Van Cleef & Arpels does more than simply make watches and jewellery – each item is an individual work of fantastical art. So how does the brand’s President and CEO Nicolas Bos see the future of this historic maison? MOJEH digs deep to discover the passion that drives the fantasy.
“I cannot imagine, especially in the world of luxury, not being fully immersed and passionate about your activity and your product,” says Nicolas Bos, President and CEO of Van Cleef & Arpels. “I’m not an artist per se, but I love working with artists and creative people, making things happen and giving them opportunities to showcase and share their work. That’s what drives me, so I’m quite happy I manage to do that with the company. A long time ago, the fashion was to say that the product and nature of the company doesn’t matter, as long as the qualities of the leadership are good. However, my personal experience is the exact opposite.”
Indeed, Bos is nothing if not immersed in the Van Cleef & Arpels world of passion, magic and whimsy. But given the opportunity, who wouldn’t want to be? The classic Parisian maison has been making reality out of fantasies in precious metals and jewels since 1896, and is one of the world’s foremost names in haute joaillerie.
“It is actually quite a blessing to be working in such an environment,” says Bos. “Time has flown since I joined. I have never been bored so I am a very lucky person in that sense, but I think it is a fascinating industry. I started to discover the world of jewellery about 20 years ago and I think I still haven’t discovered everything, far from it. Van Cleef & Arpels is a house with plenty of opportunities for creation and new projects so you never have the impression that you are doing the same thing twice. I consider myself quite lucky and I am very, very far from being bored or blasé. Really, I couldn’t imagine it.”
Bos joined the luxury umbrella of Richemont Group in 1992, and progressed to Van Cleef & Arpels in 2000 as Creative and Marketing Director. His appointment as VCA’s Vice President came in 2009, before becoming Global President and CEO soon after in 2013. So it’s little wonder that Bos approaches his work with such dedication – carrying the weight of VCA’s heritage on his shoulders is quite the responsibility.
“At VCA we try be extremely faithful to our identity, and to be very clear about who we are,” says Bos. “You cannot be everything for everyone so we have a style, we have certain techniques, we have categories of products and we stick to that. There are some people that love it and some people that don’t appreciate it, and that is totally fine because that’s what it takes to have style.”
Due to VCA’s rich heritage, its pieces are steeped in rich symbolism and techniques that are literally ages old. So is modern technology becoming ever more important, or are the old ways still the best? “Honestly, I think it is both and I think it is also a great opportunity that has developed over the years,” says Bos. “I don’t see a fight or a contradiction between craftsmanship and technology, I think that we are all craftsmen by nature and it was always the duty of the craftsman to use the best possible tools that were available. At the end of the day, it comes down to the combination of the craft and the quality of the hand and the quality of the tools that are available”. “The way we work in the workshops today is really a combination of pretty much everything; we do the majority of our operations manually because this is still the best way to get the results we are looking for. We use some techniques that are thousands of years old, like lost-wax casting which was used by the Ancient Egyptians 5,000 years ago, but it’s still the best technique”.
“If we think back over the last 30 years, there is the development of laser technology, that’s enabled us to create finishes that are much more delicate and refined than the traditional soldering techniques. And in the last 10-15 years the development of 3D imagery and 3D printing has come, not as a substitute but as a complement, by creating a bridge between the two dimensional design stage and the three dimensional final product. In trying to use technology as a substitute for the human touch you lose the soul of what you do. But if you give the best tools to craftsmen that really have the skills and that have been trained the traditional way, they know the materials in a way that no machine ever will,” says Bos.
Van Cleef & Arpels frequently calls upon its classic themes and motifs when envisioning new pieces, even basing its social and cultural project to fund modern dance performances – Dance Reflections – on the emblematic VCA ballerinas. But while maintaining such close ties with heritage and tradition, is the brand courting the danger of getting stuck in the past? Not so, says Bos: “There is definitely one thing that matters, and that’s the importance of identity and consistency. Just because the tools and technology change, it doesn’t mean that you should change your style – this would be a big mistake. Once you have that identity you try to find the best way to translate it into today’s world, but the message is the same. The Alhambra collection was created more than 50 years ago, and I remember the question 20 years ago being do we need to change the Alhambra in order to make it look modern, to be appealing? Or is there a way to keep it as it is, but to display it in a way that feels interesting to young people, different cultures and so on. So the work was more on the image than on the creation itself, and somehow it worked. I think that today Alhambra is still a reference in jewellery, although it is 50 years old and has gone through three generations. To me, luxury is really about having a timeless object that has been created a long time ago but still feels right today, even though the lifestyle and the world have completely changed. You have a few timeless creations in the world of jewellery and watches, cars… They are the ones that resist time and trends.”
Speaking of trends, Van Cleef & Arpels’ profile has increased steadily in the Middle East over the past few decades. So how have regional tastes evolved to allow an appreciation of VCA’s art?
“Middle Eastern expertise in and knowledge of jewellery has evolved tremendously in the last 20 to 30 years,” says Bos. “The taste for jewellery was extremely traditional and cultural, mainly wedding jewellery, and there was the idea of having pieces that were quite important in terms of size. So when we came with very delicate shapes and small pieces, trying to explain the VCA concept was not so easy. When we looked at local jewellers to see what was working 20 years ago, we felt it was not necessarily the right time or place for us. But we have seen a real change in the last 10 to 15 years and now there is really an understanding of taste, different styles, identity, materials and a love for jewellery which is probably stronger than in a lot of countries in the world”.
“Middle Eastern women really love jewels and in a lot of aspects it is part of life, celebrations and culture. But it is also a fashion accessory, more so than in many countries, and we see customers that love novelty and always want to see what’s new, which is really important. The taste that 20 years ago was very specific in terms of shape and yellow gold has become completely diverse. The preference for colour is still quite strong and of course there is some cultural background to that, but I think there is a very high curiosity and true love for jewellery and a true understanding of the differences in quality, craftsmanship that actually makes it a very exciting conversation,” says Bos.
Throughout Van Cleef & Arpels’s history, there has been a strong emphasis on art and culture, whether that’s through the jewels themselves, or a fascination with and patronage of the performing arts. So how do these connections continue today? “Jewellery is really a form of decorative art, not only a commercial activity,” said Bos. “Of course there is a commercial aspect but when we create pieces we don’t think of how much we are going to sell them for, we try to create the most beautiful pieces we can. If it is a commercial success that’s good, but if not, that’s life. When you look at the ballerina or the fairy or the animals that we create, we really design them and craft them as small sculptures that can be worn. For people who are sensitive to that it really is for the pleasure of the art.
“There is also a strong history of dialogue between the maison and dance companies, choreographers and institutions, because dance shares the same values as VCA: it’s all about beauty, movement, lightness, grace. With the new Dance Reflections initiative we wanted to be more present in the territory of dance and choreography. We are finding new ways to support not only the creation but also the transmission of art and choreography and visibility of the works, a platform where we are going to create events to support performances in partnership with existing institutions.
“It is a long term commitment that we are going to unfold over the years, and like we do with the jewellery school, always with the view of enabling the widest possible audience to enjoy the art. So we are going to work with artists and institutions to make these performances more accessible and visible to students, families and underprivileged categories that don’t necessarily think that dance is something for them. We believe they can really enjoy it, so that’s quite an ambitious project,” says Bos.
But as with everything in the Van Cleef & Arpels universe, the only limit is imagination. And with Nicolas Bos’s encouragement, imagination seems to be in endless supply.
- Words by Sophia Serin and Rachel Silvestri