One of the joys of Paris is running across little treasures that escape the itineraries of most tourists, and even some Parisians.
One such ‘hidden gem’ is the Van Cleef and Arpels jewelry school, located just off the Place Vendome in the well-heeled 1st arrondissement.
Here, aspiring artisans come to learn their craft from the masters. Van Cleef and Arpels have been around since 1906, providing earrings, rings, necklaces, and brooches to a veritable Who’s Who of royalty–Hollywood and otherwise–as well as to just plain very rich people.
The school is located on a small street, around the corner from the boutique’s showroom on the Place Vendome. The really neat thing about it is the exhibitions they have, which you can check out HERE.
My wife and I visited our first exhibition last year. The Aga Khan had commissioned Van Cleef and Arpels to create boxes, cigarette cases, and all sorts of glittery little things for his wife. They were married for more than 50 years, if I remember correctly, and they loved each other passionately. The breathtaking collection–small but dazzling–was a unique testament to what can be created when world class craftsmen are sent to work with an unlimited budget.
The second exhibition we saw was entitled Birds of Paradise, I believe. It was so named because all of the pieces in the collection were bejeweled birds, from elegant ruby and gold-feathered humming bird and yellow-diamond and sapphire parrot brooches to a comical lapel pin of a exuberant duck, wearing sunglasses, on speeding downhill on a pair of snow skis.
The exhibitions are free. The atmosphere of the school–where you can enjoy small classes and seminars on a wide range of subjects relating to jewels and jewelry–is a mix of anticipation and restraint. The students there are a thoughtful bunch, but the passion they exude for their craft is a joy to be exposed to. The small series of rooms where the exhibitions are held is well-lit and well-arranged.
If you have the budget and the interest, inquire about the private tours of the workshops where the artisans create these off-the-charts pieces. The private tours not inexpensive, but I understand it is a truly memorable experience.
You’ll probably spend 30 to 45 minutes strolling, gawking, and drooling over the pieces on display at the exhibition. If you go around lunch time, know that there’s a good cafe–the Royal Vendome–right across the street, and a couple of hipper eateries and bakeries nearby.
Yes, jewelry is extravagant and maybe even wasteful. But the way Van Cleef and Arpels does it, it’s also awe-inspiring. I probably won’t be the first person to say that they’re creating fine art you can wear.
So come visit. Enjoy. Pick up a brochure of the exhibition on your way out. Be prepared to be disappointed, though: nothing in print–or any photos taken with your phone–will compare to seeing these fabulous jewels in person.
Sorry. That’s just the way it is with masterpieces.