Place Vendôme may be the center of luxury jewelry in Paris — Chanel, Dior and Cartier are just a handful of the brands that have set up their haute jewelry workshops near the location — but hidden away not far from it all is L'Ecole Van Cleef & Arpels. Sitting just beneath the brand's atelier, L'Ecole is the city's only school set up by a haute jewelry house that's open to the public; its signage is so inconspicuous that if you don't look twice when walking down the narrow Parisian street full of cafés and restaurants, you might miss it.
I first learned of the school from a contact at the Paris Tourism Board who was surprised that I work in fashion but had never heard of it before. I wanted to take a tour to see how it compared to other fashion schools out there — especially since this one is open to the public. Upon my arrival on the Wednesday immediately following Paris Fashion Week, all was quiet; the classrooms were empty and neatly organized with past students' work on display. Though the school has about 20 courses that run regularly, it occasionally pauses all classes when Van Cleef & Arpels is doing a major event in Paris, or has a pop-up in an international city; on this particular visit, the brand was hosting an event in Hong Kong, so I unfortunately couldn't sit in on a seminar.
While the majority of students are women, the company says it sees a wide variety of people through its doors. "We do have regulars," says Marie Vallanet, President of L'Ecole Van Cleef & Arpels. "People plan their visits to Paris around the courses they want to continue to take each year. They tend to be people practicing professions very different from those we teach about at L'Ecole; the range can be from lawyers to surgeons."
The school, which opened five years ago, has just two floors: the first mostly serves as a welcome area for students, while the second contains all the classrooms and workshops. There's also a basement auditorium that's sometimes used for panels and private events. The courses, meanwhile, are divided into three different types: gemology, art history and "savoir faire" (meaning hands-on workshops where you actually make something). "The most unique aspect is the opportunity to interact, one-on-one and hands-on, with the array of experts from the world of jewelry who form the team of our teachers," says Vallanet.
The "savoir faire" classes range to include different levels of gouache painting techniques, where a teacher guides you on how to capture the light and shine of a jewel — considered the first step of the design process at Van Cleef & Arpels — to classes that let you experiment with enameling or lacquering a little pewter butterfly. There's a class that lets you cut and create a butterfly out of metal, using the same jeweler's benches and tools that the brand has upstairs in its métier, as well as a class that teaches you how to set a stone. You get to keep whatever you make, too — whether it's an illustration or the little enameled butterfly. Students are even asked to wear white jackets similar to those worn by the jewelers upstairs.
In the gemology classes, students learn how to identify different gemstones, as well as the history behind them; as one might imagine, there are classes that focus solely on diamonds. One special class is devoted to pairing gemstones and wine, since both can be associated with history, geology, color, texture and more. "It's very popular," says the communications rep who guides my tour, laughing.
The history courses hone in on everything from amulets and symbols in fine jewelry, while another touches on all the many ways jewelry has been worn throughout various time periods. One art history class is also centered on Art Nouveau, a movement that's intrinsic to the aesthetic of Van Cleef & Arpels. The program used to offer a watchmaking course, taught by a teacher from Switzerland, but later discontinued it; however, that course, and others themed around almost anything else one desires to learn about jewelry, can be created upon request for private groups.
Only 12 students are allowed per class, and each is taught in French and English. So, why would a high fashion jewelry brand want to open a school to the public — especially one so small? "The core values of our founding Maison lead directly into educating," explains Vallanet. "The Maison actively supports, nourishes and initiates preservation and innovation in the jewelry arts. Therefore it made perfect sense to start up a school like this."
Van Cleef & Arpels was also inspired by the success of many jewelry exhibitions on display at museums, as well as the public's never-ending fascination with the beauty of fine jewelry. "The school is about the jewelry arts in general," says the rep. "We're not here to only talk about Van Cleef & Arpels." Some of the teachers are independent of the company itself, with their own businesses in Paris or jobs in the jewelry industry elsewhere.
"We've got four teachers that are internal. The others are not only working for L'Ecole, but some are from our Maison," explains the communications rep. For the savoir faire courses, you'll typically be working directly with someone from the company. If you take one of the art history courses, you’ll usually be taught by an art historian not working with Van Cleef & Arpels exclusively, since the company doesn't have art historians on its staff.
For fans of the fashion or the brand, the appeal does make sense. While a piece of jewelry from Van Cleef & Arpels will cost you anywhere from $2,000 to upwards of $23,000, most of the classes range between €100 to €200 and last just two to four hours, depending on the complexity. The only course that costs slightly more at €350 is one in which guests can visit the actual Van Cleef & Arpels haute jewelry design studio, and get trained from a designer who works at the house. No experience is necessary to take any of the courses — hence, the variety in student backgrounds.
"Once people figure out that there are no prerequisites, that this is a school for everyone who wants to learn, they respond with enthusiasm," explains Vallanet. "We continue to develop and refine our approach as we also create and implement new courses."
"We're really an initiation school," adds the brand's communication rep. "We're not here to train people to become professional jewelers or to work in jewelry. It's really about giving you an initiation into this world in jewelry."
Because of that, you can't earn certificates or university credits — but you can attend a class, no matter how much experience you have in art or design. In Paris, where high fashion can often be considered very much an insiders-only group, L'Ecole is opening itself up to the entire world.
"It's very much in the values of Van Cleef & Arpels to share and transmit our knowledge," says the rep at the end of the tour. "Many people are fascinated by jewelry, but they don't know much about it. It's quite a secretive world."