PRECIOUS WINGS At École Van Cleef & Arpels, jewellery lovers have a chance to go back to school.
Thanks to the École Van Cleef & Arpels, jewellery lovers have a chance to go back to school and understand how the house’s precious pieces are crafted.
On a brisk January morning in Paris, just before the haute couture collections, I get lost on my way to school. For the past 110 years Van Cleef & Arpels has sat at 22 Place Vendôme, so I knew I was in the right place, sort of. As I linger inside the jeweller’s cavernous entryway frantically thumbing at my phone, a house rep materialises. Minutes later, we’ve circled the block and whisked through the back door of the Hôtel de Ségur, just in time for a fast coffee before class.
Named after an intimate of Louis XV – the Marquis de Ségur, known as the “Prince of Vines” – the Van Cleef & Arpels hôtel particulier was built by Ange-Jacques Gabriel, one of 18thcentury France’s premier architects, who also designed the Petit Trianon at Versailles. While its aristocratic aura remains intact, in recent years the mansion’s interior has been completely reconfigured into the modern, light-filled salons and ateliers that now comprise the École Van Cleef & Arpels.
The only jewellery school of its kind in Paris, the École opened in 2012 for students from the general public, be they novices or amateurs éclairés – enlightened enthusiasts. For a jewellery obsessive like me, it’s a dream come true, an à la carte opportunity to lift – at least partially – the cloak of mystery surrounding one of the world’s most jealously guarded, secretive crafts.
Van Cleef & Arpels, which will be opening its first Australian store at Melbourne’s Collins Street in late June, built its fortune on secrets. In 1933, the Parisian house’s serti mystérieux earned a French patent, and invisible settings became the jeweller’s signature. Five years later, in 1938, the house produced a gouache of what would become its most famous invisible setting: the Zip diamond necklace, commissioned by Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor. The war intervened, and the duchess received the completed piece in 1951. Today, the Zip necklace remains one of the most innovative jewellery designs of all time.
On the morning of my class, Van Cleef & Arpels’s latest serti mystérieux is featured in the pages of the leading French daily Le Figaro. The Rubis Secret, a hidden timepiece, its bracelet set with more than 150 carats of Mozambique rubies hemmed with rows of diamonds, was the hit of the SIHH luxury jewellery and watch exhibition in Geneva. As it happens, our teachers for the morning, Maxime and Frédéric, the two “Mains d’Or” (at Van
FOR A JEWELLERY OBSESSIVE LIKE ME, THE ÉCOLE IS A DREAM COME TRUE
Cleef & Arpels, jewellers are called “golden hands”) spent well over a year crafting that very piece. We’re welcomed by Brigitte Pery Eveno, a professor at the École Van Cleef & Arpels whose ties to the house date back to her great-grandfather, Lucien Pery, a jeweller for Van Cleef & Arpels from its founding, in 1896. Her grandfather, Albert Pery, created the Zip necklace. A Parisian with the kind of style the whole world envies, Pery Eveno runs us through more than a dozen course options, from art history to the colour and character of gemstones, savoir faire, understanding mechanical timepieces to art nouveau and the art of Japanese lacquer. Today, we’re to explore “wax projects and setting techniques”.
Once we don our white lab coats, our small group of six students gets a crash course in the ancient art of cire perdue, or the “lost wax” technique of jewellery-making. We take up our stations at a workbench, and Maxime walks us through the process for etching out gemstone placements on one of the house’s best-known signatures, a butterfly. Green wax butterfly in hand, I juggle a compass, a white marker and a “fraise” piercing tool as I attempt to align 10 tiny holes evenly along the upper lobe of the butterfly’s wing. On the penultimate hole, my left wing fissures. I’m afraid I’d never make it in your workshop, I tell Maxime. “I’m not looking to make you into a jeweller,” he replies kindly. “I just want help you appreciate what you see and whatever jewellery might be offered to you.” At that moment, I wish my husband had tagged along.
Butterfly duly mangled, it’s time to move on to gem-setting. The silver body of a butterfly, rendered in two prong settings and one bezel, plus one pear-shaped and two round factice stones, are on the bench. Optical glasses perched grasshopper-like on my nose, I coax the stones, point down, into their settings and try to squeeze the prongs around them without tipping the stone’s table. It’s easier for me than working with wax, but I’m quite certain this butterfly will never take wing either. Still, there’s something satisfying about the work, almost meditative, like getting lost in time. Before I know it, it’s lunch hour: my four-hour class is over. For the hundredth time that morning, I realise I probably shouldn’t give up my day job, but I feel energised, ready to come back and try again.
I thank our two Mains d’Or and begin plotting my return, and since they have children’s classes, think that perhaps I’ll bring along my six year-old princess-in-training. “The real secret is that jewellery is really all about emotion,” Maxime observes. “Our job is to create happiness.”
AN ANTIQUE VAN CLEEF & ARPELS YELLOW GOLD ZIP NECKLACE SET WITH DIAMONDS, EMERALDS, EMERALD BEADS, SAPPHIRES AND SAPPHIRE BEADS, P.O. A. The Van Cleef & Arpels boutique at Place Vendôme in Paris. Working on the face of a Lady Arpels Fée Ondine watch....
Creating the face of a Lady Nuit des Papillons watch. Assembling the jewelled band of a Lady Jour des Fleurs watch. Working on the underside of a bracelet. Creating a waterlily for an Lady Arpels Fée Ondine watch. CADEAU IMPÉRIAL WHITE GOLD DROP...