Career has come full circle for Van Cleef & Arpels jewellery school head
Marie Vallanet-Delhom trained as a teacher before curiosity led her to join jewellers Richemont three decades ago. A desire to demystify jewellery making led to her current role
“I grew up in a family that had a great love and dedication for education, especially in all the aspects of culture and the arts,” says Marie Vallanet-Delhom. “I believe this is partly because my parents lived through the second world war. As a result, they wanted their children’s generation not to ever see war, and to cultivate a wider, higher view of the world. Because of this, I took my education seriously, and eventually earned my master’s degree in literature, before working as a teacher.
“In 1986, I had an offer to join Richemont in the company’s jewellery department. I took the opportunity because one of my strongest qualities is my curiosity. I was most curious about the world of the atelier and high-jewellery workshops. During my time there, I was very lucky to have people around me who were generous and willing to share their specific expertise. That inspired me and made me even more interested in high jewellery. It also taught me the importance of sharing my knowledge with others.
“Previously, I never really had a fixed opinion about jewellery. This was not a topic that I had had a lot of experience in before joining Richemont. So I was like a sponge, open to any possibilities and soaking up knowledge wherever it came from.
“After working with Richemont for many years, I accepted a position as president of the [Van Cleef & Arpels} school. My life story has come full circle, given I started my career as a teacher. There are so many similarities between what I did then and what I do now – especially with the transmission and sharing of knowledge.
“The French have a phrase, ‘boucler la boucle’, which means to fasten the belt buckle. It means starting somewhere, going around, and coming back where you started. That saying is very relevant to my life.
“The idea for the school started five years ago, during a conversation with Nicolas Bos, the CEO, president and also creative director of Van Cleef & Arpels. We were discussing the need to share not only the beauty of our jewellery house, but also all that is underneath the beauty that’s hidden to create these jewellery pieces.
“Generally speaking, the whole profession of making jewellery is one that has been kept completely hidden. And it is usually the case that the better the jewellery piece is made, the less you see what went into the actual construction itself. So that was really the driving force behind the setting up of the school.
“When something is done really well, no matter what it is, such as a professional ice-skater doing a triple-axle, it looks easy. But as we know, it is anything but easy. It requires tremendous expertise to turn hard materials such as gold and diamonds into something like a jewellery piece that resembles a soft bunny rabbit eating a carrot.
“The courses we created for the curriculum were really to help open up our world to the public. There are three kinds of courses I felt were very important: the savoir-faire, an understanding of gemstones, and the stories behind these jewels. These are really the three pillars of our education, and served as the basis when the school first started.
“Since then, the course has evolved. We have had a large number of experts involved in the creation of the curriculum. In fact, of the 16 courses our school offers, nine have come directly from the wishes of students.
“One example is the course we have on talisman jewels. From the first day of the first course on Valentine’s Day 2012, we asked students how we could help them further their knowledge of jewellery. One person said: ‘Well, we know jade is for protection, but could you tell us which symbols and stones are used by people for protection and power?’
“Even though they asked for it in 2012, it took us two years to get the course ready. You know why? Because fortunately and unfortunately, there were no books about it! We can’t go back hundreds and thousands of years and interview people who were drilling seashells and putting them around their neck. And each culture, Chinese, Indian, African, Native American and Scottish, is different. Talismans are part of everyone’s life and are human knowledge. It was a subject we had to manually compile.
“This year, Van Cleef & Arpels launched a programme to honour Hong Kong’s young and gifted creators. We did so to bring to life and affirm our school’s values and goals. They include building bridges of communication between cultures, and the belief that youth is the future of the world.
“Although I have spent many years learning about this exciting field, there is always an opportunity to learn more. I recently spent a lot of time with mineralogy experts who work in natural history museums. They explained to me a lot of fascinating things about the creation of minerals. I was totally immersed in that topic.
“I may know a lot about gemmology, but I don’t know much about mineralogy. And because I learn every day, whether it is from students or experts, I consider my job a privilege. Working at the same company for 28 years – what a gift.”