Interview: Catherine Cariou, Nicolas Bos for VCA
Reinvention, to Van Cleef & Arpels, is all about looking forward, without forgetting its 120-year-old roots.
Somewhere on this planet, there’s a beautiful gold and platinum pin depicting the graceful opening and closing of a flower. Its petals are composed of 640 square Burmese rubies in Mystery Set – an ingenious setting technique with no prongs visible – while its heart holds an additional six faceted, oval rubies. The pin’s surrounding foliage is just as elegant, starring 239 of the world’s most brilliant baguette and round diamonds.
Commissioned by the late Princess Faiza of Egypt and first created in 1937, that pin, at 130 carats, is Van Cleef & Arpels’ magnificent Peony clip. Like the ballerina, four-leaf clover and poetry, the flower has long been an icon of the Parisian jeweler and watchmaker. “The famous Peony flower is one of the highlights of Van Cleef & Arpels’ 1930s artistry,” points out the brand’s heritage director Catherine Cariou. “It epitomizes the maison’s style in two ways: with its floral theme, which has been dear to the house since its foundation, and with its Mystery Set technique, which has been Van Cleef & Arpels’ signature since its invention in 1933.
Here, Cariou and president and CEO of Van Cleef & Arpels Nicolas Bos discuss the relevance of the brand’s formidable past in the making of its present-day jewels and watches.
A big part of design is about looking forward. How then does heritage, or a backstory, play a pivotal role in this equation?
Catherine Cariou: The Van Cleef & Arpels collection is a lively treasure and the signature of the maison. It illustrates the historical, artistic, stylistic and technique evolution of the house, and testifies the timelessness and dynamism of the Van Cleef & Arpels spirit. For almost 30 years – with great patience – a collection, which includes jewelries, watches, objects and accessories, has slowly been created. This priceless, vintage collection is the ‘messenger’ of the maison.
How does Van Cleef & Arpels ensure what’s inspired by its past stays relevant in the present, and to what extent are the house’s new creations inspired by its heritage?
Nicolas Bos: At Van Cleef & Arpels, we have a huge respect for the work and achievements that have been accomplished since our creation. Actually, we can say that we write new chapters of the same story. We consider our heritage a reference, but we do not want to repeat it. We are reinventing ourselves today without forgetting our roots. It is all about continuity while focussing on evolution.
What is Van Cleef & Arpels’ design formula, and how different is that formula in the making of the brand’s timepieces as opposed to jewelry?
NB: Our high jewelry creations are based on great sources of inspiration such as nature, poetry, couture and imaginary worlds, but also on other cultural fields such as dance, architecture and the decorative arts. This is how Van Cleef & Arpels’ style has built itself. For watchmaking, this style is the same but expressed in a different way: comparable to cinema and always in motion. Timepieces are mobile thanks to their mechanisms. High jewelry, on the other hand, is similar to photography, sometimes figurative and fixed in time.
Take us through the brand’s design process. What are typical images on the mood board?
NB: The mood board is mainly composed of Van Cleef & Arpels’ heritage pieces, but also inspirations from other cultural and artistic fields. We first select a theme relevant to the maison, before adding some patrimonial pictures, paintings, landscapes, literature and poems. Step by step, from the first draft, we progress to the final sketch. I guide the whole process in order to reorient and to redefine the designs. The mood board is used among craftsmen and stone experts as much as designers. It is a collaborative process and a real basis to work together on finding new ideas. For our Jules Verne high jewelry collection, when we shared the mood board with our stone experts and jewelers, each department enriched the collection by coming up with new elements in addition to the designers’. For instance, the former suggested the use of raw emeralds on a necklace, while the latter came up with the Theatre Poetique, which was used on the Baleine Bleue clip.
Let’s talk about transformability and metamorphosis as concepts that Van Cleef & Arpels has embraced. When and why did the brand take an interest in these?
CC: Since the foundation of the maison, Van Cleef & Arpels has created versatile jewelry. In the late ’30s, the brand created the Passe-Partout jewel, which was one of the first examples of the transformative pieces pioneered by us. Designed to adapt itself to its wearer’s mood, it was the perfect accessory for modern women who wanted to be able to match their jewelry with different clothes and in different situations. It was one of the maison’s best-known creations throughout the ’30s and ’40s. The Passe-Partout is based on an ingenious technical innovation. Hidden by two flower clips, a system of metal rails enables a flexible, yellow-gold snake chain to slide in and out, transforming the piece into a necklace, a choker, an opera-length necklace, a bracelet or a belt. The flowers can also be worn alone as clips and some can even be worn as ear clips.
As clever and innovative as they may sound, ‘transformability’ and ‘metamorphosis’ are not words that typically translate to a feminine or sexy image. How does the brand make this work?
NB: Women enjoy changing styles to express all the different aspects of their personalities. True to that, high jewelry had to adapt itself to different moments of a woman’s daily routine and make itself easier to wear. It had to become transformable. For example, a necklace for the day, which transforms to earrings or even two bracelets for the evening, is easier to adapt to a modern lifestyle.
Heritage is a big deal for Van Cleef & Arpels. Do you worry such sources of inspiration or influence may eventually run out?
NB: The great themes of inspiration we evoked earlier – nature, poetry, couture, imaginary worlds, dance – are universal and endless. Our heritage is our foundation, but we want to keep exploring it, not reproduce it. We are willing to innovate and Van Cleef & Arpels is looking towards the future. Our challenge is to remain relevant to today’s environment, lifestyle and codes, while remaining faithful to our core identity and values.
Text By Kenny Loh
This story first appeared in L’Officiel Singapore.