Cover The Enchanting Garden installation, which ran from September 7 to 15 at Pedder Building in Central, showcased Van Cleef & Arpels' heritage jewellery (Photo: Van Cleef & Arpels)

Asian buyers have been averse to buying heritage high jewellery, says Van Cleef & Arpels' creative director and CEO Nicolas Bos—but times are a-changin'

Thanks to his fantastical and deeply spirited designs, Nicolas Bos has become one of jewellery’s hottest creative directors, with numerous collections under his belt and a Hong Kong-based exhibition well underway. The downside to all this acclaim: the only time he’s free to speak with me is while doing his children’s morning school run. 

Well rested after two weeks of family time in Italy, the 50-year-old CEO and creative director, who works from Van Cleef’s historic Place Vendôme workshop in Paris, video calls me from his car—his children visible in the back seat— ahead of the maison’s Enchanting Garden installation, which ran from September 7 to 15 at Pedder Building in Central and showcased heritage pieces from the vaults. 

The exhibit focused on the magic of nature, as seen through Van Cleef’s fairytale lens. Nature has been a source of inspiration for the house since the 19th century and Bos dived into the jeweller’s diamond-decked archives to handpick what he considers Van Cleef’s most important depictions of flora and fauna. “For years, artists and craftsmen have been influenced by nature, but what’s interesting is seeing how these different interpretations evolve from one time period to the next, and how they change from one jeweller to another,” he says. 

Other heritage houses recreate wild waterfalls and stylise snakes from cabochon emeralds, but Bos doesn’t succumb to the pressure. “There are so many ways to express nature’s beauty,” he explains, adding he tries to focus on “colour, movement, fragility and asymmetry”, largely avoiding more literal interpretations. He laughs: “We used to say that, at Van Cleef, the real fun was Garden of Eden before the apple, whereas a lot of jewellers concentrate more on what happened after the apple.” 

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Bos makes an exception for his bejewelled butterflies, which took pride of place at Enchanting Garden. The Azuré butterfly between-the-finger ring boasts an extraordinary 8.64-carat blue-green tourmaline, while the Éventails butterfly brooch features sapphires secured using Van Cleef’s Mystery Setting technique. 

First used by Van Cleef in 1933, this method sees each faceted stone inserted onto thin gold rails less than two-tenths of a millimetre thick. Once a piece is complete, the gemstones appear to be entirely free-standing with no visible mounting. Because of the level of expertise required, only a few Mystery Setting pieces are produced each year. “This setting allows us, in a way, to be as magical as nature,” says Bos. “At first glance, it’s difficult to figure out how the technique works.” 

Bos feels Van Cleef’s heritage helps, rather than hinders, his modern-day designs. “When you work for a brand like Van Cleef, you’re working alongside colleagues who have been involved in this business for decades. You’re surrounded by houses that have been around for centuries. It’s fantastic to see,” he says. “Some people would consider it a burden, but I don’t think having a history limits us creatively. At the end of the day, we’re adding chapters to a story that we didn’t start and it’s a story that, hopefully, won’t ever end.” 

So, why hold the installation in Hong Kong? “Heritage pieces weren’t really considered [desirable] in Asia 20 years ago,” Bos says. “I think there was this idea that you shouldn’t wear a piece that’s been worn by other people, but this has changed significantly. Today, with the success of auctions and heritage jewellery exhibitions, we’ve seen Asia’s appreciation for heritage pieces grow tremendously.” 

For Enchanting Garden, French artist Charlotte Gastaut, who first partnered with the maison in 2018 when she designed an exhibit showcasing Van Cleef’s Quatre Contes de Grimm high jewellery collection, created a whimsical interpretation of a mythical forest. “What we try to do at Van Cleef is create moments and experiences with a feeling of wonder and magic,” says Bos. “This is, of course, inspired by our jewellery and craftsmanship but, in a way, it goes beyond that and it’s something we hope to achieve at Enchanting Garden.” 

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