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December 6, 2017

Nicolas Bos on Bringing Fairy Tales to Life

By Roberta Naas

This story originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Elite Traveler.

Holding the dual role of CEO and creative director of Van Cleef & Arpels, one of the world’s most respected jewelry and watch houses, is no easy feat, but as Roberta Naas discovers, Nicolas Bos does it with finesse.

Incredibly passionate about jewelry, gemstones and craftsmanship, Nicolas Bos exudes the very essence of the luxury house he heads up. Of course, the 40-something executive has spent the past 17 years of his life with this brand, and even longer with its owner, the Richemont Group.

A lover of art, books and culture, Bos brings a highly spirited sense of being to the brand and combines a rare creative vision with true business acumen. Effectively executing the roles of both creative director and CEO might seem a dichotomy for many — and has in fact failed at other brands — but for Bos and Van Cleef & Arpels, it is a natural fit.

“In a product-driven, creative industry where excellent quality, innovative designs and commercial success really go hand in hand, you have to see this mixing of roles not as a contradiction, but as a necessity,” says Bos. “At the end of the day, when you try to disconnect them, this is usually when you fail or endanger the company. You have to be able to turn the craftsmanship and product into a long-term sustainable business, into a house that will outlive the original designer.”

In fact, Bos says he thinks this management style is very close to the way Van Cleef & Arpels originally approached its business. The company was founded in 1906 by Estelle Arpels and her husband Alfred Van Cleef, who had a vision of what they could bring to the world in the way of creative art and business. Early on, in the first decades of the 20th century, the family not only created exquisite and exceptional jewelry, but also brought their collections to luxury resort destinations their clients lived in or frequented.

“Opening stores was highly unusual for that time,” says Bos. “It demonstrates that they had the creative ideas to satisfy their customers and the business sense to make it successful. This is the way many long-lasting luxury brands managed to succeed.”

Over the years that Bos has been with Van Cleef & Arpels, he has spent a great deal of time researching the founders, the brand’s roots and studying its archives, which he says has given him great insight and advantage in terms of design direction. When Bos first started with Van Cleef & Arpels in 2000 — the year after Richemont’s acquisition of the company — he was named creative and marketing director, and was heavily involved in creation and product development. His good taste and passion for the brand quickly surfaced. Over the years, he has elevated to the top, taking on titles that include president of Van Cleef & Arpels in the US, and global president and CEO.

More important, though, is the fact that the success of the brand has also soared as Bos staunchly upholds the tradition of creativity and excellence for which Van Cleef & Arpels is known.

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“Everything we introduce must express the identity of the house,” says Bos, who insists that blending history and innovation is the only way to propel the brand continually forward. He conceived of the idea of working in collections for high jewelry and of developing stories behind the collections to enhance their allure.

“We have really focused on working only within collections. It is a great way to express the artistic direction of the house, as well as the narrative dimensions. Instead of just creating exceptional pieces, we tie them all
together based on a special inspiration.”

Inspiration for those collections is far-reaching, says Bos. It can be a gemstone, a book, a fairy tale, a painting, a city or even a technical aspect of craftsmanship. Each starting point can be very different, but once the inspiration clicks, the teams
explore the concept in depth and find ways to build a collection that is in keeping with the brand’s tradition.

“Once we have the inspiration, we look to all sources for design direction, from books to pictures, movies and, most of all, the archives.We look at the way the house interpreted animals in the past, and we find new ways to channel that tradition into innovation, but the collection and the story must always recall the patrimony of the house,” says Bos.

Modest when it comes to taking credit, Bos is the person behind some of the brand’s most recent and most successful collections. From inspiration to design interpretation and the stories that go along with each and every collection, Bos is hands-on involved. He is a master of storytelling, and spending time with him and listening to him talk about a single collection will have listeners enraptured. His passion shines through his eyes and his voice has a way of captivating listeners as he imparts stories that tug at heartstrings.

Bos is the man behind the intensely coveted high-jewelry collection unveiled a few years ago that was inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, featuring fairies and whimsical jeweled creatures inspired by the play. Most recently, Bos was inspired by a technical aspect of jewelry and watches, and conceived of the Le Secret collection wherein the craftsmanship of the brand is the highlight. Pieces in this series open in various ways to reveal a secret, or transform in some way, such as a ballerina that converts into a swan.

Another new collection was inspired by a 13th-century painting of Noah’s Ark that Bos had seen in a museum, and the brand developed an entire new collection called L’Arche de Noé around it: giraffes with long, graceful necks, swans with shimmering jewels aloft in flight and more.

“Noah’s Ark beautifully expresses the maison’s imaginary fairy tale universe that we are known for,” says Bos.

While Bos tries to stay as involved as possible in every step of the two to four years it takes to build a collection, he also has several very capable teams to run the business, from design to development, craftsmanship, retail boutiques and more.

“My managers have many years of experience and expertise, and I trust them to carry though,” he says. “On the artistic side, once we have made the decisions about direction, and they understand in detail what my expectations are, then they move forward. It is a very collaborative effort. As I make decisions along the way, it is very important that I always explain those decisions. When I make a decision as to design, for instance, I cannot just say ‘I like this, I don’t like that’ because I am not here to express my taste.”

“I am here to ensure the continuity of the brand and I owe it to the people in front of me to tell them why I feel a project works or doesn’t work — pointing out our tradition, our disciplines. If you make a decision, you have to explain your reasoning behind it, or you are not making any progress for the future.”

Bos spends a great deal of his time traveling, not only to boutique openings and other events, but also between the brand’s watchmaking facilities in Geneva and the jewelry workshops in France. Van Cleef & Arpels has its own haute joaillerie workshops in Paris, where more than 50 artisans are based, and also works with a vast network of independent workshops nearby, many of whom the brand has worked with for nearly 100 years. While his team coordinates and monitors all of the aspects of that business, Bos remains highly involved.

Smitten with the brand’s incredible prowess at jewelry and watch design and craftsmanship, Bos developed a concept for a school that would offer insight into what goes into creating a piece of jewelry from Van Cleef & Arpels. Not a formal jewelry-making training school, L’École des Arts Joailleries opened five years ago, and is perhaps the world’s first introductory school for the general public. Located in the heart of Place Vendôme in an 18th-century mansion, L’École aims to unveil the fascinating world of Van Cleef & Arpels via hands-on demonstrations, educational seminars and more.

With so much beauty already surrounding him, Bos says that his single biggest challenge now is continuity — and that, he says, is also his biggest accomplishment.

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