There are seven of us gathered in an airy second-floor salon of an 18th-century palace on Place Vendôme in central Paris. Sunlight streaming through the tall French windows bounces off a long lab table strewn with clusters of jewels of every color and size. As we use magnifying loupes to examine these gemstones—which range from deep blue sapphires to fiery orange spinels to golden heliodore, in sizes up to 30 carats (just bigger than a grape)—we are encouraged to play with them. “Let them speak to you,” our instructor says. (We are on our honor to demur if the jewels say, “Quietly slip me into your pocket.”)
None of us assembled at this workshop are consorts of the Sultan of Brunei, nor are we experts or industry capos. None of us are shoppers, either, or at least not at this moment. We’re a mix of lawyers, consultants, gallery workers, and one journalist (me) with a geeky interest in gems.
Last February, Van Cleef & Arpels, jewelers since 1906 to the likes of Princess Grace, Elizabeth Taylor, and Madonna, opened L’École, a school for obsessives who want to spend half a day learning the history and craftsmanship of fine jewelry. The school offers seven classes, each four hours long, ￼covering the backstory of haute joaillerie, its history, technical innovations, raw materials, mechanics, and its symbolic meaning. One class even teaches you how to wear the stuff.
Today’s class, “Interpreting the Gemstones,” is taught by Dominique Dufermont, an in-house colored-stones expert at Van Cleef & Arpels. It consists of a series of geology slide shows; a lecture on crystallization; hands-on oohing and aahing over polished and, even more amazing, raw gems; and an ear-splitting demonstration of gemstone cutting that makes one hope there are Advil dispensers at the ateliers.
Considering high-end jewelry’s technical precision and romantic materials, the subject of our class is a rich topic, in every sense of the word. And Van Cleef & Arpels has certainly left its mark in the haute jewelry world. We learn the secret of the house’s Mystery Setting, a process by which emerald- and marquise-cut precious gems are laid into a frame like mosaic tiles, with no visible metal. The setting remains one of the apexes of innovation in the field.
After watching a film on the company’s award-winning cutting technique, I pick up a 28-carat emerald-cut amethyst. I feel the roughness around its widest edge (where it will one day be set in metal) and finally understand how much the angle of the stone’s pointy bottom affects its overall brilliance.
At the end of class, we are presented with a certificate and a 10x magnifying loupe. We also take home a new respect for Van Cleef & Arpels’s craftsmen.
Even if, like me, you aren’t Van Cleef & Arpels’s most acquisitive customer, it’s still fascinating to go into such detail and to play with materials you’d never have the chance to manhandle otherwise. All with absolutely no pressure to buy. No pressure, but an awful lot of desire.
33/(1) 70-70-3400. $1,010 for the half-day class. This appeared in the September, 2012 issue.