Van Cleef & Arpels: continuity in a disruptive world

April 2024

Van Cleef & Arpels: continuity in a disruptive world

Nicolas Bos was appointed president of Van Cleef & Arpels in 2013. The culture of poetry and whimsy he has instilled in the high jewellery house has become a hallmark of the brand. We met him in November 2023 at the reopening of the Geneva boutique.


n 1960 Van Cleef & Arpels cut the ribbon and opened its first boutique in Switzerland. It wasn’t long before the new address, at 31 Rue du Rhône in Geneva, had become one of its two anchor premises. Paris and Geneva, a tale of two cities. At the end of 2023, after a year of refurbishment, the doors of this uniquely configured space reopened to reveal a ground-floor reception area, with a staircase leading up to the main rooms on the first floor.

Here, a succession of salons gives the space an apartment-like feel, as though one were visiting the home of an acquaintance with exquisite taste – a seasoned collector, judging by the jewellery displayed in glass cases. Jewellery that has the good manners not to shout about the fact that it’s also for sale. This is Van Cleef & Arpels, after all.

On the day of our visit, two of the rooms were given over to an exhibition of legacy jewellery. We had the opportunity to admire clips and earrings with precious stones in a Mystery Setting™, a technique patented in 1933, alongside a spectacular Zip necklace from 1951, designed to be worn open as a necklace or closed as a bracelet. Designed by artistic director Renée Puissant, the daughter of Estelle Arpels and Alfred Van Cleef, the first Zip necklace was unveiled in 1950. It was, as its name suggests, inspired by the zip fastener invented in the United States in 1851, and mass-produced beginning in 1923, thanks to Swiss industrialist Martin Othmar Winterhalter.

Nicolas Bos, President of Van Cleef & Arpels
Nicolas Bos, President of Van Cleef & Arpels

The high jewellery maison, which was established on the Place Vendôme in Paris in 1906, was born of a love story: that of Esther, known as Estelle, Arpels, the daughter of a dealer in precious stones, and Alfred Van Cleef, the son of a diamond broker and lapidary craftsman. In 2011 the company became part of the Richemont group. Van Cleef & Arpels holds a special place in the jewellery world. Since being appointed president in 2013, Nicolas Bos has instilled in the company a sense of poetry and enchantment that makes each creation instantly recognisable.

Europa Star Jewellery: The Geneva boutique opened its doors in 1960. Where does it fit into the company story, and is there a special connection between Van Cleef & Arpels and Switzerland?

Nicolas Bos: All our historic locations have an important place, but this one is particularly special. Throughout Van Cleef & Arpels’ last thirty years as a family-owned business, Paris and Geneva have been its two anchor points. At a time when the luxury industry was more interested in licensing and diversification, Jacques Arpels was a staunch believer in exceptional gems, high jewellery and bespoke pieces, and Place Vendôme and Geneva were at the heart of this approach. He loved the idea of working with customers who were also connoisseurs and collectors, and finding the most remarkable stones for them. Geneva carried a lot of weight. When the Richemont group took over, there were specific archives for Geneva that contained the entire history of our creations and clientele. Ten years ago, when we hosted an exhibition in Geneva, customers loaned us some of the iconic pieces from that period. Geneva is also where the house developed its watchmaking.

Van Cleef & Arpels: continuity in a disruptive world

Even though Van Cleef & Arpels was already making watches before the Geneva boutique opened?

That’s true, but up to the 1950s and 1960s, we made watches from a jeweller’s perspective. The Pierre Arpels model introduced a stronger horological element. Also, a watch division was set up in Geneva in the 1970s.

The Geneva boutique opened at a time of significant stylistic and societal change in the west. Six years prior to that, Van Cleef & Arpels opened La Boutique at 22 Place Vendôme, aimed at a younger clientele. Was the Geneva address targeted towards both a wealthy clientele and these new customers?

It was primarily for collectors. Our in-house terminology at that time made a distinction between “stores” and “boutiques”. Geneva was a store. Place Vendôme was both. There were two entrances, one for the boutique and one for the store, each with its own staff and collections.

The Van Cleef & Arpels boutique, Rue du Rhône, Geneva. ©Van Cleef & Arpels
The Van Cleef & Arpels boutique, Rue du Rhône, Geneva. ©Van Cleef & Arpels

Geneva got its own boutique in 1977.

Exactly, on Rue du Général Guisan, on the other side of the same building. We haven’t kept it.

What was the purpose of refurbishing the Geneva boutique? Will it be more of a lifestyle space than a point of sale?

First and foremost, it’s a welcoming space – somewhere people will visit. A place for discovery and maybe to make a purchase, but that’s not all it’s for. It is something of an exception in an environment that tends towards larger and larger retail spaces. We have a ground-floor vestibule with a staircase alongside a more residential setting on the first floor. We preferred to work with, rather than against, the existing architecture by transforming the entrance into a reception room that leads to the upper level, with different areas for contemplation, seating, exhibitions and sales. Very much like an apartment. Each room has its own characteristics and identity, with a unifying theme expressed through the furnishings, materials and other elements that might seem incidental but in fact have ties to the boutique, such as magazine covers and photos reflecting the location’s history.

No pain, no gain: if you want to admire the collections, you have to climb the stairs!

The intention certainly wasn’t to make the boutique difficult to access – quite the contrary! We set out to make the first-floor space inviting and to create a warm, cosy atmosphere that is luxurious but not showy. Hence the idea of using this part of the boutique to curate exhibitions, present heritage pieces or new creations, as well as to host events relating to our watches. We want people to feel comfortable and for it to reflect the Van Cleef & Arpels spirit.

The Le Grand Tour high jewellery collection, which you introduced in 2023, references the journeys taken by young aristocrats in Europe beginning in the mid-sixteenth century. Despite the fact that some of the loveliest pieces in the collection were inspired by Alpine landscapes, Switzerland doesn’t get a namecheck.

Many accounts refer to this particular leg of the Grand Tour as the journey through the Alps, which of course includes Switzerland. The young men who embarked on this trip were often drawn to Switzerland for its natural beauty and majestic mountains, before continuing on to historic cities. It’s possible that we haven’t done sufficient justice to this part of the journey.

Mystery Set Pastillles clip, 1951 ©Van Cleef & Arpels
Mystery Set Pastillles clip, 1951 ©Van Cleef & Arpels

Will you be adding to the collection or moving on to a new theme in 2024?

We’ll move on to another theme. Most of the high jewellery collections we develop are inspired by themes we could expand and enrich almost indefinitely. We like to use these stories to show a different side of the house.

What would be your perfect Grand Tour?

The original one! As I worked on this theme, it occurred to me that my job – and I realise how fortunate I am – has taken me all over the world. I’ve been to almost every city in Asia and the United States, but I don’t actually know Europe that well. Reading these travel journals introduced me to so many places in France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy that I wasn’t familiar with and would love to visit. There’s a whole section of Switzerland I hardly know. It would be wonderful to do the original Grand Tour, just taking as long as it takes, which would be several months if it is to have any meaning. These days we rush in and out of places. I’ve been to Basel, Lausanne and Montreux but only for a few hours or a day. I’ve read Ramuz [a Swiss novelist who wrote extensively about nature] and would enjoy spending time in the places he describes. Not just a weekend or a couple of hours catching an exhibition between meetings. These places are so steeped in culture and history, it takes time to experience them fully. There are parts of France I’ve never been to, such as the north, and Alsace. One day I’ll have to set three months aside, but that’s not happening anytime soon!

Van Cleef & Arpels: continuity in a disruptive world

As well as the presidency, you have retained your role as creative director. What comes first when building a high jewellery collection, the stones or the theme?

We begin with the theme, although the theme can be the stones themselves. We try to ensure that there is continuity and complementarity between the collections, without repeating ourselves. For example, we wouldn’t take a fairy tale as inspiration for two consecutive collections. We alternate: some collections are lighthearted, others are more literary, and some might be built around a particular stone such as diamond or ruby. It takes time for our workshops to craft each piece, and they don’t always sell straight away, so different collections often coexist. We are still producing pieces for the Romeo & Juliet collection [launched in 2019], as well as certain pieces for Le Grand Tour. One collection I particularly enjoyed is Le Secret [2017] which emphasises craftsmanship and technique. Each piece features a concealed mechanism or a hidden element. The creative process is never linear. When working on a Ballerina clip or a Zip necklace, stones are sourced based on the design, whereas the starting point for one of our sautoirs is an exceptional stone. When we launch the theme for a collection, we consult with the designers, gemstone specialists and workshop managers, each of whom makes a contribution. For example, when we explained the concept for Le Grand Tour to the gemmologists and described the different stages, they conceived each one in terms of particular colours and types of stone, such as glacier shades for the Alps. It gave them a direction to follow.

Le Regina montium necklace with detachable pendant and Etoile des glaciers clip, Le Grand Tour high jewellery collection, Van Cleef & Arpels ©Marc de Groot
Le Regina montium necklace with detachable pendant and Etoile des glaciers clip, Le Grand Tour high jewellery collection, Van Cleef & Arpels ©Marc de Groot

Van Cleef & Arpels is almost like a living creature. It was born from the love between two people. There have been times when it has thrived, and other times when it took off in new directions. If you had to sum up the house in one person, who would it be?

Off the top of my head, I would say Titania, queen of the fairies. Not a real person, at any rate. The imaginary, fantasy dimension is hugely important.

Van Cleef & Arpels has a rich legacy. Is there one piece that you would say represents the quintessence of the jeweller’s art, that encapsulates all its creativity? The Mystery Set? The Zip? Something else?

I would take the example of the Zip necklace, which remains emblematic of the house. It’s an extremely powerful design and a technical tour de force. It’s a piece that is meant to be worn, as well as a very versatile design that transforms from a necklace into a bracelet. We are a twentieth-century house and the artistic notion of detournement, of reframing everyday objects, something Marcel Duchamp and the Surrealists did, is typical of that century. In a way, the Zip is the jewellery equivalent of their art works. We took an apparently simple but in reality technically complex industrial object – a zip fastener – and translated it into a noble, artisanal form. To conceptualise creativity this way is quite specific to the early twentieth century, when the house developed.

Zip necklace 1951 ©Van Cleef & Arpels
Zip necklace 1951 ©Van Cleef & Arpels

Whenever you look in the window of an antique shop or vintage jewellery dealer’s, you always know which pieces are Van Cleef & Arpels. How would you describe this style?

I’ve always thought that, too. It’s a treasure we’ve inherited. It’s a style, but an open-ended one, a combination of many things, of inspirations like nature or dance, which are connected to values and dimensions such as movement, lightness and colour. At Van Cleef & Arpels we also have a particular way of producing the gouaches for our jewellery. Our rendering of the stones, of light and shadow, is very specific. Then there is a way of actually making each piece using techniques such as our Mystery Setting, a way of creating articulations, adding detail, combining colours. This style is the result of a set of codes. Asymmetry is another distinctive element at Van Cleef & Arpels: the desire to create harmony that isn’t geometric. A style can embrace different creations, different collections, different periods and different ways of being worn while maintaining coherence, and ensuring that every piece is recognisably ours.

These are difficult, incomprehensible, violent times. Van Cleef & Arpels stands for poetry and magic – values we need today more than ever. Beyond the house’s extraordinary expertise and the quality of its stones, do you think this is one of the reasons people buy your jewellery?

I think some people do identify with this aspect of the house. We don’t focus on performance, visibility at all cost, or making an impact, all of which constitute a certain form of aggression. We would rather do things that are more discreet and more lasting. We aim for continuity with an element of tenderness. Some of our designs may seem rather naïve, but they are intended to bring joy. These are important aspects of the house and always have been. We live in a world that seeks out disruption, revolution, the avant-garde and the new, whereas we are about continuity. Perhaps this seems out of step with the world today, but it’s who we are.