Jewellery Making 101 with L’École, School of Jewellery Arts

Gordon Lam at the L’École, School of Jewelry Arts

A day spent in class at the Van Cleef & Arpels school of jewellery and watchmaking in Paris, properly called L’École, School of Jewelry Arts, is a rare pleasure. After the hectic Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie annual watch fair in Geneva in January, #legend was invited to spend a few leisurely days in Paris with the team from Van Cleef & Arpels Hong Kong. Some well-deserved relaxation was much needed, although the prospect of going back to school was daunting.

Our first evening in Paris was certainly a relaxing one, devoted to dinner at Rech, the famous seafood restaurant run by Alain Ducasse. The super-attentive, flamboyant maître d’hôtel was the highlight. This extraordinary, larger-than-life personality made our evening special by repeatedly questioning my wearing sunglasses in the restaurant. He had insufficient English and I had insufficient French for a proper conversation, so we depended on gestures and mime to communicate. The comical episode provided our little party of Hong Kong journalists with their entertainment for the evening – quite apart, that is, from the fantastic food.

The next day was back-to-school. At L’École, School of Jewelry Arts, which occupies an 18th century mansion in Place Vendôme, we were led straight to the high jewellery workshop, where the Van Cleef & Arpels artisans work their magic, making dreams come true. Watching examples of some of the jeweller’s most iconic pieces take shape before our eyes was surreal. At each artisan’s station, their tools and machines, suited to the individual needs and skills of each, are laid out. Diamonds and other precious stones are everywhere. The artisans are not only superb craftsman but also watchful guard dogs, never losing sight of 
any diamond lest it go astray.

L’École's tools of the trade

After lunch at the Park Hyatt Hotel, we returned to the school, where we were welcomed warmly in the lounge by the head of the school, Marie Vallanet-Delhom, and treated to beautiful aperitifs before our class began. Our programme indicated that the lessons would cover the initial and final stages of the process of making jewellery, starting by teaching us how to model a piece of jewellery in wax and finishing by teaching us techniques for setting stones. The programme sounded very technical.

We trooped upstairs and donned crisply starched white coats bearing the badge of the L’École, School of Jewelry Arts, which made us look more like a set of highly trained artisans than a bunch of amateurs. We assembled in the teaching workshop, which looked like a clinical laboratory. We may have been amateurs but we were also keen learners and since each of us represented a different Asian publication, we set about learning the rudiments of the jeweller’s craft in a competitive spirit.

A look at what the complex skeleton behind a piece

Our party was split into two groups of four. My group began by learning how to chisel and file wax to make a model for a piece of jewellery – in this case a bejewelled butterfly –shaping the model symmetrically. Then we learned how to mark where each precious stone should go and how to drill the holes that would receive the gems.

Shaping a wax butterfly jewellery model

It was no easy task. It must take years of practice to do it right. My first attempt was far from brilliant but at least passable. Even allowing that I am the fiercest critic of my own efforts, I cannot see myself lasting even one day in the job should a jeweller ever be rash enough to employ me. Artisanry is no occupation for me.

For the next two hours we learned techniques for setting stones. We were given instruction in two methods employed by the school: bezel setting and prong setting. We practised these methods using real diamonds and other precious stones.

Learning to set stones

I discovered that I was quite good at setting gems, which instantly lifted my confidence from zero to 100. I can imagine myself setting gems all day long, day after day. Or maybe I just love playing with expensive diamonds. I may even ask Van Cleef & Arpels for a job one day.

 L’École School of Jewelry Arts certified

Attending L’École, School of Jewelry Arts, even if only for a day, was an experience worth every minute invested. We were presented with certificates of our achievements and got to take home the wax butterflies we made. My only regret is that we didn’t get to keep the crisply starched white coats or the diamonds.

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