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SIHH 2017 Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie - Geneva, 16-20 January 2017

Van Cleef & Arpels - Interview: Nicolas Bos

Van Cleef & Arpels Interview: Nicolas Bos

At the SIHH, Nicolas Bos, CEO of Van Cleef & Arpels, answered our questions.

We hear that Richemont’s jewellery brands, of which Van Cleef & Arpels is one, have redeemed the group’s financial results. Is this true?

Yes, the group’s financial results showed a fine performance by the jewellery brands, which are essentially Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier. What is clear is that the dynamic we have seen in the watch industry in recent years doesn’t apply to jewellery. For historical reasons, we are less tied to a wholesale network than we are to retailers. We’re in direct contact with our clients. That’s a far less challenging situation than in watchmaking, which operates more through wholesalers. And jewellery was not as affected by the extraordinary boom in Chinese buyers. We experienced more organic growth, which is ultimately more stable and sustainable. The watch industry is paying the price of tumbling demand in the Asian region. We remain less dependent on a single region.

How has the drop-off in China translated into your watch products? Have you revised your products, or your prices?

Not really. Like other brands, we have been working on an international pricing strategy. The exchange rate fluctuations over the last three years, and the last year in particular, have been so dramatic that, even with dynamic adjustments, we ended up with distortions that made it difficult to calibrate our products for the United States, Europe, etc. We have standardised our prices. We have to continually adapt – we have no choice. And if we need to lower our prices, we’ll lower them. Or we might need to raise them, even though, in the current climate, that would be rather a dangerous move.

You’re working on stabilising your activity, your identity and your products. But your prices, which are one of the first points of contact between you and your clients, have become very unstable. How do you deal with that?

It has been difficult. We are less affected because we have our own distribution network, which enables us to set our prices directly. All pieces above a certain value are offered at the same price all over the world, and this price is continually updated. Prices across the entire collection are now adjusted every month. In fact, we started doing that years ago. Our clients travel a lot, and prices must be homogeneous everywhere.

When you walk in to Van Cleef & Arpels, you always come away surprised. Is it important to stimulate people’s imagination?

Our main aim is to reflect the codes of the company. And it has been to our advantage that our codes are different from the codes of watchmaking. In a setting like the SIHH, the objects we show make an impact. Look at our poetic complications, for example. But the element of surprise is not an end in itself. We are always trying to find a way of expressing the company’s identity through our creations. The first time we used a mechanical movement to power a fairy or a butterfly, it was completely new. When we started telling stories using clockwork, it was unlike anything anyone else was doing. Now it’s almost run of the mill. The element of surprise has been dulled. We want to open new chapters, which may or may not be completely breathtaking, and charm our clients. But not necessarily with major innovations.

Do you differentiate clearly between men’s and women’s watches?

Our watches are very definitely gendered. We are a feminine company. Jewellery is our business. We sell pieces that are worn by women, but we sell them to men and to couples. So men are important in the purchasing process. Our watch creations are feminine because they reflect the same universe as our jewellery. In terms of masculine expression, we have two directions, two elements of our identity which remain very important to our company. First there is Pierre Arpels’ idea of a men’s dress watch that is elegant, slim and understated, which has always been a tradition of the Maison. This is in line with the interest we have always had in fine men’s accessories, such as cufflinks. This range doesn’t necessarily need to expand further – it works well for those men with an interest in the company. The other aspect, which we will continue to explore, is how to tell stories in a masculine universe. This is where the astronomical watches such as Midnight in Paris and the Planetarium come in. We have other narrative projects in a similar vein. Another difficulty is that the atmosphere in our shops is largely dictated by feminine jewellery. It’s not easy to find a place for gentlemen clients.

You offer an increasing number of very small watches. Is this an interesting avenue for you?

They have evolved more or less organically, to meet our clients’ expectations. For example, when we began working with the artistic crafts, we went for large case sizes because they offered more room to tell a story. But in some markets these cases were considered a bit too masculine, a bit too big, particularly in places where bracelets play a dominant role. With the Charms, we proved that it is possible to tell a story with a small diameter. It can work quite well, depending on the piece. But we’re not really marketing strategists. We look for situations where jewellery and watchmaking can work together to tell a story. With the Lady Arpels Papillon Automate, we have mechanical workings and a more complex dial, so we started out with larger diameters.

“In a setting like the SIHH, the objects we show make an impact.”

The way in which the butterfly flutters its wings shows the care that has been spent on getting the movement right. It is very graceful. Is this technical mastery important to you?

It’s no accident. This is one of those elements in our stories that we insist on reproducing faithfully via technical means. Often, the movements, the animations, can be jerky, and that doesn’t work for our stories. If the movement looks mechanical, the piece loses its magic. We’re looking for fluidity, gentle transitions, a very organic aspect to the motion. But when we are working with traditional functions, like a retrograde display, we pay attention to the quality of the scene we are trying to set, a bit like our tabletop automaton, Fée Ondine.

It can’t be easy to find someone to share a grand vision like the Fée Ondine Automaton. It’s much more than just a watch.

We haven’t decided yet if we’re even going to sell it. It’s a project we began eight years ago, and we did it for its own sake. It’s not a product, there is no commercial dimension. We didn’t know how much it was going to cost. For the time being we’re going to keep it. We want to share it, we want people to see it. We want to show what we are capable of, in the artistic crafts and the mechanical arts. The SIHH is the perfect place for that. I don’t think it’s possible to create this kind of piece with a commercial vision, except in the case of specially commissioned pieces. It’s pretty experimental. Around twenty different workshops were involved. It’s a confluence piece, a crossroads piece; there were no timing constraints, no customer requirements, and it will feed into other projects. It gives us the opportunity to nurture our creativity in more traditional register

“In a setting like the SIHH, the objects we show make an impact.”
Is the butterfly of the Lady Arpels Papillon Automate at all related to the one in the Fée Ondine?

Yes, the fact of working in the horizontal plane made us want to give the animation an element of verticality. We thought about the different planes, within the constraints of a watch, where you are forced to stack your elements on top of each other. The automaton made us ask the question: how do you create space in a watch for a butterfly to come to life?

The automaton may not have a price, but it must surely have a cost.

Honestly, I really don’t know; it took an insane amount of time to make. We’re used to selling exceptional objects, but there are rules for those. When we price a necklace at three million euros, that might seem astronomical, but we know exactly where to pitch it because we’ve been doing this for a century. Here, we don’t really have any references. I think that even our accountants are incapable of calculating the true cost. But they are quite happy that we have projects such as this.

See the short movie about the Fée Ondine Automaton unveiled at the 2017 SIHH.

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Each of Van Cleef & Arpels’ creations is imbued with jewelry and watchmaking excellence, drawing inspiration from whether nature, couture or the imagination. Its creations evoke a timeless world of harmony and beauty.

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