Van Cleef & Arpels Opens Second Paris School of Jewelry Arts and Exhibition Space

Van Cleef & Arpels’ latest gem is measured in square feet rather than carats, with the opening of a second campus of L’École, School for Jewelry Art in Paris.

“We were looking to expand L’École because it was a very strong success,” said the School of Jewelry Arts’ president Lise Macdonald, who previously managed the jeweler’s heritage department after experiences at UNESCO and as an associate director of the Singapore-based ArtScience Museum.

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“The capacity for our exhibitions was always quite [limited] and we wanted more space, in a location that wouldn’t be too far away,” she continued. “It needed to be related to the world of culture, of lapidaries, to cultural life and museums — and ideally also a place that wasn’t as [intimidating] as Place Vendôme.”

Located at 16 bis Boulevard Montmartre, in the heart of the Grands Boulevards area famous for its theaters, gemstone dealers and covered passages, a handsome 18th-century town house that is among the oldest built in the area fit the bill.

And Van Cleef & Arpels didn’t just find any home for this new 14,000-square-foot campus that includes more than 8,500 square feet of exhibition spaces, classrooms and even a library called “L’Escarboucle” (or carbuncle, in English), an old-fashioned term formerly given to rubies and dark red garnets that’s also used in heraldry to describe stylized gemstones.

Tucked behind a neoclassical facade on the buzzing thoroughfare, the second Parisian outpost of the school has taken residence in the Hôtel de Mercy-Argenteau, a historical building that had never been open to the public.

While it was built in 1778 for banker Jean-Joseph de Laborde, the building owes its name to its first inhabitant. Count Florimond de Mercy-Argenteau was a diplomat credited with brokering the marriage between France’s heir to the throne Louis and Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria, better known as Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette.

The nobleman, who served as Austria’s ambassador to the French court, was also entrusted with the queen’s jewelry case during the French royal family’s ill-fated flight to Varennes, which would seal their fate. He would then pass the jewels, which included a pair of diamond bracelets, to the executed queen’s family.

“We didn’t know the story before we came here and decided to research it,” Macdonald said. “It was a lovely connection.” Published in December, a 128-page bilingual tome highlights some of the stories these freshly renovated walls could tell.

Given the building’s status as a listed monument, the renovation took a few years to bring installations up to museum standards, under the watchful eye of France’s historic monuments bodies.

“The intervention in terms of contemporary design is very light touches and always integrated into the existing building without touching any kind of architectural details that are part of the historical site,” Macdonald said.

This counterpoint to the painstakingly restored stately rooms, all gilded wood paneled salons and stately windows overlooking the busy Parisian thoroughfare, was entrusted to French interior architect and designer Constance Guisset.

For its first exhibition, the school is nodding to its location in the heart of the theater district with “Stage Jewels of the Comédie-Française.” Curated by Agathen Sanjuan, the former director of the Comédie-Française’s Museum-Library, it runs until Sept. 1.

What might surprise is that there are few, if any, pieces by Van Cleef among the 120 items that range from stage accessories such as a gilt-metal laurel crown worn for a staging of “Britannicus” and donated by Napoléon Bonaparte to a brooch made by René Lalique in honor of famed actress Sarah Bernhardt.

“We love jewelry in this house. [It] is not an accessory, a category like any other,” said Nicolas Bos, the president and chief executive officer of Van Cleef & Arpels, who now also serves as group CEO of its parent Compagnie Financière Richemont, ahead of the school’s opening.

“That’s why we created the school. The history of jewelry that goes from prehistory to today is something we are steeped in and we like to promote far beyond our own work,” continued the executive. “We believe that jewelry is a category of history of art, with an extremely rich history, a succession of heritage and resonance between periods, designers.”

Special care had been taken in the scenography to ensure that the building’s features remained visible. “We decided to make an exhibition design that would actually allow visitors to look at the existing architecture,” she said.

Now that the Mercy-Argenteau location is open, the existing school on Rue Danielle Casanova will close for a refresh that’s expected to last between six and eight months.

When it reopens, the school will in time double the visitor capacity to its exhibitions — currently around 40,000 a year — and extend its classes, but Macdonald is adamant that student capacity remains at current levels.

They currently welcome up to 12 people per session, often with two teachers, and can go up to 25 people for history of art classes.

“The goal is not to lose the very personal interaction we have with our community because it’s something that is our DNA and is the École’s gift [in terms of] education and transmission.”

In addition to the exhibition spaces and classrooms, the Hôtel de Mercy-Argenteau opened up another point of pride for the school: a 10,000-volume library.

With two librarians and a dozen workbenches, it will be open by appointment to students or even anyone with an interest in jewelry to come and peruse these materials.

“Our two campuses in Paris will allow us to reveal this incredible richness and diversity by widening our reach not only to researchers but to families, as well,” declared Élise Gonnet-Pon, managing director of the School of Jewelry Arts for France and Europe. “It is about adding another dimension, featuring books in new spaces and bringing to fruition all the impressive efforts realized since L’École was created in 2012.”

In addition to its Parisian campuses, the jeweler’s educational arm has opened several permanent ones in Hong Kong, Dubai and, most recently, Shanghai, where its latest address is in the former French Concession neighborhood.

Launch Gallery: Inside Paris' Hôtel Mercy-Argenteau, Home to Van Cleef & Arpels' Second L'Ecole School of Jewelry Arts

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