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For years, jewelry-lovers, aficionados, and crafters have admired Van Cleef & Arpels, and have offered high praise for the craftsmanship behind their elaborate designs. To accompany that praise, there is without a doubt, many questions. How do they hand-make each and every piece of jewelry? How many hours does each item take to create? What inspires a bauble’s fanciful design? Luckily for those that are curious, the jewelry house has brought their Paris-based schooling, L’ECOLE Van Cleef & Arpels, to New York. For two weeks (June 4-18), you can get not only the answers to those questions, but also the hands-on experience from the masters themselves.
This unique, innovative program is taking place at Cooper Hewitt and allows for the general public to gain insight into the world of jewelry by dividing courses up into three craft-savvy sections: “Savoir-Faire,” “The Universe of Gemstones,” and “Art History of Jewelry.” Each category offers four classes to choose from, and draws the line at 12 students to keep seminars intimate and informative.
The flexibility to enroll in a variety of classes—such as “The Story of Talisman Jewels” and “Dive into the Heart of a Mechanical Watch”—allows for students to take their specific interests to the next level, and to get hands-on training from three master craftsmen straight from the school’s Paris Place Vendôme classrooms. Every course, selective and intricate in its own way, provides a stimulating environment for four hours, and offers an immersive way to digest new information.
We were lucky enough to enroll in a class last week. It all began at 8:30 a.m. when students congregated over coffee and conversations just inside the design museum. Our professors greeted us with smiles and white L’ECOLE Van Cleef & Arpels-labeled lab coats. We followed our professor in anticipation of our first lesson into the classroom and gladly took our seats. We were given notepads and pencils to takes notes if we wished, and without wasting any time, the lesson began.
In an intimate group of only nine students, we started the first lesson in “Savoir-Faire” with the “Discover the Jewelers’ Gestures” class. We were divided into a small group of three students and paired with a master craftsman. Our first rotation (out of the three separate lessons within the course) was with Frédéric Heintz, a Parisian professor and master in-house Van Cleef & Arpels crafter.
He spoke of the importance of proper tools and specific gestures—a strong combination that would result in something truly unique and magnificent. As Heintz explained each and every minute detail, he acted out how to do each step, in order, clearly. Then, we took to our separate workbenches and attempted to perform the tasks ourselves. We learned how to bead silver, which, contrary to what it sounds like, is to use a sharp, pointed tool to push tiny divots into a slat of silver, gold, or bronze, and prepare these tiny holes for a gem to sit in to. We also learned how to properly polish a ring’s skeleton with the necessary ribbons and polishing compounds before the gems are applied.
After our first lesson, which lasted just over an hour, we took a break for espresso, sparkling water, and mini pastries. Held in the library, we were able skim through Van Cleef & Arpels books, and further educate ourselves on its storied history.
Next, we rotated to our second workbench. Under the instruction of a master designer, we learned how to paint a gouache (an outlined jewelry design on gray paper that is missing its gemstone’s colors), and how to properly erase any additional paint outside of the lines with two different brushes. Concentration and a careful, steady hand is the only combination that makes this intricate task possible.
From there, we moved on to our third and last lesson—crafting. Now, don’t be fooled. This wasn’t a lesson where we smoothed wax molds with our delicate hands. Oh, no. This was the toughest lesson of them all. After using a sharp, three-sided file to create slats in green wax (similar to the frill on Van Cleef & Arpels’ signature ballerina brooch), we moved on to hand-saw straight lines into pieces of silver—a lesson to show us just how difficult it was to keep a sturdy hand while keeping the contraption against the workbench’s pronged wooden holder. To say the very least, it was not easy, and it surely gave us an idea of just how much work goes into creating something as simple as a straight edge of silver, let alone curved.
As the class wound down, we were awarded a certificate of completion, and walked away with our personal gouaches, notebooks, and the wax file duo from our crafting lesson. In addition, Van Cleef & Arpels provided a handout on extra materials—such as books, podcasts, and websites—to extend our jewelry education if we so wished. We walked out of the Cooper Hewitt museum, with a better understanding and appreciation for the craft, art, and hard-learned skill that goes into creating beautiful jewelry.