Nicolas Bos, the 48-year-old chief executive of Van Cleef & Arpels, comfortably wears two hats. In running the maison’s day-to-day business and overseeing the design and settings for its jewelry collections, he plays a unique dual role in presenting its craftsmanship to a global audience.
Bos was raised with a love of literature and the visual arts, but ended up attending business school. In 1992, he joined the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain in Paris at a time when the Cartier-owned private art foundation was creating a stir with its unorthodox exhibition program. Bos was tasked with balancing budgets by day; by night, he would roll up his sleeves and help to set up exhibitions by hanging artworks. He says the most fascinating part of his job at the Fondation was working with curators and artists.
In 2000, Bos joined Van Cleef & Arpels as marketing director. Appointed chief executive in 2013, he is responsible for the business of the 123-year-old company, and also runs its creative studio.
Art is a part of his daily life, whether he is overseeing design or producing original scenographies for the maison’s high jewelry collections, all of which combines into a vision that has helped the chief executive present the craftsmanship of Van Cleef & Arpels to a wider audience.
We spoke with Bos about the experience of working with artist Robert Wilson on Van Cleef & Arpels’s Brueghel-inspired Noah’s Ark collection and his plans for future collaborations with artists.
Do you think of yourself as chief executive or artistic director of Van Cleef & Arpels?
Many jewelry houses have a chief executive and a creative director. I have a stronger personal involvement with the creative process than most. There is no one in the artistic director role here, so I work directly with the design studio, and I love it.
What are the sources of inspiration for Van Cleef’s jewelry?
We start by identifying a theme as a starting point—something not directly associated with jewelry—from the worlds of poetry, theater, literature, or the visual arts. From there, we develop ideas that are translated into a high jewelry collection. Of course, these inspirations must be consistent with the patrimony, identity, and central themes that are important to the house. The representation of nature, for instance, has been a major theme for Van Cleef & Arpels for over a century, and we constantly look for new ways to treat the theme of nature from new angles, which is what we did with the Noah’s Ark collection. It was a 60-piece collection depicting animals in pairs, inspired by the biblical tale of the patriarch who builds an ark to save his family and two of every creature threatened by an epic flood.
What was that collection’s starting point?
It was a 17th-century Dutch painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder that I had seen at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. It depicted animals entering Noah’s Ark, in a flamboyant, vivid, colorful work that was not just a literal representation of a biblical chapter, but a means for the artist to show his own ability to represent exotic animals with a touch of magic. That struck me as an interesting thing to do with jewelry.
Another source was small wooden toys from the late 19th century that belong to a folk-art tradition that I find very moving and beautiful. We liked the proportion of the toys, which is why we decided to produce only brooches for Noah’s Ark. That allowed us to have a collection in a single, uniform scale with miniature pieces that gave us a greater freedom of interpretation than we would have had, had we added pendants or earrings to the collection.
How did you present the Noah’s Ark collection?
The collection needed an interesting scenography to turn the exhibition of the pieces into a real experience. I had been a fan of Bob Wilson’s for a long time, and was aware of his modern, timeless environments, his work in representing animals, and his precise use of light. He had not worked with jewelry before but was intrigued. When it was completed, his scenography was enjoyed equally by jewelry experts, theater lovers, and by five-year-olds who were mesmerized by the show and the animal-inspired jewelry pieces. Since opening in Paris in 2016, the show has traveled around the world, and it will soon open in China.
Would you define yourself as a curator in the field of jewelry?
High jewelry is really a form of art, and a subcategory of the decorative arts. I am not an art curator but I am familiar with curated art shows, and I understand the importance of a great experience created around a presentation. An art exhibition with a great scenography can transcend the quality of the works. The same works can make for a dull, academic exhibition. The same is true for jewelry. We try to create magical environments and a fantastic experience around a high jewelry show. Knowing your content, whether it is a painting or a piece of jewelry, and creating an exceptional experience around it, allows the audience to grasp the subject better.
Do you use the same vision for daywear collections like Perlée?
A collection like Perlée is less about storytelling and more about shapes, geometry, the playfulness and humor of the pieces, and the importance of color, all of which give the collection its unique personality. Perlée’s beads can be traced back to the technique of “granulation,” something found in antique Egyptian or Greek jewelry, from the Middle Ages to the 19th century, in the form of tiny beads of gold soldered to create abstract or figurative shapes. Van Cleef & Arpels revived the motif in the early 20th century. Today, we play with the beads’ accumulation and their size. You will also find them framing the quatrefoil shapes in the Alhambra collection.
What artist collaborations do you have in the pipeline?
We will be reconnecting with the world of ballet with a new collaboration with [French dancer and choreographer] Benjamin Millepied, to be unveiled in July in time for our new high jewelry collection. We will also be showing a collaboration with Lorenzo Mattotti, an artist and illustrator with a strong colorful universe.
An exhibition of Van Cleef & Arpels’ patrimonial collection will open at the Palazzo Reale in Milan in November 2019. It is curated by Alba Cappellieri, a prominent specialist from the Jewelry Museum of Vicenza, who will show our pieces with references to Italian poetry and literature. The scenography will feature the lighting work of Johanna Grawunder, an American artist and designer whose work I admire. It will be an interesting confrontation of her vision with our own world of light and color.
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