Van Cleef & Arpels: an enviable achievement

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August 2018

Van Cleef & Arpels: an enviable achievement

Van Cleef & Arpels was one of the pioneers of watch complications with a poetic, floral touch, aimed at women. The path traced by this more than centenarian, brazenly successful Paris jeweller has spawned many emulators, not to say copy-cats. We interviewed its president and CEO Nicolas Bos, who also firmly but elegantly holds the artistic reins of a brand which is extremely consistent both aesthetically and strategically, and which has avoided the eddies that have rocked the Richemont “ship” over the past three years.


an Cleef & Arpels is a brand apart within the Richemont Group. Like the Cartier “flagship vessel”, it is not placed under the direct supervision of the group’s watchmaking boss, Jérôme Lambert. Its CEO, Nicolas Bos, has the particularity of assuming both the operational and artistic management of the brand. And its many years in the jewellery business mean that it has been outrageously successful, whereas Richemont’s watchmaking business has been severely impacted during the past three years by the Chinese crisis. Moreover, its managerial stability stands out in a group that is in the throes of restructuring.

Founded in 1906 and acquired by Richemont in 1999, the Paris-based company specialised early in a niche market that has been much copied ever since: that of poetic complications, mainly for women. It also has the unique feature of selling its jewellery and watch designs only in its own boutiques (of which it has over 120). According to estimates by the bank Vontobel, Van Cleef & Arpels’ turnover approaches the one-billion Swiss franc mark, which would make it the second most profitable brand after Cartier.

Lady Arpels Planetarium
Lady Arpels Planetarium

Production-wise, its flagship collection is incontestably the Alhambra. But the highlight of the watchmaking show at the last SIHH was, of course, the new Lady Arpels Planetarium, a conversation piece developed in collaboration with the independent brand, Christiaan van der Klaauw. And that is another point that sets it apart from its fellow companies at Richemont, who are very reluctant to reveal the names of their partners: whether it be van der Klaauw, Jean-Marc Wiederrecht or François Junod, Van Cleef & Arpels makes no mystery about its collaborators – although the same cannot be said of its business results!

“For more than a century, the company has expressed itself first and foremost through its jewellery, with a vast abundance of creative designs. Jewellery gave us the chance to explore a large number of fields of expression, such as nature, dance, poetry and theatre. It’s from these fields that we draw the philosophy that corresponds to us, centred on positive values, such as childhood, naivety, innocence. Today, that corresponds both to our jewellery and watch creations,” sums up a serene Nicolas Bos. Europa Star went to meet him.

A number of jewellery companies have made forays into watchmaking, but have not stayed, or just maintain that business at a minimum. As a jeweller, how do you establish yourself in the watchmaking business for the long term?

Watchmaking is still quite a technical, rather masculine world. It’s an engineer’s world first and foremost. Our vision of time is rather unusual. It’s more narrative, more feminine, geared to the rhythm of nature and not to measuring performance, chronographs being the most extreme example of that. Our colleagues do that very well already!

Via luxury jewellery watches we’ve developed a philosophy that exploits the potential of mechanical movements to design poetic complications. Watchmaking is to jewellery what cinema is to photography: it sets it in motion! Our vision is very simple: we don’t start with the technical or mechanical side, but with the narrative. For example, we unashamedly show the very “demonstrative” side of the automata. It’s poetry, but it’s not restricting.

«Watchmaking is to jewellery what cinema is to photography: it sets it in motion!»

The brands of the Richemont Group have vertically integrated their production to a large degree in recent years. But in your watchmaking business you’ve done the opposite and struck up numerous partnerships with other companies…

It’s true that, since ours is essentially a jewellery-making culture, we haven’t systematically integrated watchmaking know-how. Instead, we brought together the most competent figures in the watchmaking world and got them to work with our Paris-based jewellers. The idea was first of all to design the cases around existing movements.

But in fact Van Cleef & Arpels has often co-produced watches in the past. With Universal, for example. Our company has always sought out the best movements so as to affiliate them with our design expertise. That also explains our philosophy of promoting the watchmakers who work with us, whether it’s other brands like Jaeger-LeCoultre or Piaget, or independent watchmakers like Jean-Marc Wiedderrecht. For our customers, it’s reassuring.

Lady Arpels Jour Féerique
Lady Arpels Jour Féerique

On the other hand, you’re 100% vertically integrated where distribution is concerned, since you’ve decided to work solely through your own boutiques. Might not retail partners be key to winning over certain regions or collectors?

We made this strategic choice because our watch products are part and parcel of our jewellery offering. Also, our watches are highly specific products, which isn’t necessarily easy to explain. We’re still an atypical brand. For example, we tried out an interesting experiment one day with the Chronopassion boutique in Paris. It’s geared much more to the technical aspects than us, but in the end the customers came to buy the products from us... I don’t think our watch range is traditional enough to do “wholesale”.

Midnight heure d'ici & heure d'ailleurs
Midnight heure d’ici & heure d’ailleurs

What feedback did you get from the last SIHH?

This year’s show was neither hysterically optimistic nor pessimistic. As far as we’re concerned, we benefit from jewellery’s strong performance and also, we suffer less than other brands from the vagaries of wholesale distribution. We didn’t experience the exacerbating effects of inventory build-up and clearance.

I’m seeing a resurge of growth in Asia. Japan is recovering. The American market remains strong if you’re already well-established. On the other hand, Europe is subdued owing to security issues and a strong euro. The fall in tourist numbers has led to a business slowdown in Europe.

We’ve seen a proliferation of poetic, feminine, “organic” complications on the watch market. Have you opened up new territory here?

It’s the price of success! Until we arrived on the scene, women’s complications were an underdeveloped area of watchmaking. We’ve developed highly original aesthetic codes. But they’ve whetted the appetite of other players.

Today, we’re seeing products that bear an incredible resemblance to our designs, our flowers, our butterflies. Ok, we don’t have the monopoly on butterflies... But one of the challenges facing us is the proliferation of copies. When we have to, we take legal action again counterfeits and copies.

Van Cleef & Arpels: an enviable achievement

«But one of the challenges facing us is the proliferation of copies. When we have to, we take legal action again counterfeits and copies.»

Competition seems to be hotting up on the jewellery front, where there’s less market concentration than in watchmaking.

The jewellery market is continuing to grow. Twenty years ago, only five percent of jewellery items bore the signature of an international brand. Our market share, like that of other historic companies, is growing. Today, brand jewellery represents maybe 15-20%, but it will never account for the whole market.

Van Cleef & Arpels: an enviable achievement

Another topic that’s on everyone’s lips today is “customisation”. What is the effective degree of customisation, or even bespoke, at Van Cleef & Arpels?

We offer plenty of jewellery customisation for our watches, but we also offer modifications to the dial through our enamelling workshops. With the Pont des Amoureux model, we can change the décor and the hands, for example. We produce a large number of one-off items, with bespoke dials. And it can happen that we modify the movement. Bespoke has always been quite an important part of our business, but it’s stable. Customers want to go on trusting us as far as the artistic design is concerned, they don’t necessarily want to play a role in it.