The school of rocks

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 April, 2012, 12:00am

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There are five of us in the class: an American art historian, a flight attendant from Taiwan, two women who work in different areas of the luxury lifestyle industry, and me. We're in the gilded chinoiserie rooms of the Hotel d'Evreux, a private 18th-century town house in the Place Vendome, the heart of the Parisian high jewellery world.

Our lecturer introduces us to three white-coated specialists from Van Cleef & Arpels. They will be our mentors for the afternoon, as we learn more about the craft of making fine jewellery. The class we're attending is at the new L'Ecole Van Cleef & Arpels, and involves working with craftsmen and women from the Parisian jeweller's atelier nearby. We will only learn a soup?on of their skills - they train for 10 years or more, but we only have four hours. An artist who paints scaled jewellery designs shows us how to paint the gouaches (finished working drawings of the designs), which are used by Carole, who makes wax models of the jewels, and Frederick, who sets the stones.

It's difficult trying to gouge indentations into a small sheet of silver to create a pave setting for diamonds. You need short fingernails for that job. I have more success painting the pink opal ring gouache, chiselling gaudrons (curved grooves) in the special green wax, and cutting a tiny tablet of silver with a very fine wire. I'm good at polishing, too. This step happens at every stage of fine jewellery production. But it still takes 12 years of training to qualify to do it.

Frederick has been with Van Cleef & Arpels for 15 years, and is one of the treasured mains d'or (the jeweller never releases the surnames of these 'golden hands' as it considers them a precious commodity) who sets the high jewellery on display in the windows of the boutique in Place Vendome. Carole has been with the jeweller for 13 years. She is a specialist in cire perdue, the ancient Egyptian 'lost wax' technique used to sculpt special pieces like the pretty little ballerina brooches.

These are a house signature, and are used to form moulds for the molten metal. She also cuts and shapes precious metals into delicate butterfly wings, which she then assembles as brooches. It can take a month to make just one.

It was school president Marie Vallanet-Delhom's idea to shine a light on these ancestral skills, which are usually passed from generation to generation. Together with creative director Nicolas Bos and CEO Stanislas de Quercize, she conceived the concept for the Ecole (she prefers not to translate it to 'school').

'The world of jewellery is so small, so closed, we have to open it,' she says.

The course, which runs in English and French for one week each month, is broken down into seven different modules that unveil the secretive world of high jewellery.

You can dip in and out of the modules. For instance, you could spend one day at the Ecole and learn about 'Jeux de Bijoux', 'Mixing and Matching' jewellery in the morning and, in the afternoon, do 'Interpreting Gemstones'. You can go for a whole week, a course which culminates in a trip to the Van Cleef & Arpels workshops. 'The course is flexible to open up the world of jewellery to as large a public as possible,' says Vallanet-Delhom, who spent 25 years working with Cartier before Van Cleef.

Inezita Gay, who presents the English-language versions of the sessions, explains: 'It is like taking a wine course. You may not become a vintner or a true wine expert, but you do learn the difference between a Petrus and a Beaujolais Nouveau.'

When the courses finish in June, they might be taken overseas, to Chicago, Shanghai, Dubai and Hong Kong.

'We want to share our love and passion,' says Vallanet-Delhom. 'The whole world will not come to Place Vendome, so it is up to us to go to them. That is my mission.'

Acquiring an insight into the exceptional and secretive world of high jewellery is a rare opportunity for anyone who is interested in the craft. The experience could be complemented by a special course that Christie's Education is running in Hong Kong late next month, called 'Introduction to Fine Jewels and Timepieces'.

Like the Ecole Van Cleef & Arpels, this course will cover the history of jewels and teach a basic knowledge of diamonds and coloured stones. But while Van Cleef offers an insight into the design and craftsmanship of high jewellery, Christie's focus is on the connoisseur and evaluating and investing in rare jewels. That's why it's being held alongside Christie's spring auctions.

The course at Christie's targets the collector, explains Ci Sun, Christie's client strategy director in Asia. 'The markets for jewellery and timepieces have been growing exponentially in Asia, and Hong Kong has become one of the most important jewellery and watches centres in the world,' she says, noting that sales in both sectors have doubled in five years. 'Christie's Education is responding to the demand for knowledge with these courses.'

Chart a Course

L'Ecole Van Cleef & Arpels:
The next modules are from May 23-25 and June 20-23
Price: Euro600 (HK$6,075) to Euro800
lecolevancleefarpels.com

Christie's Education:
Putonghua course May 25 and 26
English course May 27 and 28
Price: HK$8,500
For details: 2978 6747 or hkcourse@christies.com