Two left hands and a butterfly

The "Ecole des Arts Joailliers" on Place Vendôme has been teaching the art of jewellery making to everyone for 10 years. Mademoiselle Lili has attended a class.

Well, I won't be a Junichi Hakose in this lifetime. The Japanese is probably the most famous master of Urushi, the Japanese lacquer art. He is so skilled and creative that his country has declared him a living cultural heritage. For Van Cleef & Arpels, he has been creating the "lacquered butterflies" for years, more works of art than brooches, unique and valuable collector's items. His artistic butterflies take six months to a year of work: each of the 30 or so layers of lacquer alone takes a week to dry.

So the bar is set pretty high when I have to come up with a design for my butterfly wings myself, which should be doable in two hours. In front of me: mother-of-pearl slivers, red and blue varnish and real gold dust, which I later have to spread with tapping fingers on a black pre-painted metal blank. The last time I held a pen and brush, the word SMS was not yet known and I wore perm. Back then I was actually quite skilled at it, but dexterity is not like riding a bike or swimming, which you never forget.

It gets even more difficult in the metal workshop: I am presented with a second brass blank. I have to saw off the remnants, smooth the edges with a file and polish it. So far, so good. Then it's down to the nitty-gritty: a pattern is to be worked into the metal with a milling cutter. I try to fix the figure, which is only four centimetres tall, on the wooden bolt with one hand and use the other to operate the milling cutter, which keeps slipping off and sending the butterfly flying through space in a high arc.

What I learn in the four-hour course "From French Jewellery to Japanese Lacquer Technique"? Humility. And respect for a highly sophisticated craft that is usually overshadowed by the sparkling high-carat pieces in the showcases at Place Vendôme. The world of haute joaillerie is a category of luxury that is actually only accessible to a tiny elite. With this school, Van Cleef & Arpels has set out to make the secret world behind the astronomically expensive jewellery accessible to everyone.

The jewellery house has now been running the "Ecole des Arts Joailliers" for ten years. The school offers over 40 courses in the various disciplines of jewellery - from craftsmanship to stone lore and jewellery history, including changing exhibitions on the subject. In two- to four-hour classes in French or English, they teach anyone who wants to know more about the work behind the precious jewellery that made the house so popular with queens and film stars.

Photo by Yura Timoshenko on Unsplash

Once you have tried it with your own hands, you change your view of jewellery forever. And really understands how much art, knowledge and skill is behind the craft. At the end of the course I get a diploma, along with my two bumbling butterflies and the realisation manifested in them that I'm better off continuing to write about jewellery than making it. It was still fun - and the next course is already booked: I will be introduced to gemmology.

Everything you need to know about L'ÉCOLE, School of Jewelry Arts, as well as its programme and booking options, can be found here: