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“Jewelry reflects everything.” So proclaims Paris-based independent art and jewelry historian Paul Paradis. “Jewelry is transversal” – interdisciplinary – and is “linked to fashion, to culture, to power – to whatever the values and beliefs of that culture are.” And if you have even a passing interest in aesthetics, history, culture, and politics, you might be surprised to find how they can all be combined in a single piece of jewelry.
Paul has the privilege of indulging his keen interest in jewelry and art as, among other things, an external professor for the past six years at L’École des Arts Joailliers – The School of Jewelry Arts – supported by the renowned luxury jewelry company Van Cleef & Arpels, whose clients included Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, the Duchess of Windsor, and Farah Pahlavi, for whom it created the Empress Crown, which, with its thirty-six emeralds, the largest of which is ninety-two carats, 105 pearls, thirty-four rubies, two spinels, and 1,469 diamonds, merits its own Wikipedia entry. The crown was worn at the coronation of her husband, Mohammad Reza Shah, in Iran in 1967, during which she was crowned empress.
Paul came upon his expertise in art and jewelry in the circuitous way that life sometimes unfolds. Growing up as the youngest of eight kids in 1970s California, he didn’t hear a lot of talk about things foreign. Those matters were mostly within the purview of diplomats and those whose expertise was international relations.
But the outside world has a way of beckoning to some children, as it did to Paul. From an early age, he was already familiar with the French language; his grandmother was an immigrant from France and he often heard French spoken at home, especially when his mother was angry and shouted at the kids in French, which, I’m thinking, with eight kids, might have provided plenty of French language exposure.
Paul studied French in junior high school, and he later grabbed the opportunity to spend a junior year term in France, where he was assigned the hardship post of Cannes.
Living abroad only whetted Paul’s interest in things international. He had “always wanted to know about other countries,” and he channeled that interest into majoring in international relations (and in music), in undergraduate studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and into getting a master’s degree in European Studies and International Economics at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), one of the elite U.S. institutions with programs in that area and whose famous alumni include CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer and former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
After graduating from SAIS, Paul moved to Paris and took a job at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – the OECD – where for 10 years he advised local authorities in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union on local and regional development strategies.
And then, 9-11 happened, and, as Paul explains, “We were all trying to put things in perspective and we were all traumatized and I asked myself if I wanted to do this for the rest of my life, and I decided, no.” And in deciding what he wanted to do next, he pursued the needed credentials to work in an area in which he’d had a long-time interest, and that was the decorative arts.
He enrolled in the Christie’s Education program in Paris, where he studied French Decorative and Fine Art, with a specialty in 17th- to 19th- century French furniture. This landed him an extended internship position with the Furniture and Decorative Arts Department at Christie’s Paris, which gave him an insider’s look at auction houses and all the work that goes into holding an auction.
This includes researching each piece, discovering its provenance, writing the catalogues, appraising the items, and much more. It is intensive and fast-paced work, but it gave Paul the knowledge and experience he needed to become an art advisor and art historian. He is now a recognized specialist in French furniture and decorative arts, and as an art advisor, he sometimes advises international clients on the acquisition and sale of objects d’art and furniture at public auction and elsewhere. For a couple of years he wrote a column covering the Paris auction world entitled “Paris Art Market Buzz.”
Paul’s professional transition was to include an expertise not only in French furniture, but also in jewelry. As luck would have it, a mutual acquaintance running a cultural mediation agency referred him to L’École des Arts Joailliers, which was looking for an English-speaking art historian/decorative arts specialist to teach at a three-week session of L’ÉCOLE’s traveling program held at the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum in New York City in Spring 2015. They brought Paul into the program, and he and his colleagues taught the offered courses on the history of jewelry. Preparation for this mission was in part how he began developing an expertise in the history of jewelry.
L’École des Arts Joailliers was established in Paris in 2012 because, as Nicolas Bos, CEO of the company, explained, “We heard all the time that our world was very intimidating and secret and it was very difficult to truly learn about it.” The purpose of the school is to open up the world of jewelry to anyone with an interest in it. The school allows students to learn about gems and jewelry, and that includes materials, history, and craftsmanship.
After successfully completing his assignment at L’ÉCOLE’s traveling school in New York, Paul became one of the 40 or so external professors working regularly with L’ÉCOLE, where over the years he has become a specialist on the history of jewelry. In non-Covid times, classes are held at the school on rue Danielle Casanova, which is just around the corner from the jeweler’s showroom on Place Vendôme.
I took an introductory class on gems at the school a couple of years ago because I’d always wondered what the heck jewelers were looking at through their loupe – the little magnifying glass – that they use to closely study a gem. Participants in my class were, as might be expected, from around the world. Some were in Paris on vacation and thought the class might be interesting (it was), and at least one was in Paris to buy jewelry and wanted a little knowledge on which to base a purchase. The atmosphere of the class was relaxed, friendly, and informative, and the subject was made completely accessible. So in that respect, the school has met CEO Bos’s objective.
During non-Covid times, the school holds a full schedule of more than 23 classes and events at its home base, but like every other business, during Covid, it has had to be creative in reaching out to the public. Its monthly “conversations” are now being held online (in addition to a special selection of classes on site in French). Each conversation focuses on a specific jewelry-related topic during which experts discuss carefully selected pieces of jewelry that represent that topic. For example, recent conversations have been on gold and on pearls, and on flowers and sentimental jewels, in which Paul was a presenter.
What draws viewers to these conversations, which have an international audience, is not only the aesthetic beauty and interest of the pieces discussed, and the history and culture surrounding them, but the enthusiasm with which the presenters talk about each piece – an enthusiasm that cannot be faked. Certainly, that is true of Paul, who says, simply, “I love the content.” And he also clearly loves L’ÉCOLE, as well as its staff and its outreach to the public through these conversations.
Besides his private consulting with individuals and with L’ÉCOLE, Paul has also taught at Drouot Formation, the education arm of Drouot, the famed Paris auction house, where he teaches English linked to the art market to students enrolled in the degree program, and for the past six years he has been a cultural guide with a private agency and in that capacity has done private and VIP visits at the Louvre and other Paris venues on his many specialty topics. He also does translations.
According to Paul, L’ECOLE has recently created a conversation on The Art of Brooches, to be presented in the online series at a future date, which brings us back to former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who famously wore brooches on her lapel as a diplomatic tool. When, for example, Albright was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein called her a serpent. A year later, when meeting with Iraqi officials, she wore an antique snake pin. When it came to light that the Russians had bugged the U.S. State Department, she wore a giant bug on her left shoulder the next time she met with the Russians. And to signify the slow progress of the Middle East peace process, she wore a herd of turtle pins. She wrote a book on the subject entitled, Read My Pins, published in 2009. It’s a lively read with great photos.
While it might not seem obvious at first glance, there is in fact an overlap in the personal qualities needed – refinement, discretion, a well-rounded knowledge base – to deal with people in both the diplomatic and policy worlds and the world of fine art and jewelry. Paul straddles both worlds with ease. And, again, while it might not seem obvious at first glance, he explains that “the arts in general are linked to thinking about the wider world.” A piece of jewelry might be small enough to hold in your hand, but you might also be holding a world of history and culture, as well.
Information about upcoming conversations at L’ECOLE, School of Jewelry Arts is available here, where you can also register for the events, which are free and open to anyone interested.
This link is to the YouTube page where you can watch previous conversations and presentations.
These are Paul’s coordinates, should you wish to avail yourself of his considerable expertise and experience as an art and jewelry historian, art advisor, and cultural guide:
If you want to indulge in a little jewelry design and aesthetic therapy, the Van Cleef & Arpels website offers videos that will provide a dazzling diversion.
To view videos of how Van Cleef & Arpels artisans create various pieces, see this link.
The two links below will provide insight – through enticing visuals – of the engineering and design savoir faire needed to create two incredible Van Cleef and Arpels pieces:
To design a “Zip necklace”, see here.
To design the fabulous one-of-a-kind “Automate Fée Ondine” – an automaton of an articulated fairy sitting on an articulated leaf that undulates like a gentle wave – see this link.
If you have any interest in beauty and creativity, and in the astounding engineering and design sophistication needed to produce some pieces, these links are well worth the time.
Lead photo credit : Discover the gemstones at L'ÉCOLE, School of Jewelry Arts. Photo credit: L’École Van Cleef & Arpels