Van Cleef & Arpels have established a school for those interested to receive lessons in luxurious jewellery making.
Glimpse the masters of delicate design in high jewellery design school
A small group of us were in the gilded rooms of the Hotel d'Evreux, a private 18th-century town house, in the Place Vendôme, which is the heart of the Parisian high jewellery world, and our lecturer Isabelle was introducing us to three white-coated specialists from Van Cleef & Arpels who would be our mentors that afternoon.
We were gathered together because we share a love for beautiful high jewellery and were eager to learn about the craftsmanship, or "savoir faire" as the French describe it, that goes into their creation. This was a special class at the brand new L'École Van Cleef & Arpels, working with craftsmen and women from the famous Paris jeweller's atelier nearby, learning a little about their skills. They train for 10 years or more. We, however, only had four hours.
Victoire, who works with the designers, gave us practical demonstrations on how to paint the gouaches (finished working drawings of the designs), which are precisely followed by people like Carole, who makes the wax models of the jewels and Frederick, who sets the stones. We tried some of these skills for ourselves and learnt that it is anything but easy.
Frederick has been with Van Cleef & Arpels for 15 years and is one of the treasured mains d'or (golden hands) who sets the beautiful high jewellery on display in the boutique's windows in Place Vendôme. Carole has worked there for 13 years and is a specialist in using cire perdue, the ancient Egyptian "lost wax" technique to sculpt special pieces such as the pretty little bird or ballerina brooches, house signatures, which are used to form moulds for the molten metal. She also cuts and shapes precious metal into the delicate wings of a butterfly, which she then assembles as brooches. It can take one month to make just one, such is the finesse demanded.
Shining a light on these ancestral skills, passed from generation to generation, is the idea of Marie Vallanet-Delhom, who together with the creative director Nicolas Bos and the chief executive Stanislas de Quercize conceived the concept for the École (she prefers not to translate it to "school"). "The world of jewellery is so small, so closed, we have to open it," she says.
The course, which is run in English and French for one week per month for groups of no more than 12, is broken down into seven different modules (classes) that allow us to peek inside the secretive world of high jewellery. We learn from professionals: jewellers, an art historian and gemmologist, and the course is flexible, which means it's possible to dip in and out of the modules. You could do just one four-hour lesson or maybe several, culminating in an exclusive trip to the Van Cleef & Arpels workshops.
"The course is flexible, to open up the world of jewellery to as large a public as possible," says Vallanet-Delhom, who has spent 25 years working with Cartier and then VC&A sharing her extensive knowledge on jewellery with clients and colleagues.
I had chosen to do a practical lesson because I wanted to gain an insight into how the VC&A artisans make some of their beautifully evocative jewellery, but there are other fascinating aspects on the subject to be discovered by those who attend the École. It begins with learning about the history of fine jewellery and who were the grandmasters, and/or you could spend a few hours with a gemmologist "reading the stones", looking at raw and cut stones through a loop.
Another module, Jeux de Bijoux, explains Inezita Gay, who presents the English-language versions of the sessions, "looks at the codes through the different eras about how you would wear jewellery. There was a time when you strictly could not wear rubies in the day, only at night. There are cultures where little girls cannot wear pearls and cultures where they can only wear pearls. There were laws in Venice in 1400 when only nobility could where pearls. Similarly, Caesar had to enact laws against wearing them in ancient Rome because there was such a pearl mania."
This session works with a stylist so you can play with different ways of wearing jewels. It is the perfect way to share some time with a friend, or mother and daughter in the luxurious surroundings of the Place Vendôme. "It is like taking a wine course, but you are not ending up a vintner or a true wine expert, but you do know at the end the difference between a Pétrus and a Beaujolais Nouveau," explains Gay.
There has been such positive feedback that when this timetable of courses finishes later in June, there is potential to take it overseas, to Chicago, Shanghai and Dubai. With the exception of the practical modules such as those with the craftsmen and visiting the atelier, the school is nomadic. "We want to share our love and passion," says Vallanet-Delhom. "The whole world does not come to Place Vendôme, so it is up to us to go to them. My mission is to share this."
The next modules are May 22-25 and June 19-23. The cost to register in each module varies but starts at €600 or €800 (Dh3,000 or Dh4,000). For more information and to register (first come first served basis), visit www.lecolevancleefarpels.com