Van Cleef & Arpels’ quest for quality and excellence has remained unrivalled since the very beginning. The Maison’s commitment to sustaining elite craftsmanship and know-how sets it apart from others, as it continues to push the boundaries in creativity and innovation year after year. After taking a break from traditional watch fairs, the Maison returned to Watches and Wonders this year to showcase its latest timepieces as well as some of its Extraordinary Objects. These masterpieces, which take years to create, showcase the absolute finest in savoir-faire, through one-of-a-kind objects that create enchantment and surprise.
That element of surprise continues with the brand’s latest watch novelties which draw on new romantic stories as a source of inspiration. With dreams and imagination at the centre of everything they do, Van Cleef and Arpels offer more than simply a product, they allow their clients to discover a universe of dreams and stories and in turn, understand the story of the Maison. This year’s highlight novelties reflect the brand’s unique Poetry of Time concept, taking inspiration from the worlds of arts, nature and astronomy, three areas that are key to the brand. Here we discover more about the latest novelties and the current direction of the Maison with CEO Nicolas Bos.
What is the strategy that Van Cleef & Arpels is adopting to ensure there is always consistency with what the brand is offering?
It’s not so much of a strategy but I think that everything we do is truly based on the identity of the Maison, this is the one thing we always repeat and ingrain into anyone who works with us. We are very clear about what our codes are and where our inspiration comes from as well as our creative field of expression. The connection with art and culture and the sources of inspiration are what have been driving us for more than a century. Yes, it is true that sometimes you can have the temptation to stray away from your patrimony, to do something disruptive or revolutionary or to bring a new story into an existing storyline, but this is not our approach at all. Our approach is about the inspiration. We keep within the same book but try to write new chapters, whilst making sure the same story continues to unfold. And so, the way we work across the board is of course about creativity but also when we develop craftsmanship, it’s about looking at how we can find new ways of continuing the story so that we don’t renew the identity, but we change the angle and the way we express it. We always try to keep the integrity and at the same time, try to remain relevant and of course, embrace today’s tools and opportunities. We are not looking for modernity for the sake of it, we don’t mind missing trends if they are not relevant for us, or they don’t have the right connection to the Maison. This is a philosophy that’s shared across the board by all our teams and there is a lot you can do with this mindset.
There is a thin line between keeping this consistent narrative and being relevant – how do you balance the two?
I believe it requires a lot of baby steps more than big strategy shifts, and it also depends on the timing, the communities, and the markets. Meaning that in certain countries there are certain media or channels that are more relevant for telling our stories, so we really embrace them, and it can definitely change from one period to the next or one region to another. So, it’s about paying daily attention and trying not to lose track of the identity, but of course, trying to bring it to modernity and I think we are quite happy in the fact that our identity is universal enough to still resonate with a lot of people in today’s world, as it has across previous generations. Nature has always been our inspiration and the love of craftsmanship, continues to be a strong value until today, so it’s more about finding the right ways to express these values while keeping our integrity and engaging in dialogues in every region that we are present in. We have dialogues with our clients, with artists, with institutions, with a lot of people to make sure we are not isolated and that’s a good way to ensure that this connection and relevance stays.
We know that Van Cleef & Arpels left the SIHH watch fair a few years ago and now you are back at Watches and Wonders – what is the message you want to convey this year?
There was a very simple reason for leaving the fair a few years ago, it was mostly because it was primarily a trade fair, and we don’t have wholesalers anymore, so the commercial aspect was no longer there. And we also wanted to be able to show our watches and creations in a different, more immersive manner which is usually associated with our jewellery universe. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we created quite a few successful private events around the world, and this is something that we will continue to do. But, having said that, this moment every year is a window on the whole spectrum of watchmaking, and as a brand, when you exit the fair, you can feel you are isolated or disconnected, so it feels good to be back, especially since the philosophy of the fair has evolved and even the name feels much more modern.
It is very rare to see a Maison balance jewellery making and watchmaking as Van Cleef & Arpels does – what is the vision for the watchmaking sector of the company?
It’s completely embedded in the same story, which brings us back to what we were discussing before, that we don’t really separate the two categories, they are only different expressions of the same identity, with different opportunities. So, for the stories that we tell in jewellery, we are able to give them an animated version through our watches. And this is really what has driven us so far. The connection between the two segments is very strong, which is also why our watches are mostly feminine watches, very much inspired or connected to our jewellery creations. They can be jewels but with a watch and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a complex movement, or we take it to a slightly more complex approach, and this is the way we are going to continue moving forward. I think it’s an identity that has been strengthened over the years and it is quite appreciated. It is very specific and unique in the watch industry because it is really an expression of what the Maison is about.
What are two novelties from this offering do you really cherish and why?
For this year’s creations, if I have to pick, I would firstly pick Heures Florale which has been created over a very long process and has a long story that I really love. It comes from an idea that was first expressed by a Swedish Botanist in the 18th Century. He was a scientist who had this theory that when you look at a garden of flowers, there are some that open and close at different times of the day, and from a scientific perspective, if you were able to organise them, you could probably create a garden that would mimic the concept of a clock, depending on the time of the day, different flowers will open and close. Of course, this project allowed us to dream, a lot of people have tried to do something similar, but it has been mostly a poetic take. I always thought it was a beautiful idea and it keeps within our DNA. Taking this idea to a real watch was a challenge and a journey and here is the result! It is a very first degree, literal approach. You have a dial where you don’t see any traditional indications of time, as we love to do. It is all enamel, there is miniature painting on the back, and it’s really considered a three-dimensional garden. The idea is that the number of flowers that are open indicates the hours of the day, and then you have a more traditional approach with the indication of the minutes at the side. And it has this kind of magical movement where the flowers open and close in a random effect. So, the theory that these scientists dreamt about becomes a reality on this watch. It’s a very simple story but what matters is the visual impact and the ‘wow factor’ that it generates. And then if you really want to dive into the movement and the watch, from a watchmaking standpoint it is really an extraordinary achievement in terms of technical development. But this is not the main goal, what we really want to favour is the impact.
Can you tell us about the choice of material for the strap?
It’s fabric and it’s a new material we have been working on. When we talk about relevance, I think that providing our clients with alternative materials to traditional animal skin straps is relevant today. And we want to overcome what can be an issue for some customers, who may not want to wear an animal skin strap, so we fully understand that, and we offer them an alternative. We are not trying to compromise on the identity but to adapt to the expectations of customers. And it looks good, which is important!
And your second favourite reference?
I would choose one of the Exceptional Pieces from the Automatons collection because they are pieces of art, and we are very happy to have this opportunity at the fair to show them. These are pieces that we spend years working on and they require a crazy amount of work and coordination in terms of crafts. But sometimes people won’t see them, they might go to one place or to a customer, so having them here at the fair allows us to share them. If I had to pick one it would be the Fontaine aux Oiseaux automaton, which I think is one of the most beautiful pieces. It took about five years to create. It is always an intuitive process because we started to work on the idea of table Automatons more than fifteen years ago, then in 2017, we introduced one which showcased everything we learnt in terms of the work and organisation. What is special with these pieces is that we cannot rely on our own workshops so we have to group not only our jewellery and watch workshops but also other specialists that can support with various aspects of these pieces. So, we really have to coordinate all of these extraordinarily talented craftsmen which is what makes these projects so exciting and special.
VCA has branched out into several segments – what can you tell us about your latest initiatives and what is coming in the pipeline that you can share when it comes to the commitment of the Maison to society?
There are actually many ways we do this. L’ECOLE, our School of Jewelry Arts, of course, remains a very important initiative for us and it has really developed over the last ten years. We are opening two new parent schools: an additional one in Paris and one in Shanghai before the end of this year. We are also working on additional opportunities in the Middle East, in America and in other countries. It’s a very important project for us that works at a lot of different levels. Of course, we have the classic component of exhibitions and talks, but we are also having more and more research projects – we work a lot with universities and institutions to revive and research all the different fields that are associated with the world of jewellery. There is also an increasing commitment to a social component where we use the resources of the school to give access to education to underprivileged communities, we go to high schools, and it’s a great way to generate interest in vocations related to what we do.
Another field which has always been important for us but is becoming even more so is dance and choreography and two years ago we started an initiative called “Dance Reflections”. We host an annual two-week-long festival where we host many shows in partnership with dance institutions. It is mostly about how to give access to great works and achievements in contemporary dance and how to make this accessible to a wider audience, and there was also a very strong educational component.
And a third aspect is supporting a lot of programmes connected to poetry and literature. We are supporting scholarships across the world.
And so, the only project left to do will be connected to nature and biodiversity, which is of course a key inspiration for us. We are working with some gardens and special museums like the French National Museum of Natural History or supporting the renovations of gardens around the world and supporting research on flowers and biodiversity. So, there is a whole constellation of projects, but they are always linked to the Maison and its DNA and inspiration.
What is the biggest challenge you face this year?
Sadly, we have to come back to the international situation that we are seeing in the world currently and with the difficulties that we are all facing, it is difficult to plan mid-term and short-term and to really deploy activities as we expected in a peaceful and organised way. Between the situation in Europe and the tragedies that are happening there as well as the pandemic which continues, we are still facing a lot of uncertainty, so it’s quite difficult to plan. The main thing for me is to make sure that we develop our plans in the best way we can. We need to maintain our direction and make sure that we can deliver on what we promise in circumstances that are very challenging and unstable.
What can we expect in the Middle East from Van Cleef & Arpels this year?
This region is a major region and market for us. This has been the case for a few years but now more than ever. So, we can really develop the Maison in The Middle East with our activities in the same way that we do in Europe or the United States or Asia. It’s not a secondary market at all. We have a lot of projects around L’Ecole, we are also working on a major Patrimony exhibition for the region which is going to be quite spectacular.