Nicolas Bos is a man who wears two very important hats. The charming 42-year-old is the creative director, and the global president and CEO of highjewellery maison Van Cleef & Arpels. While Bos is now an expert on the creative and business sides of jewellery making, this was not always the case.
“It was actually by accident that I came into this line of work,” Bos says. More than 20 years ago, the then-fresh university graduate had a keen interest in art and creative design but, he says, “Like many people, I didn’t really see jewellery as an art form.
This was something I discovered over the years”.
When Bos joined Fondation Cartier in 1992, he was able to indulge in his passion and interests within the foundation’s contemporary arts division.
“I started out not knowing much about the jewellery or luxury side – it was more about the arts,” he recalls. “Over time, I started getting more involved with the business side at Cartier.” He maintained this link to the brand’s business administrations and, in 2000, when Richemont acquired Van Cleef & Arpels, he became part of the team assigned to oversee and redevelop the jewellery house.
Most people familiar with Van Cleef & Arpels know of the romance and sentimentality that characterise its beautiful collections, but what they might not be aware of is what happens behind the scenes – the brand’s unwavering and painstaking devotion to quality.
“What I still love more than ever is the level of consistency, the demand of excellence … to meet people in the business whose motto was ‘Never Compromise’,” Bos says. He remembers how the highly skilled craftsmen would work tirelessly to find the right stone of just the right quality.
“If there was a way to improve something, they wouldn’t stop trying until they got there,” he adds.
“To me, that was fascinating. What I saw was a very beautiful creative universe.”
This attention to detail was what prompted Bos to start seeing jewellery making as an art form. “I’d always liked decorative arts … [and now] there was this idea of artistic value attached to everyday objects, that you could bring artistry to something you wear and touch, not just a painting that you hang on the wall,” he says.
At Van Cleef & Arpels, he developed an appreciation for this particular type of expression and creation. He says an exquisite piece of jewellery is so much more than placing stones on a predesigned setting.
“We’re not here simply to preserve craftsmanship as a relic from the past, but because it is something that can offer a wonderful platform for design,” he says. “There are things that you can do in our workshops by hand and using traditional techniques [which] you wouldn’t be able to do any other way.
These are techniques that make any dream, any design possible.”
Bos points to a unicorn brooch as an example – it’s a stunning piece paved with diamonds and a sapphire.
This design was only possible, he explains, because the talented craftsman had the expertise to find the right stones and sculpt the piece perfectly. “It’s something that requires a strong imagination and a preservation of tradition, and it’s something that to this day I still find fascinating.”
With his appreciation of design and aesthetics, it’s hard to imagine Bos taking on the business-like, professional persona that’s required of a global president and CEO, but he insists the two qualities go hand-in-hand.
“They’re strongly associative to me,” he says. “In that field of decorative art, it’s creative in the sense of inspiration and design, but the teams have a sense of the business and how it runs. If it were just one or few artists with no business vision, this company would not be here today. It’s because of this very practical aspect and business vision that we are actually able to develop, enhance and keep these traditions. So these are two sides of the same coin.”
He explains that at the CEO level, one has to work with craftsmanship and preservation, which by nature is slow and time-consuming. On the other hand, the rest of the world is moving at a fast pace, which Bos describes as a landscape that’s evolving from one day to the next, as trends come and go.
“To reconcile these two requires constant attention,” he says. “The best and only way to do that is to always come back to our identity, to make sure everything we do is consistent and true to our core values and philosophy.”
Not only has Bos been playing this balancing act between the creative and business aspects of the company, but his background in art has also proved invaluable. When asked to identify his biggest contribution to Van Cleef & Arpels, he says: “I’ve consolidated that cultural inspiration and connection with arts, which was already there in the house, but I probably brought something to the table in terms of getting the team inspired by artists.”
This is particularly important at such a pivotal time in the jewellery industry, which Bos says is at a stage of revival. “I think 20 years ago, the jewellery market was not at its best in terms of creation,” he says. “Houses were producing pieces with beautiful stones, but I don’t feel that it was a period of high audacity or creativity. It was more a period of preserving traditions.”
Bos points out that decades earlier, in the 1920s or 1940s, jewellery entered a period of amazing creativity. Jewellers were experimenting with materials and shapes, and different ways to wear the pieces. “I think we’ve come back to that,” he says.
The brand has also noticed an encouraging acceptance of other stones, so not only are the high jewellers working with rubies, sapphires and emeralds, but they’ve also brought back turquoise and tourmaline. Bos says it has a lot to do with their Russian and Chinese consumers. “They have a very strong tradition in jewellery and decorative art, as well as a taste for complex, figurative, sophisticated pieces – stronger than what we’ve noticed in America and France, for example,” he says. “Due to this combination of factors, we are back at a truly great age of jewellery.”
With all the stunning collections launched over the years, Bos is hard pressed to pick a favourite, but he admits to having a soft spot for the Zip necklace.
“It’s such an iconic piece,” he says, adding that the ingenuity of the design – the versatility of the piece, not to mention its lightness and suppleness – still surprises him. “It encapsulates everything the brand stands for – sophistication, femininity, incredible technique,” he says. “You don’t need a logo or signature on it. You just know that it’s Van Cleef & Arpels.”
Joined Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, starting his career with Richemont Group
Appointed the creative and marketing director of Van Cleef & Arpels, which was acquired by Richemont at the time
Promoted to vice-president of the brand, while still maintaining his role as creative director
Promoted to president of Van Cleef & Arpels (Americas)
Replaced Stanislas de Quercize as the brand’s global president and CEO, all the while still serving as Van Cleef & Arpels’ creative director