Van Cleef & Arpels: My L’Ecole Experience

vca_my-lecole-experience1 First, the design, which entails hours upon hours of concentration to get every stroke right. I, of course, failed miserably.

vca_my-lecole-experience4 All the technology in the world and yet they choose to paint tiny diamonds that look so real by hand. By hand. Really.

vca_my-lecole-experience2 After cutting and polishing, your pewter mock-up should look something like this. Mine just looks mangled with a half-chewed wing.

vca_my-lecole-experience3 The end result that I contributed nothing to, this tray is filled with full-sized mock-ups made of pewter and paste stones that will do well at any Chomel near you


It’s been precisely a week since I was in Hong Kong last, having had the honour of attending Van Cleef & Arpels’ L’Ecole, the French marque’s Paris-based school whose sole purpose is to share what actually goes on before you see the finished piece of fine jewellery or timepiece in the boutique’s window.

Held at Hong Kong’s PMQ with classes running all the way till 1 November, I had the golden opportunity to take the module ‘Explore & Create: From Design To Mock-Up‘, which I heard entailed lots of drawing and painting, along with the use of a hand saw that got my fingers in a nervous tizzy for a while. In other words, it was a module that had more practical than theory, which was right up my alley, considering the number of times I left lectures just to head to the nearby arcade, but that’s a story for another day.

So what does it take to finish a piece of fine jewellery, you ask? At least 10 skilled artisans, each specialising in a specific step of the process that can take up to hundreds of man hours from start to finish. From the designer who’s able to both sketch and paint, to the mock-up that creates true-to-scale 3D models rendered in pewter and finished with paste stones (which range from glass to strass that are used to simulate diamonds), which can take anywhere from 3 hours to 15 days to complete.

And that’s what I did when I sat down for my module, from the easy: tracing out a pre-selected design (we all got butterflies) to the impossible: attempting to paint diamonds with all its detailing (the artisan’s one looked almost real; mine look like striped pebbles). And it wasn’t that the equipment was fancy or hard to use; our tools were mostly things you’ll find in any art supplies store, from your standard mechanical pencil and paint brushes to regular paints.

The difficult part (and where all my newfound respect now stems from) was the amount of dedication and training each designer had to go through in order to achieve this level of artistry. They could have easily turned to computers and got it down in mere seconds, so when asked why they insisted on using such ‘low-tech’ methods in this day and age, the instructor’s wry reply (she’s French, after all), was simply ‘to keep our craft and heritage alive’.

After spending almost 90 minutes hands-a-quivering trying to paint lines so thin ants could tightrope on (that was the Design portion of the module), I headed over to Mock-Up, where I was presented a piece of pewter outlined with a print of the butterfly I was supposed to massacre cut with a small handsaw. And after many excruciating minutes trying to get the sawing right with my French instructress hovering over me, fussing over how I was doing it wrongly (‘Aw-vin, your saw muz be straight, up, down, up, down’), the half of the butterfly that I had to saw myself looked like it had been mangled by a rottweiler.

And that was the easy part. After all my adrenaline kicked in, and I went from filing and polishing the delicate pewter wings (it was super soft and half the time I was worried I would break them with my superhuman strength), before applying paste stones.

The end result? Besides learning a whole lot and appreciating the amount of savoir-faire that goes into each step of the process, I will probably never look at a piece of fine jewellery the same way again, and instead of just asking how much, I’ll probably be running the whole design and mock-up process through my head and knowing that I was one of the lucky few given this special behind-the-scenes look at an acclaimed jeweller’s atelier. That, and the fact that I’m now the proud owner of my own little pewter butterfly, complete with 4 shiny paste stones and one half-mangled wing.

Van Cleef & Arpels’ L’Ecole is now running at PMQ till 1 November. To check if selected courses/modules are still available for registration, do follow this link for more information.

Images: Van Cleef & Arpels

YOU SHOULD SEE: Van Cleef & Arpels: L’Ecole Hong Kong 2014

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