Beyond Mere Fine Watches
Métiers d’art elevates watchmaking beyond mechanical wonders into the realm of ethereal beauty
Just about every aspect of watchmaking, from dial assembly to the fashioning of fabric straps and the finishing of movement components, can be considered forms of art in their own right. The term “métiers d’art,” however, suggests something a bit more special. Refined. Or perhaps “elevated” is the right descriptor here. And, for sure, the phrase is thrown around quite often whenever particularly artsy timepieces are concerned.
Arts And CrAfts
Now, it might be a bit hard to formulate an exact definition or even a translation of métiers d’art; but in the world of watchmaking, the term has come to refer to centuries’ old art forms employed to create exceptionally artistic timepieces. And for a time, this element has been missing from the industry. Vacheron Constantin, one part of the so-called “holy trinity of watch brands” together with Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe—has been credited with the reintroduction of métiers d’art back in 2007.
That year, Vacheron Constantin debuted its Les Masques series. The creation of these watches involved the recreation of various textures—wood, stone and other materials found in old masks—on gold plates. While the basic forms where created using laser engraving, the more delicate features of each mask design are engraved by hand.
This rediscovery of—and renewed interest in—decorative crafts categorized as métiers d’art has often been described as part of the natural evolution of watchmaking. Just as how mechanical watchmaking made a comeback in the ’90s after the quartz crisis, the age-old traditional decorative crafts that used to be part of fine watchmaking have steadily risen in popularity since the late 2000s. And for sure, historically speaking haute horlogerie (high watchmaking) have always gone hand in hand with belle horlogerie (beautiful watchmaking). As the former has survived its ultimate challenge in the ’80s, now the latter has come to the front once again.
An ElitE fEw
The obvious appeal of métiers d’art watches is exclusivity. The decorative arts in this category were only rather recently “rediscovered” in part because of how rare its practitioners are, especially those that can apply their expertise on a “canvas” that might measure—at most— four centimeters across. Take, for example, the wood marquetry dials that are part of Patek Philippe’s Rare Handcrafts collection. Each dial is basically a puzzle made up of tiny wooden pieces, some measuring only a couple of millimeters, which are cut by hand by a master marquetarian. There are plenty of expert artisans working with wood marquetry. But, by the middle of 2017 at least, there was only one who could work on dials.
Many of these old crafts are also terribly unforgiving ... and are much more so when applied to watchmaking. An enameled dial, for instance, would be heated multiple times, and every time it goes into the kiln there’s a chance that the surface will simply crack. Imagine that happening in the second to last cycle. Or perhaps specks of dust are caught in the pigment even before the dial is heated. Sure, modern technology can land a hand here in there—like in the Las Masques by
“MAny of thEsE old CrAfts ArE Also tErribly unforgiving ... And ArE MuCh MorE so whEn AppliEd to wAtChMAking”
Vacheron Constantin mentioned above—but the defining elements of each craft are still done the old-fashioned way.
What’s important to consider here is that it’s not only a matter of technology not being able to replicate age old crafts. It’s also what the consumer wants. Classic aesthetics is a strong trend and the exclusivity that results from the difficulty of creating timepieces with enamel dials, miniature paintings or hand-engraved detailing and traditional marquetry has strong pulling power. See, when we’re talking about métiers d’art timepieces, the term “limited edition” can be an understatement. More often than not, a métiers d’art watch would be one-of-a-kind or released in quantities fewer than a dozen.
thE futurE of MétiErs d’Art
There is, of course, the very real problem of “métiers d’art” becoming an overused buzzword. In some quarters it is argued that this has already happened with the word “manufacture.” On the flip side, as more and more brands delve into métiers d’art, more techniques and designs will emerge, thereby elevating the entire craft—just like how we can never have too many painters.
The way Patek Philippe uses wood marquetry for dials, as mentioned above, can be considered a new addition to the métiers d’art world. Or perhaps consider Harry Winston’s Midnight Feathers, which features marquetry using actual feathers—goose feathers, to be exact—that form intricate striping reminiscent of wood.
So, in a way, métiers d’art watchmaking does more than just elevate fine watchmaking, but also help preserve a myriad of rare handcrafts and art forms that would have otherwise been lost to time.
All that being said, to truly showcase the width and breadth of métiers d’art in watchmaking, perhaps we could delve into some of its most celebrated examples from the past several years.
thE MirAClE of flight
Vacheron Constantin Métiers d’Art Les Aérostiers This particular métiers d’art collection celebrates France’s first foray into aviation around 1783-1785 using hot-air balloons. Each of the five limited edition timepieces (yes, only five, each with a unique colors) feature a combination of hand-engraved and micro-sculpted gold figures on top of a translucent plique-à-jour enamel background. It should be noted that pliqué-a-jour enameling is considered an especially difficult technique, as there is no supporting material behind each individual layer. The backgrounds come in sky blue, dark blue, turquoise, brown and burgundy
As the name implies, this is not the first time that Roger Dubuis—a surprisingly anti-conformist brand from the usually conservative Richemont group—has delved into Arthurian legend. Nor is it the last, although it can be argued that this is the most classical looking. Anyway, the Excalibur Knights of the Round Table II features the 12 eponymous knights as engraved and sculpted bronze knights positioned around the famed round table made from black jade. Each knight is only 6.5mm tall and each is unique. Roger Dubuis Excalibur Knights of the Round Table II
“whEn wE’rE tAlking About MétiErs d’Art tiMEpiECEs, thE tErM ‘liMitEd Edition’ CAn bE An undErstAtEMEnt. MorE oftEn thAn not, A MétiErs d’Art wAtCh would bE onE-of-A-kind or rElEAsEd in quAntitiEs fEwEr thAn A dozEn”
EAst MEEts wEst
Slim d’Hermès Koma Kurabé France sophistication meets Japanese old-age tradition in the Slim d’Hermès Koma Kurabé. This is actually a series of 12 one-of-a-kind watches depicting scenes from the Koma Kurabé, a famous horse race held annually at the Kamigamo shrine in Kyoto. The journey of each watch starts in the ateliers of Sèvres, a major centre of porcelain making in Europe. The finished porcelain then becomes a series of canvases for Buzan Fukushima, one of the few remaining artisans versed in the aka-e technique of painting. Under the hands of the master, shades of red and ochre are deftly applied to the porcelain to create depictions of the famed race before it is all coated with a fine layer of gold. The dial is then heated three times to fix the motif.
As swiss As it gEts
Patek Philippe Ref. 5089G-059 and Ref. 5089G-060 Yes, these two limited-edition Calatrava watches are part of Patek Philippe’s Rare Handcraft collection mentioned before. Now, these aren’t the only wood marquetry dials created by the house, nor are they the most well-known; but the theme of these two are certainly quite appropriate—a legendary Swiss watch brand showcasing the legendary Swiss Alpine landscape—while demonstrating just how intricate these creations can be. Reference 5089G-059 is titled “Roped Alpinists” and shows two mountaineers climbing a snowy slope. It (yes, this a one-of-a-kind watch) is comprised of 262 pieces of wood taken from 27 different species with different colors, textures and veining. Reference 5089G-060, meanwhile, features the “Lac d’Emosson”, after a painting by French geologist and Alpine specialist Jacques Debelmas. It consists of 195 pieces from 22 species.
thE thronE of wisdoM
Blancpain and les Métiers d’Art, Shakudō Blancpain is a master when it comes to engraving, enamel painting and Damascene timepieces. For its métiers d’art watches, however, the brand presents its mastery of shakudō, which involves the use of an alloy of Japanese origin that combines copper and gold to create a patina that hovers between blue and black. While often seen on swords and jewelry, shakudō is rarely seen in the world of watchmaking. Blancpain, however, has released four unique models combining shakudō, engraving and Damascening. For the Ref. 6615-3616-55B, the brand has chosen to depict Ganesh, the Hindu god of wisdom, intelligence, prudence and the leader of the schools and academics. Here the deity is seen on a hand-engraved golden throne for a most majestic sight.
Pliqué-a-jour at Vacheron Constantin Opposite page, clockwise from top Close up of one of the mini sculptuores on Roger Dubuis Excalibur Knights of the Round Table II; aka-e painting on the porcelain dial Slim d’Hermès Koma Kurabé; hand engraving for the Les Aérostiers watches
Blancpain and les Métiers d’Art, Shakudo Opposite page Patek Philippe’s Reference 5089G-060 “Lac d’Emosson”