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Van Cleef & Arpels - Interview with Nicolas Bos

Van Cleef & Arpels Interview with Nicolas Bos

The CEO of Van Cleef & Arpels discusses the pragmatic appeal of craftsmanship.

In his dual capacity as chief executive and creative director of Van Cleef & Arpels, Nicolas Bos has long championed craftsmanship.  In charge of overseeing the creation of the spectacular line-up of jewelry watches and poetic complications that the Maison produces, Mr. Bos is committed to preserving traditional techniques while integrating new technology in the workshops of Van Cleef & Arpels.

In early July, the storied jeweler will enrich its collections with a spectacular new high jewelry watch expected to be revealed during Couture week in Paris, while a new complicated timepiece will be unveiled this autumn, all ahead of an important “patrimonial exhibition” at the Palazzo Reale in Milan later this year.  

While remaining strictly tight-lipped about the many surprises that he has in store in the next few months, Mr. Bos explains his commitment to preserving Van Cleef’s unique workmanship, his investment in training, and how the Maison attracts new talent to manual crafts.

At a time when certain manual traditions are declining, how do you assess the landscape for recruiting craftsmen?
The landscape for recruiting talent is different today from what it was about 20 years ago. I would say today, we are in rather good shape.  Two decades ago, we faced real issues with ranks of aging craftsmen that were not being replenished.   Today, I would say that finding craftsmen for our workshop is no longer an issue, thanks to the work that has been done over the years by the luxury Maisons, the schools, and many public initiatives in France that together have been extremely effective in changing the landscape.  I note, however, that there is a generation gap in the workshops between skilled craftsmen in their late 40s and 50s, and the new generation of 20 to 30-year-olds, a gap that corresponds to a period when training was lacking and recruitment was low.  Still, the new generation is strong, highly skilled, motivated and well-trained. 

To what factors do you attribute the renewed interest today in manual crafts?
I think many young people today are interested in manual-type work with an artistic dimension first because of the many new programs that support apprenticeship.  There was a time when the educational system, particularly in France, did not promote a “manual” orientation.  Those who went into crafts were essentially high-school dropouts who by default turned to manual jobs.  It was not by choice and there was little prestige associated with such an orientation.  Today, many young people with a “normal” academic background actually choose to come to crafts with real motivation.  Though they have other choices available to them, they make a conscious decision to gravitate toward crafts.  Many come to us with highly-developed skills in both new technologies and traditional crafts:  they know their way around a computer but can also work metal by hand.

What has Van Cleef & Arpels done to promote craftsmanship?
We have made training a priority in our Parisian workshop where we employ today some 50 craftsmen.  Today, our goal is transmission of skills and knowledge, so apprenticeship is our first priority.  Fifteen years ago, we were more focused on meeting production goals and deadlines.   While productivity remains key, we now dedicate serious resources to training and transmission of know-how.  Some of our most skilled experts now teach at our L’École des Arts Joailliers.  Also, within the atelier, we make sure that younger team members work with experienced craftsmen on complex pieces, so that an apprentice can learn from real hands-on experience.  We are also conscious of maintaining a balance between traditional crafts and new technologies both in production and in training.  We make sure our traditionally-oriented craftsmen also receive technology training.  All this is now part of our in-house culture.

What is your relationship with schools that train craftsmen?
We are actively engaged with local schools in Paris.  To the students of the École Boulle [a college of fine arts and crafts and applied arts], we offer free access to gemology courses at L’École that are otherwise paying for the general public.  We support the Haute École de Joaillerie in Paris which serves as the main pivot of a global ecosystem, by sponsoring entire graduating classes.  This is something that other Maisons have done as well.  It shows that despite being competitors, we are all aligned when it comes to supporting training. 

Why do you believe that “arts and crafts” are more attractive to young people today?
We are seeing today a re-balancing of interests. Many people today do not consider that living an entire life behind a desk, doing administrative, “white collar” type jobs is necessarily satisfying or fulfils the greater purpose of their lives.  There is today a “virtuous cycle” and a strong ecosystem around craftsmanship that is very pragmatic in nature.  It has nothing to do with a “neo-hippy” trend or with promoting the mystique of craftsmanship through a “William Morris Arts & Crafts” lens.  It is about developing real skills, sharing knowledge, and helping the workshops.  At Van Cleef & Arpels, we want to ensure that crafts are a viable option where one can make a good living.  That is also what a number of other entities are promoting, namely the Michelangelo Foundation with Homo Faber, the Fondation Bettencourt-Schueller or the Comité Colbert.  There is no political agenda behind supporting crafts.  It is a “down-to-earth” approach to creating real jobs with a serious appeal, and I think it is all very healthy.

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