Earthly Delights

Haute joaillerie is the jewelry world’s haute couture. Elisabeth Franck-Dumas chronicles the making of Van Cleef & Arpels’s latest garden-inspired collection, Les Jardins.

Now, these are quite rare,” says Van Cleef & Arpels stone-department manager Sophie Biscard as she pulls up a string of striated emeralds that dangle like little plump green pumpkins. “They’re from Zambia and Colombia, new but cut the old-fashioned way.” I am sitting in a viewing room above the Van Cleef & Arpels flagship on Place Vendôme in Paris, and Biscard, who heads the eight-person department, is describing the process of buying jewels that meet the company’s exacting haute joaillerie standards.

Four months from now the 102-year-old jewelry house will unveil its most extravagant collection, a 150-piece line called Les Jardins, inspired by the traditional gardens of Italy, France, England, and the Far East. I have been watching the process for six months, from sketches to production to launch party.

One of my first meetings is with Biscard, whose team has been on the hunt for nearly a year. Its prize catch is an ensemble of six fat sugarloaf emeralds that will be fitted on a neck- lace called Le Nôtre, named after the designer of the gardens at Versailles. Its design is the rendition of a classic French garden as seen from above, with a diamond fountain and a diamond parterre. The large pyramidal topiaries called for three pairs of conical green stones. “We never thought we would find them in time,” says Biscard.

Such a mad chase for a stone might sound romantic, but it’s actually a race against time and one of the many deadlines the Van Cleef & Arpels jewelers must meet before they bring a new collection into the world. They spend months tracking down gems, even more sketching, and hundreds of hours—sometimes upwards of a thousand—crafting and polishing the jewelry and setting the stones.

Though the economy may not seem ripe for bauble shopping, Emmanuel Perrin, the company’s Stateside CEO, says now is exactly the time for Van Cleef & Arpels to distinguish itself. “This is the moment when we shine through, because jewelry clients seek blue-chip signatures that they know will never lose value,” he explains.

“Our approach is a little like an art dealer’s or an antiquary’s,” adds creative director Nicolas Bos. “We don’t come out with a collection every season, and we don’t do market studies. We just try to showcase our stones and our savoir faire in the most poetic way.”

Unlike what Van Cleef calls its repetitive jewelry—lines, such as the popular Butterflies, that one can easily find in stores worldwide—the themed high-jewelry collections, which started in 2002, are one-of-a-kind designs with exceptional stones, original drawings, and sophisticated craftsmanship. It is the jewelry world equivalent of fashion’s haute couture (which, to Perrin’s point, had one of its most successful seasons in recent memory). The collections vary in size, from 11 pieces to more than a hundred, and are created with a specific motif in mind, usually one that resonates with the Van Cleef tradition.

In 2004, Midsummer Night’s Dream carried whimsical fairy brooches in keeping with the house penchant for figurines, and 2007’s Ballet Précieux commemorated Balanchine’s Jewels ballet, which itself was inspired by his meeting Claude Arpels in 1967. In the collection were ballerina brooches with Mystery Set rubies or emeralds (meaning that the gems were placed to appear magically bonded together). Last year’s L’Atlantide, an homage to the mythical city, included multicolored fish brooches in orange sapphires, onyx, and rubies.

Gardens seemed an apt theme for a jewelry house long associated with nature; the fifties-inspired Snowflake line and the more mainstream Alhambra collection of clover jewelry were precursors. Gardens—not gardening, I was pointedly told—were a way to honor that heritage. “We have wanted to work on this theme for a long time,” Bos told me. “It stands at the border of three universes dear to Van Cleef, namely nature, culture, and imagination.”

Once the Les Jardins theme was decided upon, in August 2007, the house’s six-person creative team began the design process. They visited Versailles and the gardens at the Albert Kahn Museum in Boulogne-Billancourt, a Paris suburb, and sifted through archives, photographs of couture shows, and reference books like Günter Nitschke’s Le Jardin Japonais and New Gardens in Provence. According to Bos, a 15th-century Italian allegory entitled Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: The Strife of Love in a Dream was also a strong influence. About a love-struck hero whose imaginary quest for his beloved leads him through a variety of mystical experiences in fantastical gardens, the tale informed jewelry designs rich with symbolism and the unexpected: a pendant hiding a greenhouse inside its small rock-crystal windows, a necklace with a diamond waterfall tucked beneath emerald foliage.

As the collection’s theme emerged, the design team gave it expression in a handful of “chapters,” dividing it into the gardens of the Italian Renaissance, 18th-century France, 19th-century England, and the Far East.

Emblematic elements were picked for each style of garden—antique latticework for the Italian Renaissance, geometric parterres for France—and used as a base on which to graft flowers, leaves, even pagodas. In one of the Italian sketches, a diamond lattice was entwined with interlocking ivy of emeralds and pink diamonds. On the Far East boards, the traditional flowing strokes drawn in the gravel of Japanese gardens inspired a necklace of fluid diamond lines onto which round “pebbles,” such as star sapphires, could be attached. English gardens, traditionally characterized by discovery and surprise, were symbolized by fuchsia flowers of pink sapphires and diamonds that could be opened and closed. “We can’t exactly have Versailles hanging around your neck,” Bos says as we go through the boards together. “So at every step we ask ourselves whether what we are designing is really beautiful and whether it is comfortable to wear.”

While the drawings are being fine-tuned, the stone department starts its global pursuit. There are only a few sketches at the beginning of the process, leaving the team free to improvise and make “opportune buys” of gems that might work with the theme—in this case, an abundance of green: emeralds, peridots, tsavorites. In later stages, purchases are made with an existing drawing in mind.

The stone buyers and designers work in teams, a collegial approach that makes Van Cleef & Arpels unique. Classically, stones either dictate a piece (the standard high-jewelry approach, in which design can often be secondary) or are chosen to fit a particular vision (the fashion-jewelry approach, in which stones are the poor relations). Here at Van Cleef the studio keeps drawing until the launch of the collection, ready to improvise designs to suit new stones, while the stone team does its best to accommodate the sketches.

Once sketch and gems are prepared—the first ones for Les Jardins were ready in spring 2008—the rendering is sent to the workshops, where the precision craftsmanship begins. On the way it might make a stop of several hours to several days, in the office of Sophie Péan, the angular, motorcycle boot–wearing redhead in charge of mock-ups. “A ring takes me between several hours and two days,” Péan tells me. “A bracelet is more like three or four days.”

Once her mock-up is approved, it heads—with the drawing and stones—to the fourth-floor workshop, a well-lit open space right under the roof; the concentration of talent and expertise here is the envy of the Place Vendôme. Some 35 craftsmen sit at wooden workbenches with an array of tools, each creating a jewelry skeleton, the piece without the stones, which they call le blanc.

On the day I visit, one of the first blancs of the Les Jardins collection is ready. It is the Cydonia necklace, an English-garden design of a graceful waterfall with four butterflies flitting to the side. It took 700 hours to piece together.

The joailliers minutely carve out the holes for the stones, with accuracy to a hundredth of a millimeter. Every gem has its attributed niche and is carefully laid, by order of appearance, in a bed of wax in a box so that the stonesetter will later know which ones to place where.

Once the blanc is finished, it is taken next door in separate pieces for polishing. On the day I peek in, the Le Nôtre necklace is being buffed to a shine. Its elements lie in a metallic box to the side, suggesting a disassembled puppet; it requires imagination to envision it as the grand necklace from the sketch. (The total time it spent being polished, I later learn, was 70 hours.)

Stonesetting, usually the final step, takes place in a small room on the third floor. Some weeks after my visit to witness polishing, I drop back in to see Le Nôtre’s stones being set. A gentleman named Frédéric (he’s too humble to want his last name used) tells me that setting the fountain took him three weeks because the ten rigid diamond baguettes needed to look as though they were curving up and down, like spurts of water. Millimeter by millimeter, through trial and error, he scooped specks of metal out of the groove until each baguette had the right incline.

Now, sitting at his workbench with a leather sheet spread over his lap, Frédéric holds one of the prized cabochon emeralds, roughly the size of a sugar cube, at the end of thin tweezers. I watch him place the stone inside its groove, but he takes it out to scrape the hole some more so that the emerald will rest evenly at the bottom. It might take several hours before the claws can be gently pushed back onto the gem, holding it in place for eternity.

Finally, almost a year after it was first conceived, Les Jardins made its debut on September 7. Van Cleef & Arpels’s top clients were flown in from around the world for a party and a chance to preview—and buy—pieces from the collection. The Château de Groussay—with its 19th-century château and grounds filled with whimsical follies (a Tartar tent covered in delft, a Chinese pagoda) by its previous owner, Charles de Beistegui—provided a fitting showcase for the jewelry. Guests entered a labyrinth, constructed for the evening, where 80 pieces from the collection were displayed. Gasps were heard in front of Pergola, a diamond pendant overgrown with emerald beads. Shrieks of excitement were noted near Jardin des Hesperides, a brooch of diamond branches crowded with fruit made of mandarin garnet. A crowd formed by Belvédère, a necklace of mauve sapphires, peridots, and jade garlands. Inquiries were soon made by an American client as to its price: $597,060. But noting the red dot next to the vitrine, the thwarted client saw that Belvédère had already been sold. She pointed to its lucky new Atlanta-based owner. “She got it!”

The Les Jardins collection arrives in New York on December 1 and will move to Los Angeles on January 12. For information, 877-8262-5333.