PARIS — Nicolas Bos is the definition of a gentleman.
Though the temperature in Paris was a withering 35 degrees Celsius, or 95 Fahrenheit, the dapper executive did not flinch at the suggestion of having his portrait taken on the balcony outside his office near the former Paris Stock Exchange.
Nor does he measure his time when discussing Van Cleef & Arpels, the jewelry brand he has run as chief executive officer since 2013, after previously serving as its creative director and head of North America.
A veteran of parent company Compagnie Financière Richemont SA, the 46-year-old was promoted to the group’s board in November in a management shakeup that saw Johann Rupert, Richemont’s executive chairman and shareholder of reference, eliminate the position of ceo in favor of a collective management effort.
Amid an overall revenue decline of 4 percent in the fiscal year ending March 31, jewelry was a high point for Richemont, with sales rising 7 percent at constant exchange, compared with a 15 percent drop for watches. Jewelry sales totaled 4.16 billion euros, representing 39 percent of group revenues.
In a deep, resonant voice that belies his boyish appearance, Bos discussed topics ranging from navigating change to how Van Cleef maintains its sparkle through education initiatives and sponsorship of the arts — an aspect dear to his heart, having started his career at the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art.
WWD: What has being a member of the board of Richemont changed for you?
It was a nice recognition of the singularity and the dynamic of the house, and being able to represent it on the board is a great privilege and responsibility.
The regular board meetings provide an opportunity for interesting exchanges in terms of group strategy, with the shareholder [Compagnie Financière Rupert,] with stakes that differ from the daily issues our houses face. We are developing a very collegiate way of working, so it’s a whole. Everyone has very defined sectors, whether it’s brand sectors, like Cartier or Van Cleef, or activity sectors. It’s a very collective management style. We spend a lot of time together, which is just as well, since we get along pretty well.
WWD: This type of management is quite experimental.
N.B.: For the time being, it works quite well. We’ll see what the future holds, but the chairman [Rupert] is very present. I think he will be paying close attention to any dysfunction. He has set pretty clear rules that everyone is happy to play by, his vision is widely shared. We have all been with the group for quite long periods, we know each other quite well and are also complementary in terms of our approaches.
The advantage with Johann Rupert is that there aren’t 15 layers of communication, which means that what he says during the results presentations for Richemont is roughly the same as what he tells us the morning before and the following Monday. So it’s quite transparent, and in a changing environment, he wanted to have access to several points of view and combinations of expertise and experience. Obviously he supervises everything and there is a classic group structure in place, but for the time being it has served him quite well to tackle thorny topics like the evolution of distribution; the integration of technology, namely connected watches, but beyond that even the future of craftsmanship. There are very tangible issues, such as economies of scale or coordination on retail, real estate and regional development. There are things that require a little more collective thinking, and then there is future development, too, namely research and development. It makes sense to address these together. It takes a little time but for the time being, it’s for a good cause.
WWD: How is hard luxury performing so far this year?
N.B.: We have had quite a good start to the year.
We’ve been experiencing cyclical effects of varying intensity depending on the sector, geographical area and brand. Clearly, watchmaking has been more severely hit, especially in Asia, with a sizable impact on revenues, and various measures have been taken by brands to try to remedy that.
On the jewelry side, we felt the downturn 18 to 24 months ago, as did everyone else. Even if revenues did not fall, we were no longer seeing the kind of growth we had in the past. Jewelry was probably less hard-hit than other businesses because we are less exposed to the more systemic effects linked to wholesale distribution.
In recent months, we have seen a slight improvement in sentiment, but we all know that uncertainty and volatility are the new normal, so you can no longer rely on long cycles.
It varies a lot depending on the country. At Van Cleef & Arpels, we are seeing an improvement in the United States after a fairly morose year. Asia is doing a little better. Business in Mainland China is growing at a healthy clip. In Hong Kong and Macau, where business was very severely affected, there seems to be a stabilization or even a slight improvement. Europe is quite complex, because we have seen a lot of swings linked to terrorist attacks, security concerns and exchange rates — things which are not easy to anticipate. Brexit had a very positive impact on consumer spending in the United Kingdom last year, but that is starting to erode. The performance in France and Italy depends very much on how confident and safe international travelers feel, and I have no idea if that is going to improve and how it is going to improve. There is a lot of uncertainty, but globally we appear to be at least in a phase of stabilization.
WWD: Last year was fairly catastrophic for Place Vendôme in general. Are tourists and high-net-worth individuals starting to come back?
N.B.: It has improved slightly, but again, it’s very uneven. There has been a big drop in groups of wealthy tourists.
There are lots of different types of visitors — individual travelers. There are fewer high-spending Asian tourists than two or three years ago. It’s also linked to exchange-rate variations and other factors. Beyond the terrorist attacks, I think the issue of safety has been in the spotlight overseas and understandably so, unfortunately, following several attacks on wealthy tourists.
I know the authorities have taken measures, but it takes a little time and that kind of incident always frightens visitors. We are still in a wait-and-see phase.
I haven’t met anyone who has said, “I will never set foot in Europe again, I will never come to Paris again.” But often, they will say, “We’re going to wait until things settle down a little.” People are postponing their trips, so that is something we have to live with.
WWD: What was the theme of your high-jewelry presentation this season?
N.B.: We just previewed to a select group of guests in Japan a collection inspired by the theme of the secret.
All of the pieces in this collection contain a secret: either a mechanism that allows you to reveal or conceal an element, a hidden functionality, or multiple ways of wearing pieces, which is something we enjoy doing, in the vein of the Zip necklace. Here we pushed the idea quite far with some pieces that you can break up into a bracelet or pendant, with detachable elements. There are hidden messages on the back of the pieces, or when you lift one part, you will find a love declaration or a quote.
It’s all about intimacy, because jewelry is not just about what you can see from the outside. There are things only the wearer can enjoy or share with a few loved ones. We like to give even the most precious and exclusive pieces a playful spin. This collection is full of surprises.
WWD: Why did you show the collection in Japan?
N.B.: We organized an event for clients there to coincide with a retrospective titled “Mastery of an Art: Van Cleef & Arpels — High Jewelry and Japanese Crafts,” organized by the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto. It features around 400 pieces from periods drawn from our archives or on loan from private collections. These pieces are shown by themselves or in dialogue with examples of traditional Japanese craftsmanship from the museum’s collections.
WWD: Why was it important for you to have this visibility in Japan?
N.B.: We’ve been operating in Japan for more than 40 years, since 1973. We have quite a large presence and a faithful customer base. The house’s style resonates well in Japan for a number of reasons: its motifs, its interpretation of nature, butterflies, flowers — these are things that dovetail nicely with Japanese culture.
So it’s an important market, and what’s great is that in recent years, Japan has opened up to tourism and become a travel destination for the rest of Asia. It’s become a magnet for customers, tourists or art lovers from the region — Singapore, China, Hong Kong and the rest of Southeast Asia. So it’s a nice place to organize this type of event.
WWD: How important is experience at Van Cleef & Arpels?
N.B.: For us, the experience is above all the experience of the pieces, whether it’s through an exhibition, a presentation or in-store. We are jewelers first and foremost, so the experience revolves around the stones, the know-how, a craftsperson, a visit to the atelier.
The other way we create experiences is by working off the source of inspiration for our collections.
When we did the Seven Seas collection two years ago, we launched it in Monaco at the Oceanographic Museum.
We try to develop this experience beyond the lucky few that are in contact with the world of high jewelry, with the aim of reaching a much wider audience. That’s why we stage events like the presentation in September of our Noah’s Ark-themed collection, designed by Bob Wilson, which was open to the public. It was the first time we presented a high-jewelry collection in a public exhibition, and we prioritized the members of the public over potential buyers, because the pieces remained on permanent display and at no time did we close the exhibition for clients to try on the pieces.
WWD: Is this something you plan to expand?
N.B.: Yes, we have since taken it to Hong Kong. It has been very successful, and once again we are not talking about potential customers but people who are simply curious and keen to discover the collection. It’s a really interesting dialogue. We are going to bring the installation to New York for two or three weeks at the end of the year, again with Bob Wilson.
WWD: What’s in it for you?
N.B.: There’s quite a lot in it for us, beginning with maintaining the relevance of our activity. Of course, we could produce pieces just for a handful of collectors, but at a certain point, if you are invisible to the rest of society — at least, those who are interested in the artistic process — you risk losing your raison d’être.
The jewelry industry ran that risk in the Eighties and Nineties, when it became a little inward-looking, a little less visible, perhaps a little less creative. You saw less of it in museums and in the press, and it established fewer connections with fashion and design. We have tried to open it up to boost the profile of the category and help foster vocations. Twenty years ago, that was a real question: Will we be able to train a new generation of jewelers and gem-cutters?
So it’s a general halo effect, and for the house specifically, investing in education as we do through L’École des Arts Joailliers (the School of Jewelry Arts) positions us as one of the references in this field. It’s important to us, as is our support for the Jewelry Gallery at Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris. It’s important to show that jewelry is not just selling expensive big stones to very wealthy people, it’s thousands of years of history.
WWD: Do you have any plans to stage overseas events with the school?
N.B.: We have taken it to Japan several times, to Hong Kong twice, returning for a third time this fall, and we’ve taken it to New York, where we held sessions at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, which hosted a retrospective on Van Cleef & Arpels in 2011.
I think it’s important to spotlight creativity, new techniques and the energy of this industry, as well as present private collections. We plan to do that during an upcoming event hosted by the school in Dubai in October.
WWD: Is it the only school of its kind, to your knowledge?
N.B.: There are professional schools that offer more theoretical classes, but we are the only ones that offer the opportunity to spend two or four hours with a jeweler or a gemologist, touch stones and really get a feel for the profession.
WWD: Will you be sponsoring any further ballet performances?
N.B.: We supported an interesting project with Benjamin Millepied recently. He staged a series of performances at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, with his company L.A. Dance Project. There was no audience and it was streamed live on Periscope. We also sponsor the performances program at the Pompidou Center and the Fedora — Van Cleef & Arpels Prize for Ballet, now entering its fourth edition. We also supported the Annual Watermill Center Summer Benefit & Auction organized by Bob Wilson on July 29.
WWD: What is happening with the Paris Biennale, which used to be the world’s biggest showcase for high jewelry?
N.B.: There has been a lot of upheaval in the last year that was not always easy to follow. I think they had some major debates internally on the role and position of jewelers versus antique dealers within the Biennale, and should there be jewelers or not, and how many, and what should be the criteria for selecting them, which did not really come to a successful conclusion.
On top of that, they decided to turn the Biennale into an annual event to keep up with competing events like TEFAF [The European Fine Art Fair], PAD [Paris Art and Design] and Masterpiece, and that changes the nature of the event.
We don’t really want to show a collection in Paris every year at the same date.
We didn’t come to an agreement last year, but we maintain a very good relationship with the organizers and I still think it’s an important event that sheds a positive light on Paris. Last year, we worked with them to bring their guests to our exhibition with Bob Wilson. The School of Jewelry Arts was also on their proposed itinerary. We will very probably remain associates, whether we have a stand at the fair or not.
WWD: There was some talk last year of jewelers splintering off and organizing a separate event.
N.B.: Some people suggested organizing an event dedicated to jewelry but I am absolutely not interested. The whole point of the Biennale is to present jewelry in the wider context of other decorative arts. Without wanting to sound arrogant, we are one of the bigger houses, so we don’t really need a common platform to present our collections.
WWD: What are you doing this September to coincide with the Biennale?
N.B.: We will be presenting an automaton that we unveiled at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva. We will display it in the heritage gallery at our flagship on Place Vendôme, and we have worked on a book with Editions Xavier Barral recounting the history of automatons from Classical Antiquity to today.