space like that as a background for a movie. So, I think he’s going to be missed.
And one of my last questions is, I was asked to ask you about your upcoming collection in May, if you could speak about it, which of course this will come out after it’s released, hopefully. So, if not, we’ll cut it. So, can you explain a little bit about this upcoming collection?
Yeah, so this new collection that we’re launching, actually is going to be publicly launched in June, is inspired by the Grand Tour. So, how relevant. Come on.
I see there’s a book next to us that says The Age of the Grand Tour.
Yes, there are quite a few behind you. And yes, it’s always been a very, very fascinating subject to me. Lots of books about it, lots of exhibitions about it. And it’s really that idea of how travel was a way to form your artistic education and to form your education. So, going back to the 17th, 18th century, it was this tour of Europe that originally English young people of let’s say wealthy families, but then more Europeans would do. So, starting very often from London, going to France, Germany, Switzerland to see the Alps, and then of course Italy. And it was then the whole beginning of the Italian tour. And then Venice, Firenze, Roma, Napoli.
And all these young people that would sometimes travel for one or two years would of course go and see monuments, artworks and discover or rediscover antique times. So, antique Rome, obviously medieval architecture, and Renaissance painting among others. And that would influence, of course, all the writings and paintings of the 18th, 19th century, the idea of romanticism, the rediscovery of ruins.
And there is something very, very fascinating there. And so, we decided to dedicate this collection to that rediscovery of the Grand Tour, what it meant at the time, the different places it included, and the way it represented it. And the Grand Tour itself was a very strong inspiration for jewelry in the 19th century, for instance, with the rediscovery of Roman Etruscan and Renaissance jewelry that influenced a lot our predecessors. So, it’s this journey through Europe that we’re going to invite you to in a few weeks.
Okay, amazing. And how many pieces are in this collection?
There’s going to be around 80 pieces in the overall collection.
Wow, okay. How do they express the Grand Tour in terms of shape?
They express the Grand Tour in a very straightforward manner. They’re really associated with the different places. So we go from London to Paris, to Baden-Baden, to the Alps, to the different cities in Italy. And we focus on the elements that at the time were the best remembered and the most influential. So, that view of the Alps mountain that you might know from a Friedrich painting. Of course, of Venice and the Colosseum in Rome, the Bay of Napoli with the Vesuvio in the back.
And so we are going to revisit in a way, the way they inspired painters, the way some of these travelers captured these memories through watercolors in their traveling books. The way some writers, we have a few important writers I think like, you know, Goethe stands out, that did write about their travels. So, we pay tribute to these landscapes and we try to reinterpret them in necklaces, in bracelets. Sometimes you will identify a monument or an element of architecture or the landscape and the silhouette of a mountain, combinations of color that were very, very in fashion at the time. So, that’s going to be our little tour.
Thank you to my guest today, Nicolas Bos, as well as to Paul and Hortense for making this episode happen. The editor of The Grand Tourist is Stan Hall. To keep this going, please follow me on Instagram @danrubinstein to learn more. And sign up with your email for updates at thegrandtourist.net. And don’t forget to follow The Grand Tourist on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen and leave us a rating or comment. Every little bit helps. Till next time.
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