Jewellery & Watches

Class is In Session at Van Cleef & Arpels

Storied jewelers Van Cleef & Arpels open the doors to their school for designers and lovers of gems, transporting their Paris-based L'Ecole des Arts Joailliers to NYC's Fifth Avenue for an experience that's sure to make the grade.
Reading time 12 minutes

The passion that my mother’s mother had for jewelry ignited my own. Other grandmothers may bake cookies when their granddaughters visit, but with Bebe, bonding took place over a show-and-tell of sparkling treasures. I remember the creak and slam of each little hard, hinged box; the powdery feel of the suede drawstring bags; the cold stones of the earrings and rings; the way the gold links of her necklaces would warm in my hand; the bracelets and brooches that still smelled of Joy.

But a connection, even a passion, does not an education make. And no: Repeat screenings of the summer’s jewelry-heist hit Ocean’s 8 don’t count, no matter how many times you watch the Mindy Kaling scenes.

So, I was excited when I heard that the famed L’École des Arts Joailliers, Van Cleef & Arpels’s School of Jewelry Arts in Paris, was planning a pop-up in my home city of New York this fall. On offer are three jewelry exhibitions, a series of public lectures, and dozens of à la carte, all-level classes in jewelry, taught in English by top masters in their field, including a few for children and teens. And I was thrilled at the chance to visit L’École and preview the New York programs during my short stay in Paris this past summer.

On October 25 (through November 9), L’École decamps to a storied 1920s mansion just off Fifth Avenue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The school has produced similar pop-ups in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Dubai, and on a smaller scale, in New York in 2015 at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. (L’École was such a hit in Hong Kong that in mid-to-late 2019, it will open a permanent branch in a new Kowloon complex being developed by Chinese cultural entrepreneur Adrien Cheng.)   

Stand-outs in New York include the history and gemology of engagement rings, a workshop on Japanese urushi lacquer, gouache painting and its role in jewelry design, and art history classes that use jewelry as the prism through which to understand people, cultures, and historical moments. Despite the link to one of the most elite maisons, L’École’s programs are surprisingly well priced: In New York, classes are $125-$250 for adults and just $15 for children and teens. All talks and exhibitions are free. 

Since Van Cleef & Arpels launched L’École in Paris more than six years ago, the programming there and at its pop-ups has brought the savoir faire of jewelry and gems to more than 30,000 people from nearly 50 countries. I was looking forward to being one of them.

My education started with diamonds.

In the second arrondissement of Paris, just around the corner from Van Cleef & Arpels’s flagship boutique on Place Vendôme, L’École comprises three stories of classrooms, a charming salon where students and teachers mingle for coffee breaks, and an inviting library with more than 1,500 books on jewelry and gems, including a number published in house (a growing enterprise for L’École). Above the school itself is the Van Cleef & Arpels professional workshop, where its finest jewelry is crafted. An old fashioned school bell signals the beginning and end of each class.

My first class, “History and Legends,” was co-taught by gemologist Virginie David and art historian Gislain Aucremanne. “Carats are her, dates are me,” he quipped by way of introduction. They explained how diamonds came to represent abstract concepts like power and majesty for rulers in different cultures—and were not worn by women before the 15th century—only later signifying seduction, luxury, love, and “forever”-ness. The teachers laser-pointed their way across a world map and ticked through their list of the provenance and fate of the most famous-slash-hugest diamonds in human history, ranked by carat. At various points, David donned one white glove—Michael Jackson style—for a show-and-tell of replicas of certain diamonds, “to give an idea of volume,” as she put it. The core of the class comprised entertaining historical narratives so rehearsed they were nearly vaudevillian, name-checking Marco Polo, Pierre Cartier, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Catherine de Medici, the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, Napoleon, Louis XIV (“he was crazy for diamonds”), and Louis XV (“he almost had a gemologist’s eye”), plus too many Persian shahs, Indian rulers, British monarchs, and Hollywood starlets to count.

My next diamonds class, “Science and Gemology” opened with the periodic table of elements. (I was not the only one who groaned.) But the two gemology experts, Isabelle Delahaye and Dominique Dufermont, drilled down on the hard science of diamonds and diamond mining—chemistry, geology, physics—in an entertaining way.”

But in both diamond classes, the darker history of mining was, shall we say, mined too, addressing in a forthright fashion slave labor, “the exploitation of the earth,” so-called blood or conflict diamonds, and the role of diamonds in apartheid South Africa.

We also had an opportunity to play with the tools of the trade: I learned how to use a jeweler’s loop and jeweler’s tweezers, as well as how to compare and evaluate crystals, white topaz, and varying qualities of diamonds under a special flip lamp designed to approximate “the northern light at 12 noon in Anvers, Belgium.” I learned to look for occlusions and to understand not just the “four Cs” of cut, clarity, color and carat but also the anatomy of a stone: facets, tables, crowns, and pavilions.

There was even more hands-on work with “Recognize the Gemstones” taught by David and Delahaye. The class was divided into four teams and each was challenged to identify a group of red, blue, green, or clear stones, as if we were in the legendary gem markets of Chanthaburi in Thailand, Ratnapura in Sri Lanka, or Bogotá in Colombia. “You have your passport with you?” joked Delahaye.

To solve the mystery, we learned how to use a gemologist’s polariscope, dichroscope, refractometer, spectroscope, and density scale, along with charts showing each natural stone’s traits. I was in the Green Group, and through process of elimination, we ultimately discovered that we had a piece of synthetic glass, a tourmaline, a tsavorite, and a true emerald.

I thought I’d most enjoy my class on gem-setting techniques (bezels, prongs and so on). But I threw in the tweezers after our charming teachers—a master jeweler and a stone setter who spend their time in the atelier upstairs making the famous Van Cleef & Arpels ballerinas and zipper necklaces—had to keep helping me collect the gemstones I’d dropped in the leather lap of my jeweler’s bench. I did, however, enjoy the laughs I got when I texted friends back home the selfies I took wearing my Steampunk-y jeweler’s spectacles.

Between classes, I met a fellow American who teaches at L’École. The ebullient and gem-bedecked Inezita Gay-Eckel came to jewelry (including many years at Tiffany & Co.) through her studies in art history at Princeton and shares her infectious enthusiasm about the deep connection between the histories of art and jewelry with her students. “The idea of beaux arts separated from and kind of above decorative arts is a post-Renaissance and largely Western phenomenon,” she explained. Art museums may provide access points to a general public, but they can seem “vacuum-sealed.” “How do we invite everyone into the world of jewelry?” she asked.

That’s precisely what L’École was designed to do. Nicolas Bos, president and CEO of Van Cleef & Arpels explained that, originally, “what crystallized the idea was [the success in Paris of] cooking classes with chefs, the idea of learning but also enjoying,” he told me, adding that the classes are designed to speak to “the broadest possible audience.

I agree that no advanced knowledge or skills are needed to learn or to enjoy, but I was surprised to find that most of my fellow classmates had some professional connection to jewelry, art, design, fashion, or the science of stones. There was a a Tunisian woman who works in her family’s jewelry boutiques, but who told me, “I had no idea of the history of the diamond”; a 27-year-old Chinese woman who works in the luxury wine industry in Hong Kong and who’d signed up because she “adores Van Cleef & Arpels”; a stone-buyer for Tiffany & Co. in New York; and a curator at the Mineralogy Museum of Paris, who is an expert in stones but who wanted to “learn the language of jewelry design.”

Though many of the New York classes are already sold out (of course, there is always Paris!), do not despair; the three exhibitions provide quite a lot.

First, The Fabulous Destiny of Tavernier’s Diamonds: From the Great Mogul to the Sun King, celebrates the 20 diamonds that the great 17th-century explorer Jean-Baptiste Tavernier acquired in 1668 for Louis XIV, then 30. Tavernier, called by one of my teachers at L’École “the Marco Polo of jewelry,” sold hundreds of diamonds from his travels to Louis XIV. All but the Blue Diamond (now called the Hope Diamond) disappeared in the 19th century, but for this project L’École assembled a collaborative team of scholars and gemologists to create accurate 3D reproductions in partnership with Paris’s Museum of Natural History. As she walked me through the exhibition’s Paris iteration, co-curator Cécile Lugand explained that the thrill of this show is the way it brought together scholarship around “gemology, diplomacy, art history, and the history of trade.”

Through the Eyes of a Connoisseur is a selection of jewelry lent by an unnamed New York-based collector. The designs date from the late 1800s to the 1960s, with Art Deco especially well represented. Along with items from Van Cleef & Arpels are designs from Lacloche Frères, Pierre Sterlé, Suzanne Belperron, Cartier, Boucheron, and Tiffany. Several museum-quality pieces of Judaica reflect a more personal aspect of the collection.

Finally, Daniel Brush: Cuffs and Necks features jewelry designed by the Cleveland-born, Manhattan-based metalsmith, painter, and sculptor who garnered a five-page profile in Vanity Fair during his 40-year retrospective at the Museum of Art and Design in 2013. The exhibition, first presented at L’École Place Vendôme, presents two series of work. The first is a set of more than 100 gem-set chokers that riff on les colliers de chien—that’s right: dog collars. The second, which looks at the cultural role of the bracelet in India, is a set of 72 bangles inspired by jewels of the Nizams of Hyderabad, who ruled between 1724 and 1948. “I had been so taken with the jewels of India,” Brush told me. “To be more specific, the treasures handed down from Nizam to Nizam, and even more so, from the Maharajahs of Jaipur.”


In a nice bit of kismet, one of the special public events L’École has organized in New York is Brush in conversation with curator Beth Carver Wees, who co-organized an expansive exhibition that will debut just up Fifth Avenue at the Metropolitan Museum and will also include work by Brush. For the Met’s show, Jewelry: The Body Transformed, Wees and her colleagues have drawn largely from the museum’s own collection to mount a dazzling array of more than 200 objects designed to adorn the human body. The items hail from around the globe, with the earliest dating to 2600 B.C.E., alongside work by many of Brush’s contemporaries. Included too are sculptures, paintings, prints, and photographs that provide context about how, over the centuries, jewelry has been worn and used to tell stories about its wearer. The Met exhibition opens November 12 (through February 24), just after the team from L’École has packed up their jeweler’s benches, said au revoir, and headed home across the Atlantic.

Don't miss out! Today is the last day to take in all the wisdom and sublime beauty of the L’École des Arts Joailliers, pop-up in  New York City at the jeweler's flagship on Fifth Avenue. 

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