With its Dressage L’Heure Masquée, the Parisian house continues its exploration of the imaginary. With wit and elegance, it toys with the conventions of minutes and hours as few watchmakers have dared to do before.
“In the train recently, another passenger came up to me and asked, curiously, why my watch had only one hand!” Surprise has been a perennial theme of La Montre Hermès. Philippe Delhotal, director of creation and development, could have wished for no better proof of its success than this random encounter ‘in the field’.
It is true: the Dressage L’Heure Masquée, in its default state, shows only the minutes hand. A watch with no hours? What is that all about? But as its name suggests, this is just an illusion, a stratagem, all the better to reveal the time when the wearer deigns to press the push-button.
Like an eel lying in wait under its rock, the hours hand then darts out of its hiding place and delivers its message, before going back to ground behind the minutes hand once the button is released. The waters are muddied; ambiguity reigns once more.
But do we really need to be told the hour at all? Is our biological clock not up to the task? Minutes, after all, have a much more important function than hours. To paraphrase an old proverb, ‘Look after the minutes, and the hours will take care of themselves.’ It is notions such as these that the latest creation of La Montre Hermès invites us to explore, with its trademark humour and elegance. It was unveiled at the last Baselworld and will be available from November in a limited edition: 500 pieces in rose gold and 1000 in steel.
To paraphrase an old proverb, ‘Look after the minutes, and the hours will take care of themselves.’
The watch is both whimsical and egotistical - it allows the wearer to decide when and with whom he will share his time; it swims against the tide of flashy complications, and subverts the secular code of the watch with two visible hands. Philippe Delhotal drew his inspiration for the Dressage L’Heure Masquée from that venerable contraption: the regulator. This ‘mother-clock’, found in the watchmaking workshops of yesteryear, was what the artisans used to set all their timepieces.
They had a particularly unusual feature: a very big minutes hand and a very small hours. “I built on this idea, reducing the size of the hours hand to the point where it disappeared behind the minutes hand, which then pulls the hours hand along in its wake,” explains Philippe Delhotal.
This is by no means the first such creation from the Parisian firm, which has emerged out of its watchmaking centre in Biel since 1978. L’Heure Masquée is the third opus in a saga entitled ‘Le Temps de l’imaginaire’ (Time to Dream), which began in 2009.
Like an addictive American TV series, promising ever more thrilling episodes to come, La Montre Hermès brings out its haute horlogerie creations with metronomic regularity. Every two years we get to see another dreamlike, mischievous and thought-provoking instalment, which never fails to surprise and unbalance. The company patiently weaves a fabric on which to embroider new motifs.
The first episode in the saga, for those who may have missed it, was the Cape Cod Grandes Heures, which placed the usual numbers in unusual places. It provided a way of expressing time as we experience it: those agonisingly endless afternoons, and the frenzy of the early evening. Already, we see Hermès’ desire to break with convention. This critical success nevertheless failed to win over the public - a feeling with which many art house film directors are familiar. However, it was clear from its launch in 2011 that the sequel would be a blockbuster.
- l’Arceau Le Temps Suspendu, the previous episode of Hermès watch saga
As its name suggests, L’Arceau Le Temps Suspendu (Suspended Time) offered a way to step out of time for a minute, an hour or a day. But behind the frozen hands, the heart continued to beat; with a single press, time returned to its ‘normal’ position, and reality was restored. Another striking feature (of the 38 mm version, presented in 2013) was the small seconds hand counting down from 24 (a symbolic number for the institution headquartered at 24, Faubourg Saint-Honoré).
An impressive complication, concealed behind a simple appearance. The technical wizardry was accomplished by Jean-Marc Wiederrecht of Agenhor. His successful transformation of concept into a mechanical watch was rewarded by the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (Men’s Watch Prize). After all the buzz (plus a ladies’ version that appeared in 2013), the bar had been set extremely high. So much for the bestseller, now for writer’s block...
“Our concept had turned into something of a runaway train. It was exciting but frightening at the same time. We had no margin for error. Bringing out a banal watch was not an option,” says Philippe Delhotal.
So in the end, they came up with a ‘mirror’ watch of Le Temps Suspendu, although that was not precisely the original intention.
Where the 2011 vintage ‘loses’ information by stepping outside of time, in the 2014 model the inverse logic applies. The wearer can choose at any time to ‘gain’ information, by calling up the real time. Put simply, Hermès created a watch that doesn’t tell the time. Deliberately.
As with Le Temps Suspendu, the dial has another subtle touch: a second time zone. At rest, the aperture displays only the legend ‘GMT’, revealing the time in the chosen zone, and that of the current location, when the button is pressed.
For Dressage L’Heure Masquée, Hermès called upon Vaucher Manufacture (in which it has a 25% share) to design the movement. It was Takahiro Hamaguchi, head of movement development for the Fleurier-based company, who had the honour, and the daunting task, of designing it.
While Hermès’ creative ideas might be very poetic, they can be challenging to execute. How, in fact, do you hide the hours hand underneath the minutes hand, and make it reappear on demand? This was the brief handed to the Japanese-born watchmaker from Neuchâtel, who arrived in the Jura at the age of 19. He began with a blank page.
Hermès created a watch that doesn’t tell the time. Deliberately.
“We tried a dozen different approaches, but none of them worked out,” explains Takahiro Hamaguchi. The key to the mystery lay in separating the two functions: one mechanism hides the hand, and another displays it. “After that, it was a logical progression.” There are two feeler-spindles on a single rack.
The hours hand is driven by the rack, which continues to collect information from the hours cam, while the friction of the first feeler-spindle allows the hours hand to follow the minutes hand. When the button is depressed, the first feeler-spindle is released, and the second takes over and adjusts for the real hour on the hours cam.
It took around 36 months to develop the Dressage L’Heure Masquée, which is equipped with an H1925 movement. One interesting feature is the small number of components in the module (95, compared with 174 for Le Temps Suspendu).
This is a way of reducing wear in a mechanism that relies on an unusual amount of button-pushing, not to trigger a complication but simply to display the correct time! “We tested its endurance with thousands of shocks,” says Takahiro Hamaguchi. Another noteworthy feature is the slimness of the mechanism - 2.7 mm width is a remarkable achievement for a complication of this type.
The Dressage L’Heure Masquée also embodies the efforts Hermès is making to integrate production. For reference, in 2012 the company bought dial manufacturer Natéber SA, adding case maker Joseph Erard SA in 2013.
Its workforce has doubled in size over the last five years, growing from fewer than 150 to 320 employees. In the basement in Biel, the leather workshops handle alligator, calf, ostrich and kid. The ground floor is set aside for hand stitching. Hermès began its foray into the watchmaking industry as a manufacturer of straps, in keeping with its origins as a harness maker. Little by little, it expanded into other areas of the business. Its rise has been slow but sure, earning it a credibility within the industry that is the envy of other luxury players.
“Today we have internal production capacity for more than 90% of components, if we include Vaucher,” notes CEO Luc Perramond. “It’s just the hands we have to outsource.” The ultimate aim is to build a proper manufacture to produce movements and everything else, which will bring with it an increase in quality. In the last five years alone, the average retail price has jumped from 2,000 to 4,000 euros. Overall, the number of mechanical movements in the Hermès catalogue has doubled, along with the workforce; a third of its timepieces are now mechanical. Over the same period, the proportion of men’s watches has increased from 20% to 40% of the Hermès range.
Perceptions do not change overnight, however. In addition, because of the creative rhythm it has set itself, the brand finds itself constantly battling against the relatively short shelf-life of its unique concept watches in the hearts and minds of the public. Love lasts three years, so they say... Which is why it has decided to satisfy its novelty-seeking audiences’ desires at regular intervals, with products that have a strong emotional component.
Modernisation is on the agenda, particularly at newcomers Natéber SA and Joseph Erard SA. This means more robotisation and revamping workflows for just-in-time delivery rather than organising by métier. “For a long time, case making has been something of a bottleneck for watchmaking. We are trying to bring down order lead times from nine months to just one. This will give us greater flexibility: we will no longer be obliged to exhaust our stocks, and we will be able to adjust production immediately, according to fluctuations in demand,” says Luc Perramond.
And, as many other brands have experienced, demand in 2014 is proving erratic. The main culprit seems to be the ‘correction’ in the Chinese market after years of spectacular growth, caused largely by restrictions on business gifts. “We are looking for new outlets.
Japan is experiencing a resurgence: abenomics, coupled with the weakness of the yen, have given watch consumers greater confidence. Our sales there grew 30% last year. We are also looking at South-East Asia, from Singapore to Vietnam, and of course Europe. We remain the market leader in France, which is still our biggest market, but Italy is also growing, as are Switzerland and the United Kingdom.”
La Montre Hermès, whose mother company’s share battle with LVMH has just reached a conclusion, will also be turning its attention to North America, where development is strong. The company as a whole is doing very well there, and the watchmaking division intends to make the most of it.
“The United States also has the most dynamic e-commerce platform. Sales from our online store are comparable to those of a decent-sized boutique. We made the most of Chinese euphoria; next stop America,” explains Luc Perramond. In order to accomplish this, La Montre Hermès will be relying on a finely-tuned catalogue, a “more feminine, more precious” strategy, “which will also include some exceptional pieces.”
With all its internal resources, Hermès is not short of ideas: the Cristalleries de Saint-Louis, for instance, were used to create the magnificent dial of the Arceau Millefiori, a series limited to 24 pieces in each model. And humour is never far away, as in the Médor watch, inspired by a dog collar. “For the Dressage L’Heure Masquée we are targeting a more mature audience,” notes Philippe Delhotal. “Some of our clients are also collectors. Therein lies the difficulty: how do we avoid disappointing collectors, while continuing to delight our regular customers? We are the House of Paradox!”
Source: Europa Star October - November 2014 Magazine Issue