uring the Watches & Wonders exhibition from 30 March to 5 April in Geneva, one stand was the talk of the town: that of Van Cleef & Arpels. At a time when everyone’s morale had been affected by the war in Ukraine, which had broken out a month earlier, the Parisian jeweller welcomed its visitors into a world of enchantment.
It was a place where automata had the power to momentarily transport the mind into another world, a universe where craftsmanship, poetry and beauty reigned and where time was read with flowers. The quote by Aristotle, “Philosophy begins with a sense of wonder,” could have been written for Van Cleef & Arpels.
It’s been almost ten years since Nicolas Bos was appointed President and CEO of the brand, and the company is enjoying tremendous success. Interview.
- Nicolas Bos, President and CEO of Van Cleef & Arpels
Europa Star: What position does poetry occupy in the contemporary world?
Nicolas Bos: As a literary form, it has become very important once again. Poetry in the traditional sense, with its rhythm and rhymes, has combined with forms linked to urban culture, to song, to hip-hop. It’s a very lively art. In fact, Van Cleef & Arpels has just set up a poetry programme at the Guggenheim in New York. Each year, the museum will host a poet who will organise a year-long programme of readings, lectures and meetings in dedicated spaces. It will host young poets. It is quite symbolic to see the importance of poetry in the world of culture today.
“Van Cleef & Arpels has just set up a poetry programme at the Guggenheim in New York. Each year, the museum will host a poet who will organise a year-long programme of readings, lectures and meetings in dedicated spaces.”
- The three-dimensional dial of the Lady Arpels Heures Florales offers a poetic rendition of the passage of time, thanks to the opening and closing of 12 corollas. Telling the time becomes a spectacle, as the flowers blossom and close, renewing the dial’s scenery every 60 minutes.
How is poetry expressed at Van Cleef & Arpels?
Most of our inspiration comes from nature and fairy tales, a poetic and not very realistic approach to life. We interpret this lightness, this movement, through very concrete skills and dense materials that are difficult to work with. When we started to think about our presence at Watches & Wonders and, beyond the pieces themselves, about the decoration of the stand and its architecture, we wanted to present a universe that was, especially at this time, both comfortable and reassuring, enveloping and serene. Like an enchanted parenthesis for our visitors.
Your automata – the watch that tells the time with flowers, or the butterfly dancer that indicates the passing of time with its wings – fill us with wonder. They seem to have arrived at exactly the right time, in a period of dramatic uncertainty. Are you trying to bring back a sense of delight with these objects?
It would be arrogant to think that we could bring delight to the world, but we like to operate in the register of the extraordinary. It’s the spirit of 19th century romanticism – the celebration of nature, beauty and love – that inspires us. And even though romanticism, as a literary movement, had a dark side, through poetry we can escape from time and everyday life to find the magic in the world. Many of our creations, in the fields of watchmaking, jewellery or the decorative arts, evoke this spirit. I don’t think we need to ask ourselves whether we need poetry today.
“Romanticism inspires us: as a literary movement it had a dark side, but through poetry we can escape from time and everyday life to find the magic in the world.”
- Some 30 centimetres high, the Rêveries de Berylline automaton is the first in a series of pieces inspired by nature, produced in partnership with the François Junod workshop. Here, a flower born in an imaginary garden animates on demand, opening its petals to unveil a hummingbird ready to take flight.
I think you have to see it as a whole. Each house has its own identity, and as long as this identity remains clear, attractive, broadly-based and coherent, and provided it is supported by creations, collections and communication, its success is guaranteed. Our identity is based in a poetic narrative dimension. It is strong and relevant. Talking more concretely about the successes of recent years, even in somewhat difficult circumstances, the maturity of the different houses played a role. Companies that are fortunate enough to be very international, well established in many different markets, with a strong history, have been less affected by the ups and downs of recent years because they are less dependent on a particular clientele, a particular market, a particular country. For houses with a local presence or without a historical pedigree, the situation is more difficult.
Van Cleef & Arpels has been present in Europe for a century, in the United States since the 1930s and in Japan for 50 years. These roots mean that, even during periods of global downturn, customers will seek out brands with a recognised history, brands that are reassuring, that are part of their landscape. We are fortunate to be part of this group. This has been an accelerator during the difficult period we have experienced in recent years, and that we are still going through. The houses that have weathered the storms have a relatively strong identity, they are not stuck in the past, and they have the resources to react. When Europe grinds to a halt, they are present in Asia; if it is not possible to organise a launch, they can set up an exhibition. This is what explains the success of some houses.
- Born in 2013 and winner of the Lady’s Complication Prize at the GPHG the same year, the Lady Arpels Ballerine Enchantée reflects one of the brand’s major sources of inspiration: dance. On demand, the figure indicates the hours and minutes by raising its arms.
Only 2 or 3% of the gems sold on the market are considered investment stones. When Van Cleef & Arpels creates jewellery, in addition to its creative contribution and craftsmanship, is this dimension taken into account, or does the beauty of the object come first?
Beauty is important, but this dimension also comes into play when we’re talking about fine jewellery, be it a highly identifiable centre stone or a matched set. But the jewellery pieces themselves, whether it’s a Zip necklace or a mystery setting, for example (both creations of the house), also have an investment value. The signature, the aesthetics, the technique, all play a role in the buying decision of customers and collectors. These are pieces that will hold their value and possibly appreciate.
“During periods of global downturn, customers will seek out brands with a recognised history, brands that are reassuring, that are part of their landscape.”
What was the biggest lesson you have learned in your career, the time that life threw you a curve ball?
This is going to sound pretentious, but I think I’ve been very lucky. That’s not to say that we haven’t gone through crises or difficulties, when the world has closed down, such as with the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy or September 11, 2001. There are times when you think about the end of many things, but I don’t remember any hardships that I had to overcome at Van Cleef & Arpels. You also have to remember that we work over a long time horizon, and as a result, things take time. It takes us 3 to 5 years to create a collection. To develop our first automaton, it took us almost ten years! Once or twice I said to myself that we’d never release it, but in the end the project came to fruition. To find yourself in a situation of failure, you have to work in the short term; you have to make a bad choice, take a bad decision, find yourself in bad circumstances. This will have fairly rapid and serious negative consequences. When we do things that don’t work out so well – this has happened to us – we redirect, we are careful. That’s the advantage of taking your time.
- Distinguished by its impressive dimensions (50cm high and 66.5cm in diameter), the Planétarium automaton presents the Sun and many of the planets of the solar system visible from the Earth. Each heavenly body moves at its actual speed of rotation, completing one orbit in 88 days for Mercury, 224 days for Venus, 365 days for the Earth, 687 days for Mars, 11.86 years for Jupiter, and 29.5 years for Saturn
Over the past ten years, Van Cleef & Arpels has done a lot of work to promote the artistic crafts, notably with the creation of the School of Jewellery Arts in 2013. Do you feel that this has had a positive effect on the number of young people choosing to make a career in these fields?
Yes, and this is one of my greatest satisfactions! One of the positive effects of getting older is that we are starting to receive applications from future jewellers or craftsmen who tell us that they discovered the profession thanks to exhibitions that we organised or through courses that they took in our School of Jewellery Arts. They came to take classes as children; they were 8 years old, today they are 18 and they want to make jewellery their profession.
“To develop our first automaton, it took us almost ten years! That’s the advantage of taking your time.”
You were appointed CEO in 2013. Looking back, almost ten years later, how has it been?
It’s gone pretty fast! The most difficult years were at the beginning of my career at Van Cleef & Arpels, when I was in charge of marketing and creation and we were trying to find the right way to continue building this house. Those were seminal moments. I took over from some great people. One day I’ll pass it on to others, but not for a long time, I hope! (laughs)