Collection Tuesday, June 26th 2012
What do Hermes and Chanel have in common? The obvious answer is that they are all leading luxury brands with a prestigious couture label and a legendary founder. What distinguishes them from their fashion runway cousins, however, is that they are also Swiss watchmakers.
Hermès Arceau Pocket Amazones © Claude Joray
In the 1970s and ’80s, the term “fashion watch” was coined when runway labels licensed their names to watch companies who manufactured branded quartz watches that were fun, fashionable and affordable. Representing the ephemeral side of the otherwise staid tradition of watchmaking, they began during the height of the so-called quartz revolution, when mechanical watchmaking was nearly obliterated by the invention of a tiny quartz crystal.
In the late 1990s, interest in the craftsmanship and authenticity of mechanical watchmaking suddenly began to reawaken, and over the next 20 years, it seemed the more complicated the tiny mechanism inside a watch case, the more desirable (and expensive) it was, and mechanical watchmaking began to thrive again. Gradually, quartz watches were relegated to the background as less prestigious, and the term “fashion watch” became pejorative.
Today, the most prestigious brands are those that produce their own mechanical movements, and any couture fashion brand, if it is going to put its name on a timepiece, had better make sure that watch contains such a movement. It seems only natural that it is where Chanel and Hermes both set up shop when they made the decision to become timekeepers. They may not be heritage watch brands, but each has remained rigorously true to its heritage.
“Luxury must be comfortable”
The Chanel aesthetic, for example, originated in a convent orphanage in Aubazine, France, where Coco was raised by nuns who taught her to sew with precision and to dress for simplicity and comfort. “Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury,” is one of her most famous quotes. This principle has been applied to everything made by the brand since the 1920s, and applies particularly to the watches.
The J12, when it was introduced in 2000, almost instantly achieved iconic status – it’s the quilted handbag of watches –setting off a worldwide trend in ceramic watches. With its clean lines and dials, tailored fit and precise construction, it also aligned perfectly with the dictums of haute couture, Madmoiselle Chanel’s original metier. And like every product bearing the Chanel label, it is made from the highest quality materials, with extreme attention to detail and finish. (If you add up the number of quality control stages involved in creating a single J12, including dial, movement, hands, case, bracelet, buckle, clasp and gemsetting, there are between 1,000 and 2,000 individual inspections from start to finish.) The links on the ceramic bracelets of most of its knockoffs, for example, are exactly the same size, shape and thickness – they were obviously made using two different molds – one for the links on the sides and one for the links in the middle. The Chanel bracelet takes 20 different molds, resulting in a bracelet that is tapered and which varies in thickness from beginning to end. Like a perfectly fitted dress, it feels comfortable, and Madmoiselle Chanel would surely pronounce it as pure luxury.
Chanel’s movements are made by Renaud & Papi, one of Switzerland’s most prestigious movement developers, which makes movements that are exclusive to Chanel, including a tourbillon. The watches are produced and assembled at G&F Chatelain, a Swiss manufacture Chanel acquired in 1993. The acquisition allows Chanel to completely control the production process, using its own watchmakers, assemblers, gemsetters, and quality control specialists who test every watch. Chanel is the only watch manufacturer in Switzerland that mixes and cooks its own ceramic directly from the powder, and that is also done at Chatelain. “It was a long process of managing the technology,” says Philippe Marti, the managing director of Chatelain. “It took two to three years of research to get the desired formula.”
The craftsmanship behind the product
Hermes similarly combines the high-tech with the artisanal. In 2006, it acquired a 25% share in Vaucher, an elite movement maker in Fleurier, near Geneva, which this year introduced a new Hermes caliber. “Wherever we can, Hermes tries to develop its know-how in house,” says Luc Perramond, president of Hermes’ watch division. “We are interested in the craftsmanship behind the product. This makes us more authentic, and it also means we can control the quality.” This year, the brand introduced two new movements from the base caliber, one of them scaled down in order to fit into a case for a ladies’ watch. “Few companies have a movement created just for women,” Perramond points out.
In a nod to its heritage, Hermes fits its watches with hand-sewn leather straps. Founder Thierry Hermes was a saddler, after all, who, in 1837, opened a harness workshop in Paris dedicated to serving European noblemen. Those coveted Birkin and Kelly bags are the evolution of high-end saddlebags for men, and so are the watch straps. Many of the construction techniques are the same, including the plein cuir technique (layers of leather hand-stitched together) and, of course, the saddle stitch, which is much harder than it looks.
On a recent tour of the leather workshop at La Montre Hermès watch manufacture near Neuchatel, Switzerland, I learned why it takes two hours to make one leather strap the Hermès way. I was given a lesson on the intricacies of finishing a watch strap – one-hour process. I watched the artisan finesse a couple of saddle stitches, an Hermès specialty, and then finish an edge in a series of procedures involving wax, dye, glue, sandpaper, a hammer and a cutting instrument that resembles a mini scythe. Among the things I learned when I tried to do it myself, is that it is anything but easy. While attempting the two-needle technique of the saddle stitch, I split the thread twice. I also learned how easy it is to punch the remaining stitch holes far too big – the tools require just the right touch to make them effective – and how easy it can be for untrained hands to over-glue, over-buff and overheat the seam on an artisanal strap. My work provoked a chuckle from the quality control lady stationed at the front of the workshop – it was not even close to Hermès standards.
Hermes exhibits similar finishing skills in a collection it fondly calls the “silk series,” with dials painstakingly enameled to copy, in miniature, the patterns of the brand’s silk scarves and ties.
Chanel, in a grand gesture towards it rich heritage and dedication to the aesthetic of its founder, has also introduced a series of grand feu enamel dials. They are inspired by the sumptuous coromandel lacquer screens that cover the walls of Coco Chanel’s apartment above the brand’s flagship at 31 rue Cambon in Paris. The finishing on these watches indicate the brand’s mastery of watchmaking’s metiers d’art, corresponds to the exacting finishing requirements of a couture gown. Just one more thing for the ladies in the front row to covet. ■