Learning the Trade with Van Cleef & Arpels

Courtesy Van Cleef & Arpels

Inside a Paris townhouse, L’École Van Cleef & Arpels teaches clients, collectors and enthusiasts about grading stones and centuries-old techniques.

Fresh off a red-eye from J.F.K. airport, I find myself in a courtyard off of Paris’s Place Vendôme. A small sign that says “L’École” directs me up a flight of stairs to a nondescript door, and I step into an immaculately preserved 18th-century salon that houses L’École Van Cleef & Arpels, a school opened to the public last year by the jewelry brand in an effort to educate clients and jewelry enthusiasts as well as to preserve the savoir faire that enables the house to create its high-jewelry collections. The four-hour-long classes are held one week a month at the Hôtel d’Évreux (which houses the salon), a surprisingly under-the-radar building, given both its location and history: It was once the residence of Comte d’Évreux and his wife, Marie Anne, whose father, Antoine Crozat (the first private owner of French Louisiana), gave her the mansion as a wedding gift; Crozat lived in what was to become the Paris Ritz.

Growing up in a family that works in the estate jewelry industry—and thus having learned early on Van Cleef’s history and role in high jewelry—I jumped at the chance to take classes from some of the maison’s (and the world’s) foremost experts. I’m here for two days to take three courses, one from each arm of L’École’s curriculum. First up is Gemstones Investigation: Recognize the Stones. I had assumed this would be my easiest class, having already taken a few basic GIA courses. I’d mentally reviewed what I expected to be covered: stone identification, the primary metals (gold, silver, platinum) and the four C’s of diamonds. What I see when we enter the classroom is a bit more complex: Three tables are set up with the technical tools used for stone grading—microscopes, polariscopes, dichroscopes… Our instructor, Dominique Dufermont, a gemologist, geologist and one of Van Cleef’s most important stone dealers, divides the nine of us (including Japanese tourists, Parisian locals and even a Cartier employee) into groups of three and assigns each a stone color. Our group is green, and we are given four different unidentified stones, all with the same cut and carat weight that, using a series of tests, we must classify. It’s as technical as it sounds, and the numbers on the refractive indexes begin to blend together (I blame the jet lag), but we manage to correctly label each stone—even the green glass that held some of the chemical and physical properties of other green stones.

The next morning brings Explore and Create, from Design to Mock-Up, which shows students design and production techniques (some near lost, like gouache sketches and the house’s famous Mystery setting). Our instructor, Brigitte Péry, the former manager of a high-jewelry workshop, passes around trays of mock-up pieces in pewter, which is used for its malleability. They are surprisingly developed for serving only as models: precisely carved and polished, and there are even faux stones set where rubies, sapphires and emeralds will go. I’m given a sheet of pewter in the shape of a half-carved butterfly, which I am to cut and polish. Wearing a white lab coat and sitting at a jeweler’s bench with a cowhide apron draped over my lap to catch metal dust, I use a band saw with a serrated copper string to cut into the pewter. It’s not easy, and I have to put my entire arm into it, all the while trying to not lose a finger on the sharp string. “Très bien! You’re getting the hang of it,” says Péry. Well, sort of. We use pliers to mold the wings and a soldering iron to reconnect pieces with heated drops of metal (a skill I find incredibly useful; once home, I buy a soldering kit for DIY repairs on my costume jewelry). Finally, we take a hand drill to make holes in which to set rhinestones (in place of diamonds).

We switch tasks after a break, and I try my hand at designing. Already envisioning the beginnings of an elaborate multistone bib necklace, I am slightly disappointed when instead we are given the same butterfly outline from the mock-up to trace and create as a gouache. After lunch, it’s Talisman Jewels: A Quest for Protection with Van Cleef archivist and historian Inezita Gay. It’s a classic art history lecture that focuses on the meanings of jewelry as talismans in various cultures. The next day, Gay takes me on a tour of the Van Cleef exhibit at the Musée de Arts Décoratifs. Looking at some of the maison’s most legendary jewelry, I have a newfound respect for the skill required to produce these pieces—and an overwhelming desire to design and make something.

The next Explore and Create, from Design to Mock-Up class (my favorite) at L’École Van Cleef & Arpels is on November 22. Classes start at $805; lecolevancleefarpels.com.

Lasting Impressions

While growing up in her family’s castle in Germany, Princess Cécile von Hohenlohe-Langenberg discovered an old jewelry trunk belonging to her great-grandmother, Princess Alexandra of Saxe-Coburg. The bespoke box, made in London around 1896 by Edwards & Sons, once contained Alexandra’s dowry, including a pigeon-blood ruby and a diamond lotus tiara. It was empty when Hohenlohe-Langenberg found it, but the imprints of the vanished jewelry in the box’s blue velvet trays inspired her to create a collection of custom rings. She uses impressions of her hands to design pieces worn across multiple fingers with stones set between, like the carnelian and aquamarine ring at left ($12,000). Some of the gems are clients’ family heirlooms, but Hohenlohe-Langenberg likes to mix them with non-precious stones for an organic feel. “I often find pebbles from my walks on the castle grounds,” she says. Rings start at $12,000. The princess will be presenting her collection at Moss Bureau, November 5 to December 31; 256 W. 36th St., apt. 10, New York; mossbureau.com.