Élise Gonnet-Pon, the boss lady of L’École Asia Pacific, School of Jewelry Arts, shares her tips on building a successful career and more.

While the world of haute joaillerie is fascinating, it can also feel rather intimidating to some. This is why, century-old Parisian jewellery, Van Cleef & Arpels, opened L’École, School of Jewellery Arts: to break down class barriers and to share the brand’s knowledge and know-how to a world way beyond its prestigious clientele.

Following its establishment at the legendary Place Vendôme (which is, of course, the world capital of jewellery and the home of Van Cleef & Arpels) L’École has been journeying across the planet, setting up pop-up campuses in New York, Dubai, Tokyo and, most importantly for us, Hong Kong — the city recently welcoming L’Ecole’s first permanent overseas campus.

Élise Gonnet-Pon, Managing Director of L’École Asia Pacific, School of Jewelry Arts

The person assigned to make all the decisions not only in Hong Kong, but for all that happens in this part of the world is Élise Gonnet-Pon, Managing Director of L’École Asia Pacific, School of Jewelry Arts. With an impressive resume from a masters degree on Luxury Brand Management from one of France’s top leading Business Schools, ESSEC, to her qualification as a gemologist, overseas experiences in Asia, and language fluency in four languages including French, English, Japanese and German, Élise Gonnet-Pon has worked her way up to secure multiple top positions at Van Cleef & Arpels since 2002, and her achievements are certainly no less than her skillset.

We sat down with Gonnet-Pon to learn more about her views on the key to success, the importance of teamwork and why the jewellery world should be a universal dialogue.

Tell us more about yourself. What have you always aspired to be growing up?

Well, actually I’ve always been interested in creative things, you know, colours, design, so as a little girl my very first dream job was to be a florist, and then fashion designer, but ultimately I got very inspired by those that involved creativity, style, craftsmanship, elegance. When I got the opportunity to work at the maison of Van Cleef & Arpels that kind of ticked all the boxes, especially when it’s something meaningful and long lasting.

You’ve held one of the top jobs at Van Cleef & Arpels’ marketing department and now lead L’École in all of Asia Pacific, what do you think is the key to building a successful career?

To be very curious and always open to what you can learn from others.

What is it like working at Van Cleef & Arpels? What has been the biggest takeaway?

It’s fantastic teamwork. Jewellery at large is actually all about teamwork, from the initial idea of the design and all the different artisans with golden hands involved in the art of jewellery making and the expertise of the gemologist.

This passion of sharing and working as a team is what prevails, and I think it’s quite natural that L’École, School of Jewelry Arts is established and created by Van Cleefs & Arpels because there is this strong spirit of sharing and transmission.

Knowledge and skills have been passed on from the master jewellers to their apprentices at the workshop for generations, and that is why more than a century later the maison still offers craftsmanships such as the Mystery Setting that was created in the 1930s, and the Zip necklace with its technical colours.

It's interesting that you stress upon the importance of teamwork, as many leaders in high up positions such as yours may think they're the decision-makers, and everyone else should just follow along.

You shouldn’t make decisions without a team (laughs), things don’t just happen. This is really an experience I think.

 

L’École Asia Pacific, School of Jewelry Arts
L’École’s first permanent overseas campus in Hong Kong campus at K11 Musea.
What gave birth to the idea of opening a jewellery school?

Jewellery is a creative art form, and at Van Cleef & Arpels we’ve always worked with artists and take inspiration from the arts for our jewellery pieces. In fact, in 1925, there was an exhibition in Paris called The Decorative Arts that gave birth to the name ‘decorative arts’. There, the maison of Van Cleef & Arpels and other jewellery houses showcased their master pieces to the general public beyond just the clientele, so the idea of L’École was to kind of go back to this quite open and general sharing of showcasing the master pieces not just to the wealthy people who can afford to collect these beautiful creations, but also to have the general public to appreciate it just like you would appreciate art. When you go to a fair or museum you get to understand and discover, and the more you get to know the more you can appreciate and want to discover more.

What are the major challenges of starting L’École in Hong Kong, and what is your proudest achievement so far?

I must say we have been quite impressed. L’École first came to Hong Kong a little over six years ago, and there is this amazing learning appetite that we have encountered time and time again with our travelling editions and also more recently.

As you know, recent events have been quite challenging for us — we opened on 11 November — but with the team we chose to maintain our cultural programs, and actually they were extremely well-received. We had a full attendance from our courses to our evening conversations which were dedicated to the Precious Art Deco Objects exhibition that you have previously seen.

I think what strikes me the most is the energy and this optimism of the people here, who are always willing to open up and get to learn and discover more, which is what we’re here for.

L’École in Hong Kong is the first permanent overseas campus outside of Paris, did you have to make any adjustment to the courses to cater to the audience in this part of the world?

Actually, the courses are the same in Paris and Hong Kong. We’ve translated them into Cantonese, and we offer students the option to use interpretation devices as we really aim to reach out to the widest audience. And for the catalogue, we like to have it bilingual, like you would find in museums here in the city. Other than that, the core content is the same.

I would say that thanks to the questions and the knowledge of our local teachers and lecturers, we get to find out more about some jewellery trends or specific techniques or period of time that enable us to enrich the courses in both Paris and Hong Kong.

So it's a unified syllabus.

Yes, actually what’s quite nice is that whether it’s in Paris or Hong Kong, or when we travel to the world from New York to Dubai and Tokyo, we’ve learnt a lot from the questions of the students and participants.

This enables our art historians or scientific team to go more into research and to adjust. It is important for us to draw parallels between the historical timeline of European history, Western history and China and Asia’s milestone dates and dynasties, so there can really be a universal dialogue.

What’s fantastic is there is a fabulous jewellery heritage in the region, which opens a lot of ideas and endorses more contents for us to share not only with our participants here but also the rest of the world. There are many things that are yet to be discovered, or re-discovered.

’École Asia Pacific, School of Jewelry Arts
“It is important for us to draw parallels between the historical timeline of European history, Western history and China and Asia’s milestone dates and dynasties, so there can really be a universal dialogue.”
Can you share an example? Something that you've discovered in Hong Kong?

Yes, when I first moved to Hong Kong over a year ago, I had the pleasure to visit a beautiful exhibition called Jewels of Transcendence, it was a showcase of a private collection of jewellery from Himalaya and Mongolia, and the craftsmanship of these pieces are just exquisite. I had absolutely no idea that there would be such refined jewellery pieces in these regions in the world.

Of course there are ornaments everywhere, and women have worn talismans and ornaments since the very beginning of mankind, so the styles and the techniques and the traditions of jewellery are specific to each region, and even province, tribe or ethnic group. This is the beauty of it: There is so much more out there to research and study!

Why is it so important for L’École and Van Cleef & Arpels to share its knowledge to the world, instead of keeping your century-old expertise behind closed doors?

This is a living heritage; if you talk about it and if you get people to know more and understand more, this art will be protected in a way and can sustain and lead to more creativity. What we do at L’École is of course we like to celebrate the heritage of jewellery, but also the contemporary expressions of jewellery with more eclecticism and diversity. You should stay tuned because our next exhibition will be on a contemporary artist who will exhibit in Hong Kong for the first time.

L’École Asia Pacific, School of Jewelry Arts
“This is a living heritage; if you talk about it and if you get people to know more and understand more, this art will be protected in a way and can sustain and lead to more creativity.”
You’re also a gemologist, and enjoy ballet and opera and also wining and dining, do you think it’s helpful to have a personal interest and lifestyle that is also related to your line of work?

Yes, of course, and arts are so important not only to jewellery but also to life in general. This is all about experiences to me and being inspired by all these things, be it performance arts or music. It’s really all about the senses, and jewellery in a way speaks to many of them. Of course, you would think about the eyes and the hands, but we actually had an evening conversation where we talked about Truffles and Gems, so the tastes, too, sometimes. There’s also the listening skills, as for us it’s very important that the learning process goes through human interaction. We have courses in very small groups of students per class (eight to 12) with two to four teachers depending on the topic, and even for exhibitions we always have art historians to guide the visitors, as we believe you would always get something more when you exchange and learn from someone.

Is there anyone who really inspired you throughout your career?
I’m grateful to have encountered many people during my career who have and continue to inspire me. That include the teaching staff here at L’École — from the jewellers to art historians, gemologists and more — all of whom are experts in their own fields. It’s fascinating to watch them interact with students during classes and break time.
Any advice for people looking for professional success?
It is very important to be passionate about the field that you choose, and to be constantly curious and have the desire to take on new challenges. All of the teachers at L’École are extremely enthusiastic about jewellery arts and transmitting their know-how, and we hope that our students can too be inspired by their passionate spirit.
What’s one thing you know now that you wish you had known at the start of your career?

Be patient and be open to new opportunities.

Cindie Chan
Style Editor
Fashion blogger turned editor, Cindie has spent over seven years covering all things stylish in the digital world. When she’s not busy poring over the latest covetable releases or attending the most talked-about fashion events in town, you’ll find her enjoying some precious downtime with her newborn son and sweet dog Rosy.