Truly appreciating a finished piece of jewelry requires more than just what meets the eye. A real understanding of the time and techniques necessary to produce the finished piece creates a deeper respect for the art of jewelry. At L’École Van Cleef & Arpels, this fascinating world of jewelry making becomes a working classroom for those passionate about jewelry.
While in Paris, I had the opportunity of visiting L’École and seeing snippets of the classes offered there. Located in a newly renovated building just a stone’s throw away from Place Vendôme, L’École is an exceptional program, the first of its kind in the world. The revolutionary school provides any jewelry lover or curious fellow alike hands-on insight into the heart and soul of jewelry and watchmaking. Inside the elegant contemporary space, there is a workshop, or Savoir Faire Atelier, complete with stations of jewelers benches; a number of lecture halls and meeting rooms; and two libraries stocked with nearly every book about jewelry, watches and gems imaginable.
Beginning with only seven courses when it first opened, the school now offers a total of 15 courses, each of which focuses on one of three essential themes: History of Art, The Universe of Gemstones and Savoir Faire. Four hours apiece, the classes are led by professional jewelers, art historians, experts in their related fields, gemologists, historians and watchmakers.
For those with a nostalgia for jewelry’s storied past, classes such as “Stories and Inspirations” – a crash course of the history of jewelry – and “Talisman Jewels: A Quest for Protection” might be of particular interest. The seven courses in History of Art explore every facet of jewelry throughout time and how we have come to know it today, from diving into its rich history to learning how to wear jewelry that best expresses one’s unique personality. There’s even a course that explores the history and universe of Van Cleef & Arpels and its iconic creations.
For the secret gemologist lacking the time and the means for a GG degree, the courses offered in The Universe of Gemstones theme provide the basic knowledge of gemstones and learn the skills and tools of a gemologist. Four courses take you on a journey of earth’s precious gemstones, teaching you every fact and facet any astute amateur gemologist should know.
The final theme, Savoir Faire, is where the art of jewelry and watchmaking comes to life in your very own hands. From learning the intricate steps as well as the team effort integral to creating a jewel to sitting at the bench and exploring the first steps of making one yourself, this part of L’École’s program is perhaps the most influential in fully appreciating a piece of jewelry.
The tour took me through the entire L’École, where instructors and professional jewelers were stationed to demonstrate lessons from the various courses. Beginning with the Savoir Faire segment, the first station was in a small room connected to the workshop classroom. Hanging on the wall was a series of simple paintings showing the steps of how to render a diamond in gouache. Once you have mastered the process of painting a large stone (though ‘large’ in this case is slightly smaller than a dime), the next challenge is attempting a gouache on a much smaller scale: a 0.5 carat diamond using a paintbrush with only a few bristles.
If the gouache portion wasn’t daunting enough, the next stop on the tour was creating a pewter mock-up of a jewel, the first three-dimensional interpretation of the jewel. Using a tiny saw blade, the jeweler seated at one of the benches began to trace the outline of a butterfly painted on the rectangular sheet of pewter.
Behind her, another jeweler demonstrated the technique of cutting wax mold and forming them into a three-dimensional rendering. On his tray rested a quintet of miniature ballerinas in both wax and metal form.
Finally, to the left of the wax station was another instructor. At his workbench, visitors on the tour could try their hand at cutting a straight line through a sheet of silver with a handsaw. A seemingly easy task, it was anything but. I gave it a try and made it only a few millimeters, but I did not veer from the line!
In an adjacent room, a gemologist stood behind a table showcasing a selection of rough stones and number of peculiar tools. A representative of The Universe of Gemology portion of the program, he shared with me some of the lessons taught during the course. In front of the gemology tools were four nearly identically colored green stones, almost indecipherable by the unaided eye. Luckily, the “Recognize the Stones” course teaches you how to use the myriad of tenets and tools of a gemologist to identify which stones are which.
At the front of the room, we came to the last stop of the tour. There, two watchmakers literally dove into the heart of a mechanical watch, the name of a course in the Savoir Faire section. In this class, the intricate world of a mechanical watch movement is taken apart piece by piece, eventually stopping the movement’s beating heart. The delicate process is carried out by each individual in the class, and by the session’s end, each gearwheel and spring will be put back in its proper place with the goal of bringing the watch back to life, its movement ticking perfectly once again.
Every year, L’École visits a different city to share its wealth of jewelry resources. This year, Hong Kong will have the opportunity to experience L’École for two weeks. Next year, the program will stop in New York, and I cannot wait to attend as many classes as my wallet will allow.