While watchmakers continue to delight aficionados of complex mechanisms, the recent Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) showed horology’s more sensitive side with a profusion of timepieces bearing the words “métiers d’art”, clearly indicating that they had been designed with these age-old techniques in mind. Already a noticeable trend, this showcasing of decorative arts and handcrafting continues to grow. Furthermore, brands are channelling their creativity to impose their individual identity in this very particular segment. From innovative new methods to the (re)discovery of traditional techniques, at times the SIHH took on the appearance of an art gallery.
Van Cleef & Arpels is held in high regard for the quality of its dials combining relief engraving, enamel, gem-setting and mother-of-pearl inlay. This year, astronomy was the theme for the French firm’s collections. The Midnight Constellation series and the 12 Lady Arpels Zodiac watches play on symbols, surfaces, colours and depth. The Midnight Nuit Boréale and Nuit Australe, meanwhile, highlight the rarely seen technique of grisaille enamel. It is, however, the Poetic Complication Midnight Planetarium which stands out as one of the most remarkable pieces of the year’s vintage. The aventurine dial, made from seven concentric discs, reproduces the actual time the planets take to orbit the sun. Each of these heavenly bodies is represented by a different hard stone, with the sun in rose gold.
Bridges and buttresses
For this 2014 edition of the SIHH, Vacheron Constantin delved deeper into two specific disciplines, skeletonwork and ornamental engraving, to which the manufacture has clearly given long and careful thought. Indeed, quality of execution is no longer sufficient in the face of competition. Brands must now invent their own style and imagine a world that is unique to them, and which is destined to become a new signature of their identity.
Vacheron Constantin has chosen to apply skeletonwork in distinctive ways to two tourbillon movements. The engraving on the movement of the Malte Tourbillon Openworked is inspired by the triangle. This form, which is derived from its Maltese Cross logo, has strong associations with the brand. The thinking behind the Patrimony Traditionnelle 14-Day Tourbillon Openworked is even more elaborate, as certain bridges and parts have been sculpted to mimic forms in Gothic architecture. The manufacture has also imagined four models for women, each with the calibre 1003SQ at its heart. Again, the movement has been skeletonised then positioned asymmetrically at 3 o’clock. This Métiers d’Art Fabuleux Ornements collection draws inspiration from India, the Ottoman Empire, France and China to create four dials, each a particular combination of decorative techniques.
102 new launches
Cartier’s force of creativity is evident in the sheer quantity of new models which the brand presents each year – an astounding 102 at the SIHH – and in its capacity to introduce new artistic techniques. This year, for example, it unveiled a dial embellished with a floral marquetry of petrified and coloured petals. This unprecedented technique serves to reproduce the multicoloured plumage of an ara parrot. For its Ballon Bleu Falcon model, Cartier has imagined a technique of engraved mother-of-pearl. The subject is cut into a disc of mother-of-pearl, then covered with gold leaf. The disc is turned and fitted over the movement, revealing the motif through the transparency of the mother-of-pearl. Lastly, the particularity of the Panthère Divine watch is its decoration in grisaille enamel. The feline is painted in gold powder on an enamel background, then fired once.
Like Vacheron Constantin, Piaget has poured its efforts into creating “métiers d’art” watches which are both distinctive in identity and coherent in style. The extreme delicacy of Piaget’s approach is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in dials which use bulino and scrimshaw techniques. Originating in Italy, bulino takes its name from the finely-pointed graver that is used to incise tiny lines and dots in the metal, up to 200 per square millimetre for the darkest areas. The angle at which the graver cuts the metal also influences the final rendering; generally, the engraver holds the tool vertically in relation to the surface. Comparable to bulino, scrimshaw was invented by sailors who used pointed tools to decorate the teeth and bones of the sperm whales and other cetaceans they caught. In this instance, the surface is engraved then covered with a dark pigment which fill the crevices to reveal the subject. Along with embroidery, a craft already presented last year to which Piaget returns to depict an Yves Piaget rose on a dial, these techniques open up new horizons.
Art of time
Clearly then, the métiers d’art are becoming increasingly significant to watchmaking. They offer fertile ground for brands to let loose their creativity and introduce techniques that are new to the measurement of time. The rules have also changed. A dial that calls on a single, well-established technique, enamelling say, is no longer guaranteed to stand out. Brands must give their collections consistency and meaning as part of a wider, more sophisticated approach. Certain Maisons haven’t been afraid to throw themselves completely into this captivating world.