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A quiet revolution

A quiet revolution

Wednesday, 19 February 2014
By Louis Nardin
Editor Image
Louis Nardin
Journalist and consultant

“Audacity, more audacity, always audacity.”

Georges Jacques Danton

“A quality watch is a concentration of creativity, rare technical and scientific skills, and age-old gestures. It appeals to the desire for uniqueness and distinction; it is a badge of knowledge, power and taste. A watch has many stories to tell; the details and secrets provide the relish”.

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4 min read

Not so very long ago, the métiers d’art in watchmaking were essentially concerned with the preservation of rare and ancient crafts. Not so today, as innovation and optimisation of costs have emerged as decisive factors in brands’ strategy in this domain.

The métiers d’art have been prominent in watchmaking for a number of years. Proof of a brand’s capacity to master other areas of expertise than pure mechanics, their role is to be both a thing of beauty and a source of wonder. Whereas initially very few brands had access to these skills in-house, now entire departments have been put together for this purpose. Such a development poses a new challenge for watchmakers: how to distinguish themselves from the competition in an increasingly crowded segment. Some have lost no time in appointing teams specifically to develop new techniques, or to study applications for existing crafts which have never previously been used on timepieces. Independent artisans are making their contribution too, encouraged by manufacturers. Yet changes have been observed. Once restricted to the circle of watchmaking’s pre-eminent names, these decorative arts have caught the attention of the entire profession and, as the trend trickles down, new factors emerge such as cost-reduction through the introduction of semi-industrial processes.

Petrified petals

“As with its watchmaking hub, Cartier also has a research and development unit dedicated to the métiers d’art,” explains Thierry Lamouroux, who is watchmaking marketing director for the French firm. “Its role is to scour the world in search of as yet unknown craftsmen and techniques, and study their applications to watch exteriors. This year, for example, Cartier presented a dial created with floral marquetry. The idea was actually put to us by a supplier. Working together, we developed a way to stabilise this technique to ensure the petals keep their colour and structure in all conditions and with no limitation of time.”

Piaget has also had its eyes open for rarely-seen techniques, and this year unveiled dials decorated with bolino and scrimshaw engraving. In January, on Geneva’s Rue du Rhône, Omega demonstrated an innovative gem-setting technique which uses a Liquidmetal platinum alloy to diamond-set its logo in sapphire crystal. First the logo is cut into the sapphire surface, making triangular cavities to contain the alloy. The diamonds are then set in the Liquidmetal using traditional setting techniques.

The brands are encouraging us to develop new ideas, to really push the envelope.
Oliver Vaucher

Two years ago it was the turn of straw marquetry, seen on dials at Hermès and Cartier. “The brands are encouraging us to develop new ideas, to really push the envelope,” confides Oliver Vaucher, an engraver whose studio masters five different techniques. “They now see the métiers d’art as offering potential for research and innovation.”

Micro-sculptures and multiple tiers

Among the craftsmen who, within the confines of their studio, are seeking new ways to bring dials to life, Olivier Vaucher is renowned as one of the most inventive. His company, which employs 33 people, is behind the multi-layered dial of Van Cleef & Arpels’ Poetic Wish and the micro-sculptures circling the dial of the Roger Dubuis Excalibur Round Table, among other realisations. “At one time, the most decoration you would see on a watch was taille-douce or low relief engraving on gold,” he comments. “Since then we’ve added volume with high relief engraving, and even three-dimensional engraving or carved stones.”

Multi-layered dial of Van Cleef & Arpels' Poetic Wish

This latter technique, known as glyptic, appears on the dial of the Métiers d’Art Fabuleux Ornements Chinese Embroidery watch by Vacheron Constantin. Its flowers are sculpted from garnets, cuprites and rubies, which have a hardness of 9 on Mohs scale (only diamond scores 10). “Our role is to bring out the full potential of a technique in the most innovative, most beautiful way,” says Vaucher. No longer limited to exclusively decorative pieces, today’s métiers d’art extend to watches in every register. The technically complex RM 51-01, recently unveiled by Richard Mille, is living proof, with a sculpted gold dragon and tiger clutching the movement.

Keep it real

Ultimately the bottom line is creativity, which has to be channelled. Says Olivier Vaucher, “As craftsmen, we sometimes have to rein in our customers’ enthusiasm. They want a technical tour de force when what matters is the beauty of the finished piece.”

Naturally, the rising popularity of the métiers d’art hasn’t escaped attention. Several brands have plans to add them to their catalogue and in doing so attract a new clientele. But these techniques come with a high price tag, sometimes prohibitively so, and certain brands could be tempted by less costly methods. This raises the question of how to explain to the end customer the difference between the two… no doubt the intention behind Patek Philippe’s “rare handcrafts” campaign, launched in April 2013.

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