For several years now, Fine Watchmaking has shone the spotlight on the applied arts. In these early days of 2010, if one name were to be singled out for its tour de force in unlocking their full potential, that name would be Van Cleef & Arpels. “We set out to express all the emotion behind the artist’s work in Les Cadrans Extraordinaires. Dostoyevsky did say that ’beauty will save the world’,” Stanislas de Quercize, CEO of the brand, observes. “Our hope is that whoever contemplates these veritable works of art by one of watchmaking’s most exclusive names will be a better person for it.” Drawing on techniques of enamelling, marquetry of mother-of-pearl and stones, engraving on gold and lacquerwork, each dial is “a true evocation, an original narrative that bears testimony to sensibility, admiration or love,” says Van Cleef & Arpels in its favourite poetic language.
Whoever sets eyes on the watches in the five collections – Timeless Oiseaux de Paradis, Lady Arpels Extraordinary Butterfly, Lady Arpels Extraordinary Hummingbirds, Midnight Extraordinary Landscapes and Midnight Extraordinary Japanese Lacquer – is inevitably filled with wonder. A Platonic intuitive apprehension of beauty quickly transforms this joy of contemplation into a kind of moral ecstasy to which only Van Cleef & Arpels has the key. Behind this ecstasy, however, are the painstaking labours of the different artists who were called upon to bring these extraordinary creations to life.
A breathtaking palette of techniques
“I have to say we suffered,” comments Olivier Vaucher with dry wit. His workshops produced the five Californian landscapes that will be presented as a series of eight boxed sets. “Take the example of the most subtle dial, which depicts a nocturnal landscape. We had to combine nuances of enamel on an engraved background with a lapis lazuli sky sprinkled with specks of meteorite and mother-of-pearl clouds. This type of marquetry led us to explore the mysteries of materials to a point we would never at first have imagined. We had our moments of doubt and some sleepless nights in our search for the best solutions.” Olivier Vaucher left no stone unturned, exploring from the most modern to the most ancient techniques in enamelling, engraving, and cutting metal, stones and mother-of-pearl. Knowing that each dial demands four weeks’ work, clearly the Californian sunshine has turned a few heads even this side of the Atlantic!
Dominique Baron, who heads L’Atelier, the ten-strong team of enamellers at Stern Création, tells a similar tale. Champlevé, translucent, stained-glass and three-dimensional enamel, setting precious stones, marquetry, engraving on gold and mother-of-pearl: the list of techniques used for the Hummingbird and Butterfly dials is long. Each takes one to two weeks to complete using a combination of techniques to achieve the most striking result. “Le Pont des Amoureux, part of Van Cleef & Arpels’ Poetic Complications collections for 2010, calls on a sixteenth-century enamel technique known as grisaille,” she explains. “This is in fact miniature painting where successive layers of translucent enamel are applied on an opaque enamel background. The piece is fired some ten times to allow the white Limoges enamel to fuse with the black and produce the multiple nuances of grey that impart such a sense of depth to the dial.”
A mechanical headache
The dial for this timepiece is in two parts, joined by the Pont des Amoureux, the “lovers bridge.” These lovers are portrayed on a “romantic walk that follows the passing of time until their long-awaited rendezvous,” Van Cleef & Arpels explains. “Driven by a retrograde movement, the two lovers move closer and closer until at midnight they finally meet.” At which point they kiss for a full minute, the longest kiss in the history of watchmaking says Stanislas de Quercize, before simultaneously returning to their original position: the hours for Madam, the minutes for Monsieur. Yet another tour de force by Jean-Marc Wiederrecht, director of Agenhor.
He explains how, “the difficulty lay in having the two figures set off at exactly the same time, particularly as no module has been added to the extremely small Jaeger-LeCoultre 946 movement which, to complicate matters further still, is positioned off-centre. We had to come up with some ingenious solutions so that the man and the woman would come together before the mechanism releases them in a retrograde movement. I’ve been developing retrograde calibres for 23 years and this additional difficulty certainly proved quite a challenge.” With this challenge taken care of, Van Cleef & Arpels can continue to fan the flame of emotions to which these arts undoubtedly belong.