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Watchmakers’ animal magic
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Watchmakers’ animal magic

Friday, 12 June 2020
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Marie de Pimodan-Bugnon
Freelance journalist

“One must be absolutely modern.”

Arthur Rimbaud

It takes passion, a healthy dose of curiosity and a sense of wonderment to convey the innumerable facets of watchmaking…

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5 min read

A proud panther, a handsome blue jay, a placid lion, horses dressed with plumes and a sturdy bulldog… welcome to watchmaking’s animal kingdom!

With a penetrating gaze and perfectly coiffed mane, its head sculpted from yellow gold rises out of a wide tweed cuff with gold leather trim. Standing guard over a time revealed only when the cover it protects is raised, the king of beasts captures our attention on the Mademoiselle Privé Bouton Lion secret watch. The majestic feline is a leitmotif at Chanel, skilfully woven into its collections in honour of its founder, Gabrielle Chanel. Born a Leo, the eternally elegant couturier liked to remind those around her that “like the lion, I show my claws to protect myself but, believe me, clawing hurts me more than being clawed.”

Mademoiselle Privé Bouton Lion © Chanel
Mademoiselle Privé Bouton Lion © Chanel

This 55-piece limited edition is nothing but velvet paws, more pussycat than predator. Cascading diamond parures, delicately carved suit buttons, precious clocks, fabulous brooches and necklaces have long since tamed the beast, each a reminder of the bronze, marble or wood felines that decorated Mademoiselle’s apartments on Rue Cambon. Triumphant, protective, from haute couture to jewellery and watches, the lion regularly leaves its den to keep tranquil watch over the history of Chanel.

A perennial symbol

Like the Parisian couture house, Cartier places great value on symbols and one perhaps more than others: the panther. Crouched on magical dials or sinuous around the wrist, as bracelets, rings, brooches or pendants, the big cat’s sensual profile has graced Cartier’s creations since 1914. That year, Louis Cartier commissioned George Barbier to draw “Lady with a Panther” to illustrate an invitation to a jewellery exhibition. Its fur was first spotted on a lady’s wristwatch in onyx and diamonds. In 1917 Louis Cartier gifted an onyx and platinum cigarette case imitating the animal’s coat to the woman whose discerning eye would govern Cartier creations for decades to come: Jeanne Toussaint, nicknamed “La Panthère”.

Ronde Louis Cartier Enamel Filigree watch © Cartier
Ronde Louis Cartier Enamel Filigree watch © Cartier

Artistic director for Cartier from 1933 until 1970, Toussaint was herself a fierce character, ready to pounce. It was thanks to her that the panther acquired such considerable importance among the jeweller’s collections. Figurative or abstract, in one or three dimensions, it is now the symbol of an extraordinarily imaginative, remarkable prolific production, regularly portrayed on richly worked dials that call upon the métiers d’art. This year, two limited editions of 33 pieces each join Cartier’s Métiers d’Art collection. On the Ronde Louis Cartier Straw and Gold Marquetry watch, a panther head becomes a colourful bas-relief. On the Ronde Louis Cartier Enamel Filigree watch, this favourite feline stalks through a forest of bamboo, created by heating enamel powder then drawing it into shape.

A legacy reimagined

Animal likenesses are often a pretext to make use of ancient and rare decorative techniques. At Hermès, the horse lends itself to a multitude of enamelled, engraved or miniature-painted variations. Besides the many symbolic references to the bridles, stirrups and other tack that is part of the firm’s history, found in most of its watch collections, equestrian representations have this year produced two figurative designs. A horse dances across the dial of the 24-piece limited edition Arceau Cheval Cosmique watch, silhouetted against undulating arcs. The design is the work of artist Gianpaolo Pagni, inspired by a piece from the personal collection of Émile Hermès. On the Arceau Harnais Français Remix, also limited to 24 pieces, the hand-carved, hand-painted porcelain dial depicts two horses decked out in magnificent harnesses and plumes. It echoes the central motif of the Harnais Français Remix silk scarf, originally drawn by Hugo Grygkar, a designer at Hermès from the 1940s until 1959, and again inspired by a work in Émile Hermès’ personal collection.

From blue jay to bulldog

There are no totemic animals, no emblematic naturalist motifs at Vacheron Constantin, but rather a marked interest in the preservation of the métiers d’art – this year demonstrated by four one-of-a-kind watches in the “La Musique du Temps” Les Cabinotiers – The Singing Birds collection. Expertise in extra-thin movements combined with the original construction of the calibre with its wandering hours display give free rein to the master enameller’s dexterity and talent. A hummingbird, a blue jay, a blue tit and a robin spread their wings in wonderfully lifelike natural settings, portrayed in champlevé enamel. With only a small stretch of the imagination, you almost hear them sing…

"La Musique du Temps" Les Cabinotiers – The Singing Birds © Vacheron Constantin

Imagination is something certain watchmakers aren’t lacking. After the T-Rex, Medusa and Arachnophobia clocks, after watches that suggest frogs, owls or jellyfish, MB&F turns to man’s best friend for the Horological Machine N°10 “Bulldog”. A stocky body in pink gold or titanium, bulging “eyes” for the time display, two studded collars (one for winding, one for setting), “paws” for lugs and a jaw that opens and closes to indicate power reserve make up this manual-winding watch. Dog lovers searching for something more exciting than a classical animal-inspired dial will want to give this wildly original concept a good home.

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