Fans of Van Cleef & Arpels now have the opportunity to get an up-close look at one of the jeweller’s most fantastical collections yet. Inspired by the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark, the collection – now on display in Admiralty – features more than 40 pairs of animals in brooch form, including monkeys, swans, butterflies, kangaroos and exotic birds. There’s even a unicorn and a phoenix, bringing a touch of the whimsical to such a timeless tale.
As visitors enter the darkened room, they are met with a fully immersive experience. Claps of thunder and the sound of rain fill the room, and the occasional flash of lightning adds an exciting touch. The exhibit was designed by Robert Wilson, an American theatre and visual artist who is renowned for his creative use of light. The installation was first presented in Paris last September.
Gafencu spoke to Van Cleef & Arpels CEO and President Nicolas Bos, who was in Hong Kong for the exhibit.
You started out as a marketing director for Van Cleef & Arpels in 2000. How did you get to that position?
It was a bit by accident to be honest. I started working for the Richemont Group at the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art right after school.
I always had a passion for art and creativity so I was happy to work in an environment that combined art with commercial and business aspects. When Richemont acquired Van Cleef & Arpels, the president, my former boss Isabelle Guichot, was appointed and she asked me to join.
Interestingly, I wasn’t asked to join because of my knowledge of jewellery, but because I’d always been in an environment with creative people trying to organise projects and make things possible. That was pretty much my role at the Cartier foundation.
My role as marketing director was more of a title than anything because there was no marketing department before I joined. We don’t do things according to market research or trends. It is primarily what we want to do in house. The purpose of the department, and the role I filled at that time, was to make sure Van Cleef & Arpels’ creations were turned into projects and collections for the stores. My role was more to organise the whole creative process and move it forward.
In 2009 you were promoted to vice president, while keeping your position as creative director. How did you balance two very different roles?
It was quite organic. The company is quite small so I was just working with a different process. I moved to New York to take care of the American subsidiary while keeping my creative role. I moved back four years ago to take over as president.
Now you are president and CEO. What’s changed at Van Cleef & Arpels under your leadership?
I don’t think much has changed. It is about continuity. I’m not the type of manager who starts a revolution and makes big changes.
I’ve been at the company a long time and continuity is important to brands like ours. Van Cleef & Arpels has been building an identity, signature style and level of expertise for many years. I’m not the sort of guy to change the strategy and retail policy. Creation and creativity are still at the centre of everything.
The only change is I don’t have anyone to blame now. The comfort of blaming another person if something isn’t working has gone, which is actually quite nice.
How would you describe your management style?
It’s very collaborative. I rely a lot on my teams. I try to strengthen the culture among the teams at all levels. I’m not the sort of person who asks designers or collaborators every week what they’re doing or how they’re doing.
There are some projects I run with them directly and then I expect them to understand and replicate it by themselves.
I don’t like when people say, ‘It is going to be like this because this is what I like or don’t like.’ I always try to explain why I’ve made a decision and it isn’t always a matter of personal taste. It is sometimes to do with tradition or a commercial aspect. The process is a learning curve for everyone.
How does Van Cleef & Arpels remain true to its heritage while at the same time keeping up with ever-changing demands?
The evolution of the market, the economy and clientele don’t influence the identity, design or craftsmanship of Van Cleef & Arpels. To make specific collections for a market or react to a downturn or an upturn in the market is very dangerous for brand identity.
Speed of change today is so fast that there is no way you can follow what’s happening.
The whole process in making a collection takes about three years and opening a store also takes years so it’s impossible to react to trends that happen over a couple of months. It’s better to stay who you are and then explain and express your identity by using the evolution of the market. For example, there are new ways to tell stories and bring information to clients now that didn’t exist 10 years ago. So we stay true to today’s world but the information we pass through these new mediums hasn’t changed.
Is the market in Hong Kong different to the West? If so, how?
Originally, the market wasn’t that different. We are a brand that appeals to a type of customer who knows what jewellery they like, which means we have a consistent type of clientele. Hong Kong is very similar to markets in New York and London with the types of jewellery people like.
However, the level of tourism to Hong Kong over the last 10 years has changed the retail landscape.
A few years ago in Hong Kong was the first and only time we had to organise a line outside one of our stores. For a few years it was an unusual situation when tourists came to Hong Kong with such an appetite for luxury goods. This was something we had never seen anywhere before.
It is quieter now here which is closer to our identity.
The exhibit, called L’Arche de Noé racontée par Van Cleef & Arpels (Noah’s Ark told by Van Cleef & Arpels), will be on display from now until 26 March at Asia Society Hong Kong Center, 9 Justice Drive, Admiralty. It is free and open to the public.
For more information or to book a visit between the hours of 12pm and 8pm, visit www.vcaarchedenoe.hk.
Text: Andrew Scott
Additional information: Emily Petsko