CEO AND PRESIDENT, VAN CLEEF & ARPELS
By Natasha Edwards
Portrait by Franck Juery
As CEO and president of Van Cleef & Arpels, Nicolas Bos is quietly carrying the venerable Parisian jewelry house, founded in 1906, into the future. He’s also giving it a new public aura. Bos’s background has prepared him well for the job: He came to Van Cleef and its classical golden-stone headquarters on prestigious Place Vendôme in 2000 from the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art, where he began his career in 1992 after ESSEC business school. “It was an institution quite unique, and a precursor in the sponsorship of contemporary art,” he says of the Cartier Foundation. “I met lots of artists, painters, and sculptors, also designers and architects, people from fashion and performing arts. I had a role to make sure that projects worked, like the building with Jean Nouvel, to be an interface between Cartier and the curators of the foundation, and between Cartier and the people from the world of art and the world of luxury.”
One skill that Bos brought with him from the Cartier Fondation was collaborating with different teams. He also brought a strong belief in power of the “passerelle,” or footbridge, between various creative fields, including art, literature, poetry, and choreography. “I have a huge personal curiosity toward all the forms of creation, which remains very important for me,” says Bos, who is currently on the committee of the Palais de Tokyo art space.
Unlike some jewelry company executives, Bos doesn’t believe in bringing in big-name outside designers to create pieces that will be associated with their own image. Instead, he’s for preserving the distinctive Van Cleef & Arpels identity. “We work principally with our in-house designers in an integrated studio,” he says. “In haute joaillerie, there’s a great importance of style, technique, savoir-faire—it’s a process of collective creation.” Virtually all the pieces are made in the workshops in Paris, except for some simpler traditional pieces made in Lyon and the Jura mountains, as part of a network of traditional craftsmen.
Van Cleef has “a style that is very delicate, very decorative, very drawn,” he says. “There are numerous figurative pieces, very feminine, very sophisticated, a vision of the world that is very positive. It finds inspiration from fairytales, ballerinas, the world of imagination and fantasy, and precious stones, but it is also distinguished by its use of three-dimensional forms and asymmetry that we see in nature. It is a joyous nature that feels positive, of flowers and butterflies. Unlike some houses, you won’t find snakes with us.”
One of the challenges for Bos is “how to remain true to our style and make it contemporary,” he says. “One tries to continue to enrich our collection, reflect on how jewelry is worn today.” The brand’s range goes from the elaborate flowers and foliage of the Jardins line; to the fantasy of the Jules Verne–inspired Voyages Extraordinaires; to a recent line, launched in summer 2014, inspired by the Peau d’Ane fairytale; to the simple iconic Alhambra motif, launched in 1968. The company’s clientele, as such, is extremely varied and international. The house has been present in the United States since the ’30s, Japan since the ’70s, and over the past decade has seen a growing number of clients in China, Russia, and the Middle East.
“The haute joaillerie is a bit different,” says Bos, who believes in the “renewal of the art of jewelry as a category of the decorative arts. There are clients who regard it a bit like a collection, in the domain of an art object. It can be worn, but also be seen as an artistic expression. In the Art Deco period, jewelry used to be considered one of the decorative arts, along with architecture and furniture. I want to remove it from its isolation.”
“When I began,” he adds, “the style perhaps wasn’t really in the air du temps; the taste was for more abstract, more masculine style.” But today he believes there is a new public fascination with “slow design” or “applied creation.” If haute joaillerie remains an extremely elitist world, one of Bos’s most original moves has been the creation, in 2012, of L’École Van Cleef & Arpels, a school at its Paris headquarters that puts on a program of classes and lectures for the general public. Not just based in Paris, L’École has started to travel the world. After stops in Tokyo and Hong Kong in 2013 and 2014, respectively, this summer (from June 4–18) it’s taking place at New York’s Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. [Full disclosure: Surface’s editor-in-chief, Spencer Bailey, is on L’École’s honorary committee in New York; on June 5, he will be moderating a conversation, titled “Slow Design: Jewelry and the Garden,” between Bos and the architects Michael Manfredi and Marion Weiss as part of the programming.] An insight into the art involved in Van Cleef’s pieces, L’École is “a way of ensuring that people get to know us better,” Bos says, “showing the technical side and the historic” through classes on subjects including precious stones and gems, technical craftsmanship, and the art history of jewelry.
As to the future, while technique remains one of the strengths of Van Cleef & Arpels, Bos can see it evolving. He’s looking to integrate new technology such as 3-D modeling as a way of creating complex volumes—a meeting between the traditional savoir-faire and a new generation of digital-age artisans.