n 2019, Vacheron Constantin announced an ambitious artistic and cultural partnership with the Louvre. Three years later, a series of “Tribute to Great Civilisations” watches demonstrating the most precious craftsmanship are among the first tangible results of this collaboration.
“This is not a simple sponsorship, but a partnership involving multiple levels of collaboration,” emphasises Christian Selmoni, Director of Style and Heritage at Vacheron Constantin. Behind the scenes, the two institutions, both founded in the 18th century (1755 for Vacheron Constantin and 1793 for the Louvre) were already in frequent communication, whether in terms of craftsmanship techniques, cultural points of view or expertise in archiving, conservation and restoration of a dense heritage.
- Great Sphinx of Tanis
- On this monumental Great Sphinx of Tanis model, the work of cutting the stone with polished surfaces is admirable in its precision. For the engraver of the carved gold applique representing the head of the sphinx, one of the difficulties – in addition to that of modelling the face – lay in rendering the prominent beard within such a small space. The master artisan had to work in relief using the ramolayage or “pounced ornament” technique, despite the thinness of the plate, before accentuating the depth effect by patinating the material with a blowtorch and then by hand. The main dial is made of enamel whose deep colour, a mixture of blue and black, is the result of six firings in the kiln.
Even before the partnership was formalised, the first step was Vacheron Constantin’s restoration of the clock named La Création du Monde, a masterpiece of 18th century precision horology. Other initiatives were launched in the meantime, including the Louvre’s online auction of a one-off Les Cabinotiers piece, whose dial would reproduce in enamel an artwork kept in the museum, selected by its buyer. Two of the museum’s gilders also accompanied Vacheron Constantin’s watchmakers to the Homo Faber event held this year in Venice, which showcased the best of international craftsmanship.
Miniaturising ancient techniques
The four models that pay tribute to the great civilisations of Antiquity, all based on works of art on display in the Louvre, take this collaboration, initiated just before the outbreak of the pandemic, to the next level. They represent key periods of the chosen civilisations: the Persian Empire of Darius the Great; the golden age of Ancient Egypt; the Hellenistic period of Ancient Greece; and the rise to power of Augustus, the first Roman emperor.
In order to maintain the greatest possible coherence between each masterpiece exhibited at the Louvre and its horological interpretation, the ornamentation of the dials (less than 40 mm in diameter) is inspired by the decorative arts of the corresponding period: champlevé and grisaille enamel, stone marquetry, stone micro-mosaic and engraving. “It truly was a joint effort, with great concern for consistency and accuracy in the choice of pieces and crafts,” says Christian Selmoni. “Given the museum’s extraordinary inventory dedicated to Antiquity, these choices were natural. For example, that of micro-mosaic, used in the Roman Empire and therefore completely relevant for the model representing the bust of Augustus.”
- Bust of Augustus
- The carved gold applique reproducing the Bust of Augustus offers a striking image in which the drape of the cape across the breast plate, secured by a fibula, echoes the curling locks held in place by the oak-leaf crown. The centre of the dial is enamelled in blue-green, while its periphery is adorned with stone micro-mosaic. A famous fourth-century mosaic discovered in Lod, Israel, served as the inspiration for the ornamental motifs around the periphery of the dial.
This model is the one, out of the four timepieces unveiled, that took the longest to make. An extremely rare technique in watchmaking, stone micro-mosaic requires a large number of tiny pieces of semi-precious stones (more than 600 were used for this model) to be meticulously assembled and glued in such a way as to render the joints that seal them practically invisible. The size of the stones – tiny squares measuring just 0.55 millimetres each – makes this type of ornamentation particularly demanding.
Christian Selmoni also points to the immense care taken to reproduce the Lion of Darius on the timepiece dedicated to the Achaemenid Persian Empire (559-330 BC). The Frieze of Lions, a glazed brick decoration, was located in the first courtyard of the palace of Darius the Great in Susa, the capital of the Persian Achaemenid Empire in south-western Iran. “The work of cutting the stones and the choice of having some uniform stones alongside others with veining evokes the passing of time,” emphasises Selmoni.
The sources of our civilisation
Although the four models differ in their ornamentation, they all follow the same multi-layered, nested architecture. The movement is topped by the dial and surrounded by a frieze – these two components provide the canvas for the master artisans to display their talents. A sapphire crystal bearing a sculpted gold applique depicting one of the four major works of ancient sculpture is then placed on the dial. This same slightly smoked crystal is also engraved with metallic characters in cuneiform, hieroglyphic, ancient Greek or Latin script, depending on the model. Once these various elements have been placed on top of the movement, the case is then sealed with the outer crystal.
- Lion of Darius
- The frieze of lions is one of the few decorative elements of the Palace of Darius in Susa that was found on-site. The prominent frieze of lions was a declaration of royal power, embodied by the king of animals. Made of siliceous glazed bricks bound with lime mortar, this decoration combining realism and powerful stylisation is a masterful example of Achaemenid Persian art. For the engraver of the applique depicting one of the lions, the challenge was to achieve an accurate rendering that matched the advanced stylisation of the muscles and fur of the noble creature’s mane that can be seen on the original.
To power these watches, Vacheron Constantin has chosen its self-winding Manufacture Calibre 2460 G4/2, which features four discs indicating the hours, minutes, days and dates. The apertures for reading the time and calendar indications, symmetrically positioned around the dial periphery, leave a vast field of expression for the artisans, as no hands disturb the view of these miniature masterpieces.
In a nod to the partnership with the museum, the oscillating weight features a depiction of the east façade of the Louvre and its colonnade inspired by the work of Louis Le Vau and Claude Perrault, based on an 18th century etching. The matrix of the design was hand-sculpted and then used to stamp the twenty oscillating weights that make up the series – each model being limited to five pieces.
“Our Métiers d’Art collection perfectly illustrates the creativity and expertise in craftsmanship of Vacheron Constantin,” says Christian Selmoni. “These timepieces will certainly appeal to collectors who are fond of fine craftsmanship, but they will also resonate with art lovers. We already saw this when we launched our Les Masques series in 2007 in collaboration with the Barbier-Mueller Museum.”
These new models augur a promising future for the collaboration between the two venerable institutions. Having been active for several centuries, both operate according to a long time horizon. It is no coincidence, then, that the first fruits of their collaboration refer back to the very foundations of our civilisation.
- Winged Victory of Samothrace
- ce The Winged Victory of Samothrace, Nike in Greek, is a peerless masterpiece of Hellenistic sculpture, admired for the virtuosity of its white Parian marble carving and the ingenuity of its construction, which depicts a goddess standing on the bow of a ship. The centre of the main dial is enamelled in brown, a colour that is very difficult to achieve. It required a mixture of rare enamels that are no longer produced, as well as six firings in the kiln. The periphery features grisaille enamelling reproducing the decorative friezes from two Greek vases.