Hidden Gem: 10 Years of L’ÉCOLE, School of Jewelry Arts

This article is brought to you by L’ÉCOLE Asia Pacific.

It has been ten years since Maison Van Cleef & Arpels opened L’ÉCOLE School of Jewelry Arts just around the corner from Paris’ jewel-like Place Vendôme. That’s ten years of educating the public about jewellery – ten years of demystifying something universal yet intimidating to so many people. “L’ÉCOLE means fulfilment to me,” says Marie Vallanet-Delhon, the school’s founder and president. “I am blessed to be able to use all the skills I developed during my educational and business experiences, and to apply them all to helping this school to grow and blossom.”

There are a number of museums with large collections of jewellery, including the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. But there were few places where people could learn about the history of jewellery while also gaining hands-on experience in the field. That’s what L’ÉCOLE set out to do by offering a mix of practical courses, dazzling exhibitions and lectures on jewellery theory. The school isn’t afraid of being technical or of using high-tech equipment, but its goal isn’t to train professional jewellers. Its mission is broader: to introduce the public to this vast field, opening up the different ways in which jewellery can be appreciated and understood. 

There were countless angles of discovery: the human quest for beauty and adornment, the history of fashion and societal changes, how historical developments in the world affect style. The response to the courses revealed a deep-seated curiosity among the general public, who were keen to learn more about jewellery and its culture, not just as potential customers, but also as interested observers. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been surprising. After all, jewels’ power of seduction needs no explanation: they have been protagonists of so much art and literature, not to mention history and science, and we are used to associating it with our favourite films and film stars. 

But the very things that make jewellery so compelling can also make it feel unapproachable. “Jewellery can be intimidating, even if it arouses a lot of curiosity and interest,” says Élise Gonnet-Pon, Managing Director of L’ÉCOLE Asia Pacific, School of Jewelry Arts. That may be especially true in Hong Kong, whose museums have no dedicated jewellery departments. That’s partly what motivated L’ÉCOLE’s decision to open its first permanent campus outside of Paris 3 years ago in K11 MUSEA, a new complex overlooking Victoria Harbour. Designed by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto, the space itself is as precious as a jewel with large windows that let natural light flood in to great effect. 

The location acts in synergy with what is quickly becoming Hong Kong’s own Museum Mile, with the Museum of Art, the M+ museum of visual culture, and the soon-to-open Palace Museum stretching along the harbourfront from Tsim Sha Tsui to West Kowloon. The thirst for knowledge, for culture, and for arts that is so obvious in Hong Kong was soon evident to the school’s organisers. The interest generated by the courses, exhibitions and talks they offered became overwhelming. “Hong Kong, like Paris, provided a really great response,” says Gonnet-Pon. “All our faculty members are experts, and capable of offering the best scientific accuracy, and are here to transmit their knowledge, with an approach that is both serious and fun.” 

That proved to be just the right cocktail for a place like Hong Kong. The city has long been a very active market for jewellery, with a major annual fair, the Hong Kong International Jewellery Show, that has taken place every spring since 1983. For the past eight years, it has been twinned with the Hong Kong International Diamond Gem and Pearl Show. Together they attracted 90,000 buyers in 2019, before the pandemic; the most recent edition was held in a hybrid format, but there were still 18,000 registered visitors and traders. Beyond the fair, jewellery shops dot the streets of Hong Kong, as people aspire to buy precious ornaments that are also a safe investment – something particularly valued in a city that, through its history of migration, knows how to appreciate portable wealth. 

When L’ÉCOLE Asia Pacific opened its doors, its mission of transmitting knowledge fits perfectly with what many here were eager to acquire. This despite the past three years of protest and pandemic. Despite the challenges, L’ÉCOLE Asia Pacific has managed to hold classes and talks, and put on memorable exhibitions. Classes are offered in English, Cantonese and Mandarin, and the faculty is chosen among the top experts in their sector. Among the shows has been The Art of Gold, 3000 Years of Chinese Treasures, which showcased a tradition of fine goldsmithing works from northern China and Central Asia, in collaboration with local collector Betty Lo, one half of the Mengdiexuan’s collection which she has assembled together with her husband, Kenneth Chu. 

“For me, this was a perfect partnership,” says Lo. “Not only because I was working with [an organisation supported by] one of the most prestigious jewellery makers, but also because we share the same goals and vision, which can be summed up as a strong desire to educate the general public.” She says that many collectors are motivated by a desire to “share their passion through educating the public, and allowing them to see the significance of the items collected, their role in history or in art history.” 

Of particular note was the recumbent stag ornament, cast in gold in the fifth or sixth century in the Eurasian steppe, which is striking both for its stylised simplicity and the highly accomplished technique with which it was crafted. “I was so proud that this was displayed and highlighted so well,” says Lo. “I have acquired it from a dealer in Europe, since golden nomadic art is maybe still more popular in the West than it is in Asia. But it is a very special piece, and L’ÉCOLE gave it a central role: it was on the cover of the catalogue, and in all the images to advertise the exhibition. It appeared everywhere, everybody looked at it, they really used it so well.”

Gonnet-Pon notes that “a piece of jewellery always comes with a meaning, and it doesn’t need to be precious for this meaning to be deep. Our ancestors would use coloured glass or simple materials found in nature to adorn themselves, and it is important to understand this universality, and this very ancient human desire.”

The different campuses cooperate with each other very strictly, with a constant exchange of faculty and travelling exhibitions, including the ongoing Lacloche, Parisian Jewelers, 1892-1967, which was first shown in Paris. After its exhibition in Hong Kong last year, the Mengdiexuan collection will now make its way to Paris, offering a taste of the craftsmanship and artistry of the ancient nomadic populations who lived outside of the Great Wall of China. The approach is the same throughout the schools, starting from an overwhelming passion for jewellery and everything that surrounds it, and a strong enthusiasm in the value of transmitting this knowledge and savoir faire, expressed in the school’s educational mission. In 10 years, more than 100,000 people have walked through the doors of L’ÉCOLE to see its exhibitions and listen to its talks, and there are already more than 15,000 alumni around the world. 

Hong Kong’s branch of the school was meant to be the first in a network across Asia Pacific. It will also expand to Shanghai to offer classes and showcase exhibitions. True to its desire to adapt to the different cities in which it settles, L’ÉCOLE has set up an official WeChat account to facilitate communication with the Mainland Chinese public. Joining this latest campus are travelling schools that will visit Japan, the Middle East, the United States, and Lyon. Ten years after L’ÉCOLE got its start, it’s clear that jewellery is a universal language.Lacloche, Parisian Jewelers, 1892-1967 can now be experienced in a 360-degree digital viewing. You can follow your visit with a live online quiz at 7pm on April 28, 2022 to win prizes ranging from a gift certificate for a jewellery class to a prestigious dining experience in Hong Kong. Visit L’ÉCOLE Asia Pacific’s website for the latest updates.

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