Poetic Treasures: Van Cleef & Arpels’ Hugues de Pins

Van Cleef & Arpels Managing Director Southeast Asia and Australia Hugues de Pins tells us about the maison’s watchmaking philosophy, explaining that it cannot be separated from its high jewellery character.

Apr 21, 2022 | By Ashok Soman
Van Cleef & Arpels, Hugues de Pins
Hugues de Pins. Image: Van Cleef & Arpels

For more than 10 years, Van Cleef & Arpels wowed the world with its quirky takes on time, often powered by innovative movements developed by such luminaries as Christiaan van der Klaauw, Jean-Marc Wiederrecht and François Junod. As marvellous as those names might sound to watch enthusiasts, their collaborations with Van Cleef & Arpels are simply marvels. In other words, Van Cleef & Arpels — at the apotheosis of its watchmaking — has succeeded in transcending timekeeping itself. It is a claim made loudly and boldly by a number of brands, some unconvincingly, but Van Cleef & Arpels delivers.

The motivation is easy enough to understand — the brand needs its haute horlogerie creations to be at the same level as its haute joaillerie ones. Jewellery brands do have the advantage of unfettered creativity, but this only goes so far in explaining the unusual success of Van Cleef & Arpels. Its watches are certainly the subject of professional admiration, but they are also wildly popular. Tellingly, there are more than a few watchmaker-jeweller brands that simply cannot claim top-shelf status in both trades.

van cleef & arpels iconic alhambra collection
Van Cleef & Arpels Alhambra Collection. Image: Van Cleef & Arpels

On the occasion of Van Cleef & Arpels’ Poetry of Time exhibition in Marina Bay Sands, we took the opportunity to grab some face-time with Southeast Asia and Australia Managing Director Hugues de Pins about this. Luckily, he is based in Singapore so we could actually meet in person, but it was far from a sure thing as the organisation of the public exhibition was done in the looming shadow of Covid-19, and the spread of the Omicron variant. “It’s a fully immersive experience,” said de Pins of the exhibition. “It’s not like being in a museum because you can interact with our experts, some from Geneva and Paris; there are even activities for the kids. It was a big question mark, whether the safety restrictions would allow us to do it.” Fortunately the Poetry of Time exhibition went off, and might have introduced a new generation to the wonders of Van Cleef & Arpels.

There’s a lot of similarities between the jewellery or high jewellery collections and the watch collections. The watch collection is a continuation of our jewellery collection. We consider our watches as nothing different to our jewellery — the watches are actually jewellery, in the sense that they tell stories. It goes beyond just telling the time. (As for watches influencing the jewellery), I think you have seen (in the exhibition) secret watches in the high jewellery collections, and they inspired some of these collections, whether they are hidden in the pompom (or the pendant) at the end of a long necklace or on the wrist as part of a bracelet.

In the current collection, we recently launched the Alhambra watch pendant, and you know of course that the Alhambra already existed as a wristwatch. Now we choose to express the watch as a pendant and therefore as a piece of jewellery.

Beautiful objects need to be seen in real life to be properly appreciated. How do you approach this, given that many of Van Cleef & Arpels’ creations are not available to simply try on?

I think we can only do this by educating our clients on the exclusivity (aspect) because, like some other jewellers and watchmakers, we have very limited production on certain references — and they might even be unique. This is something watch collectors in particular appreciate, and it is part of a dream, in a way — to one day get to see and try on the watch (and then perhaps owning it). Selling dreams is what we do. Van Cleef & Arpels is not about mass production, after all… we don’t aim to increase our quantity sky-high.

Van Cleef & Arpels, Lady-Arpels Pont des Amoureux
Lady Arpels Pont des Amoureux watch. Image: Van Cleef & Arpels

And this exclusivity is not a marketing trick. It is related to the resources required to produce the watches (and jewellery too) in Europe. Take the example of the Lady Arpels Pont des Amoureux (otherwise known as the Lovers on the Bridge) watch, which has become an icon over the last 10 years and inspired the decor of the exhibition, by the way. We are not able to make more than 200 pieces a year, for the whole world. And they are all sold out; we could sell much more than 200 a year.

I’m surprised to hear that you can actually complete that many in one year!

Exactly, me too! You know, it took us 10 years to be able to deliver 200 pieces a year worldwide. This example shows that we stand on quality (not on increasing production to maximise numbers). For Van Cleef & Arpels, it is also the case that we need watchmakers and jewellers to work together on our creations, so we are limited in that sense too. point.

The intricacies of something like the Pont des Amoureux or the Ballerine Musicale watches really come to life when you can see them, as you can in this exhibition, and hear from the people who worked on them. How do you handle the challenge of explaining the Poetic Complications, which is a signature of Van Cleef & Arpels?

We’re very passionate about our creations at Van Cleef & Arpels. I think (all of us who work at Van Cleef & Arpels) endorse its values, and that somehow we are the first ambassadors (for the brand). It is up to us to share the craftsmanship stories, from the quality of the gems to the inspiration behind (any given watch or item of jewellery) and the design elements of new watches from our creative teams. So, to explain Poetic Complications takes a lot of knowledge; we need to be true experts in what we sell (across our organisation).

Of course, we also have to understand our clients because poetry is nice but they want to be reassured about value-for-money. Obviously, most of our creations are rare and expensive pieces… we are not just poets selling poetry you know!

van cleef & arpels watchmaking
The dial of the watch being painstakingly put together. Image: Van Cleef & Arpels

And then I think we add the stories of the maison to it… Maybe also in a way we add poetic language, with certain vocabulary, with a certain attitude, which may be different from our competitors. This resonates very strongly for some clients. Generally speaking, Van Cleef & Arpels shares a positive vision of life which is highlighted in every creation and also in its communications (of all types). This is, perhaps, what many clients are looking for, especially these days.

Speaking of which, there seems to be a strong appetite for extraordinary watches and jewellery right now. What do you attribute this to, and what do you think accounts for Van Cleef & Arpels’ success in the last five years or so?

I think we have to go back to the vision of Van Cleef & Arpels, in terms of watchmaking, because it is very different from our competitors. Our watches tell stories more than they tell time, as I said earlier. They belong to the extraordinary objects category, which has existed in our history since 1906, the year the company was founded. Van Cleef & Arpels always created high jewellery and extraordinary objects. And what belongs to that second category of course, sometimes belongs to the first category as well.

can cleef & arpels exhibition
Elements of the Poetry of Time exhibition. Image: Van Cleef & Arpels

So the success of Van Cleef & Arpels might be due to this very different approach…Our watches sell at a much higher price point to Patek Philippe and A. Lange & Söhne, to name just two examples, which might be surprising (to those who do not know Van Cleef & Arpels well). This is because of the exclusivity that I mentioned earlier and the fact that our watches are created to be extraordinary objects, that might also be high jewellery.

To go back to Poetic Complications, this is a concept that we created that corresponds very well to this vision (of watches as extraordinary objects). Clients do not buy a Van Cleef & Arpels watch for the same reason as they buy a watch from A. Lange & Söhne. (In the second case), you want precision and high performance, complexity in the mechanical movement, and excellent timekeeping of course. You do not buy a Van Cleef & Arpels for those reasons, you know, because you cannot read the time (precisely) in many of our watches!

Yes there is no second hand on the Pont des Amoureux watch!

Exactly! Reading the time is secondary, and sometimes it is not really the point at all. Your Van Cleef & Arpels watch is a story that you tell to yourself, to your friends and to your family. The success of our watches is because of this, and the differentiation (between Van Cleef & Arpels and other watchmakers) that I mentioned. It is also because of the growing reputation of our maison, as you said, which I insist is a high jewellery maison. This is actually a good thing when you make watches because you need to be up to the standards of high jewellery in everything you do, including watches.

Van Cleef & Arpels, Lady-Arpels Pont des Amoureux
Image: Van Cleef & Arpels

Given that you look after quite a number of different markets, from Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand to New Zealand and Australia, tell us about how these markets perceive Van Cleef & Arpels differently, if at all.

In Singapore between the watch stores, the watch media like WOW, and the watch community, the scene is second to none in Asia. I think really Singapore is leading the way in terms of watch education and collecting. We also see an increasing appetite for watches in Malaysia and Thailand, although jewellery is still more important (in both). So I would say, in some countries, when purchasing a Van Cleef & Arpels watch, the focus is less on the technical details or the complication, and perhaps more on the sophistication of the watch as an item of jewellery. But the interest in watches is definitely growing fast, in general… we’ll be opening new boutiques in Australia and Auckland. Oceania is still in the infancy of luxury, in terms of taste, in terms of knowledge, but it is starting and starting strongly.

So, we see very different levels of maturity from one market to the other. If I can speak to a common thread across the region, I will say that it is the average age — the profile of the client — which if I may say is quite young. Mostly female, in their early 30s. So this is true for Van Cleef & Arpels but not only. There are self-made entrepreneurs and businesswomen… you know, successful professionals who are willing to indulge themselves, or please their family and friends. So I think the idea of a ring, or watch or bracelet being offered by a loved one (if one is female) is maybe not only from the past, but it is no longer the only option. Plenty of women are making these decisions for themselves, or for their loved ones, which I think is very nice.

can cleef & arpels exhibition
Elements of the Poetry of Time exhibition. Image: Van Cleef & Arpels

We know that Van Cleef & Arpels is a jeweller of no small renown. Yet the marketing footprint is modest. How do you explain the towering reputation of the maison?

Well, we have been known now by generations of clients, especially female clients. And I would say perhaps the most popular and most iconic collection of jewellery is the Alhambra. It has really grown in popularity over 50 years, since it was created in 1969. It is today a true icon in the world of jewellery; many younger generations first came to experience Van Cleef & Arpels from this collection.

It’s true that we are not trying to expose ourselves everywhere, in every media, in every channel… We deliberately try to stay quite discreet in terms of our communication to the general public. However, what we do and where we focus most of our efforts and investments is on existing clients. And I think once you become a Van Cleef & Arpels client, even if it is your first purchase, and it is a small Alhambra pendant, for example, you immediately belong to the Van Cleef & Arpels family and community of friends. Through private engagements, personal invitations and private events, you understand more and more about the maison, and also your own tastes and how Van Cleef & Arpels can fulfil your dreams. I believe this is the key factor for the success of our brand.

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