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A private viewing of Louis Vuitton’s horological masterpieces

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May 2022


A private viewing of Louis Vuitton's horological masterpieces

We were given access to a very rare category of products, not available in boutiques: the high-flying Haute Horlogerie collections of Louis Vuitton, led by the duo of master watchmakers Michel Navas and Enrico Barbasini. Last year, the public got a glimpse of the work going on behind the scenes when the Tambour Carpe Diem won the Audacity Prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève.

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t was in 2007 that master watchmakers Michel Navas and Enrico Barbasini, then still independent and running their own technical workshop, began collaborating with Louis Vuitton, whose watchmaking unit was in its infancy. Four years later, their workshop was bought by the luxury giant, and from that point on, their horological know-how would be devoted exclusively to the service of one master.

These were times of post-financial crisis consolidation in the watch industry, after the explosion of independent designers in the 2000s. But could a duo of their calibre and character blend into a company the size of Louis Vuitton? The history of watchmaking is littered with examples of alliances between groups and independents that have come to nothing.

Only time can really prove the authenticity and viability of such an alliance. But more than a decade later, it is clear that the approach has borne fruit: the two creators are still at the helm of the brand’s Haute Horlogerie arm, which has expanded considerably (on this subject, read again our 2013 portrait).

The Tambour Curve GMT Flying Tourbillon reinterprets the curves of the case of Louis Vuitton's founding Tambour watch, launched in 2002, whose shapes were inspired by the architecture of the most stunning international airport terminals.
The Tambour Curve GMT Flying Tourbillon reinterprets the curves of the case of Louis Vuitton’s founding Tambour watch, launched in 2002, whose shapes were inspired by the architecture of the most stunning international airport terminals.

The context of watchmaking within Louis Vuitton is quite unusual. The brand’s offer, initiated exactly twenty years ago, is twofold: on the one hand, there’s the most visible production found in the brand boutiques, ranging from connected watches to the most accessible models of the Tambour range (named after the brand’s very first original watch case, launched in 2002); and on the other, there’s an extraordinary abundance of highly exclusive Haute Horlogerie creations, produced as one-off pieces or very limited series – often co-created with customers.

This exclusive environment feeds the passion of the master watchmaking duo, who say they work “in complete freedom and in a start-up spirit” within La Fabrique du Temps, the brand’s watchmaking manufacture that opened in Geneva in 2014. LVMH has a reputation for giving its companies more autonomy than other luxury groups, and this seems to be the case with Louis Vuitton watchmaking, a small “brand within a brand” with fewer than 100 employees.

All of Louis Vuitton’s products are sold in the brand’s own boutiques, following a well-established practice. But the Haute Horlogerie offering is not even visible there. Projects are usually initiated on the basis of an initial recommendation, in direct contact with La Fabrique du Temps. Often, clients come to Geneva to collaborate in the development of their pieces. These individualised projects can take several years to complete.

The brand’s offer is twofold: on the one hand, there’s the most visible production, ranging from connected watches to the most accessible models of the Tambour; and on the other, there’s an extraordinary abundance of highly exclusive Haute Horlogerie creations.

Special orders as a testing ground

Last year, the public got a rare glimpse of the work that goes on behind the scenes when Louis Vuitton’s Tambour Carpe Diem won the Audacity Prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève. In fact, this was not the first timepiece of its kind; the design had already been tested on several privately-commissioned watches, before a public limited-edition model was developed.

After secretely delivering several special orders for timepieces equipped with automata, Louis Vuitton unveiled the Tambour Carpe Diem, the “21st century jacquemart watch”.
After secretely delivering several special orders for timepieces equipped with automata, Louis Vuitton unveiled the Tambour Carpe Diem, the “21st century jacquemart watch”.

“We had already carried out a similar exercise on several occasions for special projects, with different themes and movements,” confirms Michel Navas. “But with respect to the complication, everything is new. There were many challenges, from the basic design to achieving something wearable.”

The Tambour Carpe Diem was introduced by Louis Vuitton as the “21st century jacquemart watch”, so named after the automata that strike the hours on church bell towers. When watchmakers began to miniaturise them on timepieces, their function became essentially decorative – to add a bit of fun to the dial – and the time continued to be indicated by classic hands.

Louis Vuitton wanted to give jacquemarts back their original meaning. The automaton is truly functional as it tells the time on demand, without hands. By pressing a push-piece, the dial’s miniature scene comes to life on the wrist, and the story’s protagonists, the snake and the skull which perform the role of jacquemarts, indicate the time.

Last year, the public got a rare glimpse of the work that goes on behind the scenes when Louis Vuitton’s Tambour Carpe Diem won the Audacity Prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève.

Time on demand

The Tambour Carpe Diem integrates a jumping hour, a retrograde minute, a power reserve display (represented by the hourglass) and the automaton mechanism. “The prowess lay in creating a mechanical movement that is quite powerful, to smoothly operate all these functions that had never been brought together before,” explains Michel Navas.

A private viewing of Louis Vuitton's horological masterpieces

On the Tambour Carpe Diem, the time can be read on demand. To reveal it, you simply push the reptile-shaped push-piece on the right of the case. The central snake’s head lifts up to reveal the hour aperture positioned on the forehead of the skull, while the rattlesnake tail oscillates towards the minutes, placed below the power reserve hourglass.

While Monogram Flowers appear in lieu of an eye, the skull’s jaws emit a mocking laugh, and the words of the poet Horace, “Carpe Diem” (seize the day) emerge. This striking spectacle lasts 16 seconds.

A private viewing of Louis Vuitton's horological masterpieces

Visible on the back of the timepiece, the calibre LV 525 (the subject of several patent applications) has also been assembled in the shape of a skull, echoing the Vanitas on the dial, an allegory of the passing of time. The enamelling on the dial was carried out by the great specialist of the genre, Anita Porchet (who is much in demand for special orders at La Fabrique du Temps).

Louis Vuitton’s duo of master watchmakers had already produced models with automata during the time they spent in the workshops of Gérald Genta (now also owned by LVMH and integrated into Bulgari). But the work done on the Carpe Diem “goes much further in its complexity, particularly in the management of jerky, slow and transitional movements,” says Navas. “This opens up new fields of application.”

A private viewing of Louis Vuitton's horological masterpieces

Special orders will no doubt flood in once the project has been publicly announced. In a watchmaking segment increasingly focused on high value and customisation, being able to talk directly with master watchmakers and renowned craftsmen is certainly a strong argument, one that also helps to compensate for the brand’s lack of “pedigree”. Indeed, Louis Vuitton is still a relative newcomer, little known for its watchmaking in an environment that draws legitimacy from its deep and ancient roots.

“Contrary to what is done in other houses, we can really personalise everything,” continues Michel Navas. “That’s how we remain craftsmen. And there is still so much to do. We no longer have any financial imperatives, we have never been pressured and we are working on a long-term basis. At the moment, we are planning our timepieces for 2025.”

“Contrary to what is done in other houses, we can really personalise everything. That’s how we remain craftsmen.”

A private viewing of Louis Vuitton's horological masterpieces

Adding a fourth dimension

Another bold experiment recently introduced by Louis Vuitton, lifting a corner of the veil of the high calibre of R&D being undertaken at La Fabrique du Temps, is the Tambour Spin Time Air Quantum, a “unique and disruptive complicated hybrid watch that combines the best of the mechanical and electronic worlds,” as Jean Arnault, Director of Marketing and Development, Louis Vuitton Watches, describes it.

This unprecedented hybridisation of high mechanics and microelectronics aims to give a “fourth dimension” to the brand’s iconic three-dimensional movement, the Spin Time of 2009, with its rotating cubes that display the hours. On the Tambour Spin Time Air Quantum, the cubes marking the hours illuminate on demand for three seconds, thanks to the addition of a dedicated electronic module.

On the Tambour Spin Time Air Quantum, the cubes marking the hours light up on demand, adding a fourth dimension to the iconic Louis Vuitton complication.
On the Tambour Spin Time Air Quantum, the cubes marking the hours light up on demand, adding a fourth dimension to the iconic Louis Vuitton complication.

A mysterious halo, inspired by the bioluminescence of deep-sea creatures, seems to emanate from within the cubes themselves. The electronics assembly is ingeniously concealed under the flange of the case: the lighting system is made up of a ring containing 12 LEDs – one for each hour cube – along with an integrated circuit and a power source in the form of twin batteries.

Coated entirely in matte black DLC to contrast with the vivid luminous green and yellow (the trademark colours of Super-LumiNova®), the Tambour Spin Time Air Quantum bears a metallised emblem on its sapphire back that reinterprets the Louis Vuitton Monogram as a circuit board.

A mascot with multiple variations

On a completely different note, there is also the Tambour Slim Vivienne Jumping Hours. “Vivienne” is the name of Louis Vuitton’s mischievous and mysterious mascot that made its first appearance in the brand’s creative universe in 2017 and has since won over aficionados. After featuring in several of the brand’s creations, she has now popped up in the workshops of La Fabrique du Temps, with three interpretations of the jumping-hour display.

In a 38mm case, Vivienne takes on the role of a fortune teller (set against a dial of dark blue aventurine), a casino croupier (with a dial of skarn, a rare and elegant deep green stone recently discovered in Pakistan) or a circus performer (on an iridescent mother-of-pearl dial). The hour display alternates on the tips of her hands, while a talisman levitates around her with each passing minute. Three hand-decorated timepieces are available in white gold, rose gold or yellow gold cases, with a precious rose-cut diamond on the crown.

On a completely different note, there is also the Tambour Slim Vivienne Jumping Hours. “Vivienne” is the name of Louis Vuitton’s mischievous and mysterious mascot that made its first appearance in the brand’s creative universe in 2017.

On the dial of the Tambour Slim Vivienne Jumping Hours, two openings hidden among a range of decorative motifs display the time. Every sixty minutes, the hour numeral changes its location.
On the dial of the Tambour Slim Vivienne Jumping Hours, two openings hidden among a range of decorative motifs display the time. Every sixty minutes, the hour numeral changes its location.

Miniature-painting, which featured on a Louis Vuitton watch for the first time in 2014 with the Escale Worldtime, is used to animate Vivienne’s trompe-l’oeil magic. Each tarot card, playing card, Monogram Flower and hour numeral is individually painted by artists in Louis Vuitton’s workshop in Geneva.

Another mechanical trick reflects the character of the figurine: every sixty minutes, the numeral indicating the hour changes instantaneously, switching positions between the two apertures located near Vivienne’s hands. As the new hour is displayed, the aperture framing the previous hour is simultaneously filled with an arcane symbol matching the theme of the watch. The watch thus houses an alternating jumping hour mechanism, a “first in modern horology”.

For the minutes, a slim, nearly invisible wand extends out from Vivienne's heart. It is tipped with a tarot card (Fortune model), a playing card (Casino) or a Louis Vuitton Monogram Flower juggling ball (Circus).
For the minutes, a slim, nearly invisible wand extends out from Vivienne’s heart. It is tipped with a tarot card (Fortune model), a playing card (Casino) or a Louis Vuitton Monogram Flower juggling ball (Circus).

To achieve its innovative hour display, the Tambour Slim Vivienne Jumping Hours uses a multi-armed Geneva cross (also known as a Maltese cross), combined with a complex multi-level cam and a sprung ruby roller. This offers several advantages over the conventional system of star wheels and jumper springs, such as better energy efficiency, higher precision in the time display and in the hour jump and increased movement longevity.

“With this process, it is impossible for the mechanism to shift, missing an hour or skipping two hours at once for example,” comments Michel Navas. “It offers incredible reliability and very low energy consumption. We will use this system in other series in the future.”

There is much more to say, as the collections on display demonstrate an unbridled imagination. These few examples illustrate an aspect of the luxury giant that is little known to the public – Louis Vuitton does not take part in events on the traditional watchmaking circuit – but nonetheless deserve to be better known. Having matured over the course of 20 years, Louis Vuitton’s watchmaking has definitely come of age.

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