If we could retain only one main thematic trend seen during the SIHH in Geneva, we would have to choose “métiers d’art” (artisanal craft skills). Never have art and artisanal crafts been featured so prominently as they were during this recent show: enamel in all its forms, miniature painting, stone-setting, several rare crafts such as marquetry with straw, hard stones, and mosaics, miniature sculpture on mother-of-pearl, and Etruscan granulation. Even more remarkable, we are witnessing a fusion of these different techniques, with examples, among others, of miniature painting on sculpted mother-of-pearl.
Another important and notable observation is that the mechanical revolution seems to still have a bright future ahead of it, even if we can sometimes wonder about the relevance of some of its exploits. Mechanical timekeeping is nearly a Métier d’Art, and its chronometric utility is sometimes inversely proportional to its complexity, giving the impression that the mechanical has become decorative in and of itself. Yet, from this level to the merely gratuitous is sometimes only a small step.
Let’s talk specifically about a few of these pieces, although we will not, however, neglect other propositions, those which may be less notable on the outside but whose inner workings may be superior.
Cartier’s impressive war machine
With a total turnover largely exceeding CHF 4 billion (of which watchmaking alone accounts for 40 per cent), Cartier is the undisputed flagship of the Richemont Group. A veritable war machine, Cartier made a very impressive show of force this year. And, it has branched out in all directions: high jewellery, fine mechanical, revisited icons and métiers d’art.
In the métiers d’art category, the Paris house presented nine pieces, bringing together eight different techniques under the banner “Wild Colours of Cartier”. Among them are several rare skills, such as micro-engraving (five small panthers chase each other on the dial), cameos carved in agate, grisaille enamelling, plique-à-jour enamelling and even Etruscan granulation. Rarely used, this decorative technique was practiced by the Etruscans in the middle of the 8th century BC, before being replaced by stamping. Granulation consists of heat soldering tiny gold balls with differing diameters, obtained from a gold wire, onto a pre-engraved dial. In all, 3,800 minuscule gold balls make up the portrait of a panther. It is really quite amazing. It is also quite rare when we realise that only one person at Cartier has the skills and expertise to realise such a decorative exploit.
We find this same decorative appetite on the haute horlogerie side of Cartier. Here, however, the amazing movement is what attracts all the attention. In this case, we are talking about the remarkable Rotonde de Cartier Double Tourbillon Mystérieux. Like levitation in a void, the carriage of this flying double tourbillon makes an aerial ballet in two time frames: one complete revolution on its own axis in one min-ute and a second rotation in five minutes. With no apparent connection or gearing, the carriage is moved along on a sapphire disc to which it is attached. The illusion is perfect. We find it again in a simpler form with very pure lines in the Rotonde de Cartier Mystérieuse, where the hour and minute hands float in the void.
If at Cartier, the favourite phrase is “Fabulous Hours”, the term this year at Van Cleef & Arpels is “Extraordinary Dials”, featuring a hunt for butterflies and flying kites. For this pastoral adventure, enamel in all its forms was used—champlevé, extended champlevé, paillonné (on a base of gold foil and translucent enamel), plique-à-jour (stained-glass effect), cabochon (non polished, in volume)—as well as coloured mother-of-pearl, sculpture on mother-of-pearl, marquetry with lapis lazuli, miniature painting, micro-sculpture on gold, guillochage, and stone-setting. This rich panoply finds its most advanced mechanical expression in the Lady Arpels Enchanted Ballerina. The beautiful ballerina is animated by a double retrograde movement. Her tutu rises up in two sections, first on one side to indicate the hours and then on the other side to show the minutes before they both simultaneously move down again. This delicate manner to tell the time is activated on demand using a push-piece located at 8 o’clock. This “Poetic Complication” (an expression trademarked by the brand) was developed by watchmakers at La Fabrique du Temps, an entity, we might add in passing, that was recently acquired by LVMH.
The Temple of Flora
If butterflies, kites and tutus have invaded the dials at Van Cleef & Arpels, it is the floral motif that is dominant at Vacheron Constantin. A noteworthy point this year is that the Geneva manufacture has decided to devote its entire collection of new watches to ladies. This devotion is not new, however, since the first wristwatch for ladies created by Vacheron Constantin dates back to 1889 (although its first ladies’ pocket watches go back to 1810).
This feminisation of the Vacheron Constantin offer essentially rests on a series of known models that have been revisited and set with diamonds, yet always involving the greatest stylistic purity. The Patrimony Contemporaine, Patrimony Traditionnelle and Malte have thus expanded with new timepieces. Very fine workmanship in design and finishing, harmonious sizes, the highest respect for watchmaking codes, stone-setting ranging from a circle of stones on the bezel to the most spectacular full setting, and new manual and automatic movements that are certified by the new version of the Geneva Hallmark (meaning that the control is completed by an operational check of each encased movement) all come together to meet the stated goal of “having ladies’ models with the same reputation as the men’s watches.”
Another feminine collection involving the métiers d’art this year takes the name of “Florilège”. Inspired by illustrations in the book “The Temple of Flora” by English botanist Robert John Thornton, published in 1799, three distinct floral motifs involve enamelling, guillochage, and stone-setting. It must be said that the Geneva brand has mastered, like few others, the delicate play on coloured transparencies that arise from the alliance between extremely subtle guillochage and grand feu cloisonné enamel.
Cubist rock guitars
In the various examples cited above, the inspiration has come largely from the traditional natural world—animals, butterflies, and flowers. Yet, as Vacheron Constantin demonstrated last year with its collection inspired by Escher’s geometric games, as well as the example given by Hermès, the most traditional métiers d’art work marvellously with a more contemporary visual aspect.
At the SIHH this year, only Parmigiani proposed a contemporary approach, in this case, cubist, with dials made of wood marquetry evoking rock guitars whose rosette comprised a tourbillon: the Tonda Woodrock and the Tonda Woodstock. A real success, we encounter this type of very contemporary and “pop” attitude very rarely in the hallowed halls of haute horlogerie.
The fingers of Yohan Blake
Upsetting conventions and proposing unusual forms, to the point of provocation, is a trademark of Richard Mille. The underlying interest in his approach is to unify the mechanical and the design, combining them in such a way that the decorative aspect is derived directly from the mechanical techniques.
In this respect, his most amazing proposition is dedicated to one of the fastest men on earth, Yohan Blake. The Jamaican sprinter habitually sets off with his hands out front, fingers spread open and straight. This distinctive sign as well as the colours of his country are found in the architecture of the RM 59-01 Tourbillon Yohan Blake. Blake’s “fingers” are the functional aerodynamic bridges—machined in an alloy of aluminium, magnesium, silicon and lead—whose colour is obtained by anodic oxidation.
The surprisingly transparent case of the RM 59-01 is made from a composite injected with carbon nanotubes, which makes it both very light and two hundred per cent stronger than steel. The remarkable asymmetrical and elongated form is completely ergonomic and is the perfect tourbillon for a hundred-metre sprint.
Another remarkable tourbillon at Richard Mille is the RM 56-01. Here, the bezel, middle case and case back are made from blocks of sapphire, thus showing off the movement in all its glory. In addition, the dial, base plate, central bridge and small third wheel are also made of sapphire crystal. This must be classified as a new ultra-contemporary “Métier d’Art” when you consider that the machining, grinding, and polishing of the sapphire ensemble requires no less than 1,000 hours of work.
When the aesthetic is born from chronometric research
The approach of Greubel Forsey is radically different from that of Richard Mille, but the two creators are similar in another respect: in both cases, it is the mechanical that dictates the aesthetic expression. Unlike some other watch brands, which seek above all to create a spectacle, Greubel Forsey’s approach is purely horological in nature. Its goal is always to move towards better chronometric precision (rewarded by first prize at the Interna-tional Chronometry Competition in 2011).
This year, the two creators presented the Sixth Invention Piece in the totally original form of a 35° Double Balance. The result of research started in 1999 and involving the inclination of the regulating organs, a first prototype was presented in Basel in 2009, but it comprised two balances superimposed and inclined at 20°. In this final version, they are inclined at 35° and are no longer superimposed, but positioned in two distinctly different spaces. The improvement in chronometry is notable. The two oscillators are linked by a spherical differential that, serving as the third wheel, “divides the margin of error in half”. In addition, the inclination at 35° minimises the perturbations caused by a stable horizontal or vertical position.
The architecture of the piece is thus completely dependent upon the technical requirements. Thus, all the aesthetic considerations at Greubel Forsey are derived directly from chronometric research. The result is an absolutely remarkable coherence that breaks down the barriers between the technical and the aesthetic.
To discover other propositions and brands, see the articles in this issue by Paul O’Neil and Malcolm Lakin.
Source: Europa Star February - March 2013 Magazine Issue