At Cartier’s Maison des Métiers d’Art, tradition and innovation collide in the most enrapturing and scintillating manner, learns candice chan
it’s not surprising that Cartier should own one of the largest watch factories in Switzerland. As one of the most commercially successful luxury brands, its 33,000sqm Fine Watchmaking Manufacture is packed with state-of-the-art equipment and long assembly lines of automated machinery churning out components like clockwork to meet gruelling production demands. But despite its high-tech façade, the human touch is quintessential in the making of a Cartier timepiece. Perhaps the most exemplary of Cartier’s reliance on human ingenuity can be found in its Maison des Métiers d’Art, located in a small 18th-century Bernese-style farm next to the Fine Watchmaking Manufacture.
Although much of the building’s exterior has been kept intact, most of its interiors (aside from the roof and Bordeaux tiles) have been completely redesigned to accommodate two important departments: High Watchmaking and Metiers d’Art. It should be noted that Cartier is only one of a handful of watch manufacturers to boast an in-house team of artists; most brands engage and rely on external independent parties — also few and far between — to work on their artistic watches.
In the Metiers d’Art workshop, Cartier’s 30-strong team of artisans breathe life into ancestral crafts such as enamel (of which Cartier has mastered several techniques, such as miniature painting, cloisonné, champlevé, grisaille and plique-à-jour enamelling), marquetry (stone, straw, floral, gold leaf and wood), gem-setting and more unusual art forms like granulation, flamed gold and filigree. These traditional methods cannot be replicated by a machine as they are the result of a tedious and complicated process that requires the expertise and intuition of a trained artisan.
Take the example of the evocative Rotonde de Cartier watch from 2012 that proudly shows a tiger’s mien on the dial decorated using the grisaille enamel technique. Requiring some 40 hours of manual work, each dial is first hand-painted with black enamel and baked in the oven before the artist uses a needle or brush to delicately paint on coats of Limoges white enamel to attain the precise nuances of white and grey tones. There is nothing systematic about the process; instead, every move the artist makes is guided by his artistic sensibilities and experience gleaned over the years.
However, to regard the Metiers d’Art workshop merely as a place where such intricate crafts are perpetuated and perfected is also not giving it due credit. Indeed, Cartier has explicitly expressed that the purpose of Maison des Métiers d’Art is not watchmaking; instead, it is a hub for the preservation of age-old crafts as well as a test
bed for new artistic techniques: Some revived, others adapted from existing ones and a few entirely new developments.
This year’s Révélation d’Une Panthère launch, a mesmerising watch that reveals the outline of a panther’s face only when the watch is tilted forward, is an example of the kind of magic that happens behind the closed doors of the Maison des Métiers d’Art. Following the pull of gravity are 900 tiny golden orbs that seem to be suspended in a viscous liquid, evenly moving down the dial before settling in place to reveal the outline of Cartier’s emblematic panther. Seconds later, as the golden orbs continue to fall through like sand in an hourglass to the bottom of the dial, the panther disappears, almost like an apparition.
Some five years in the making, the technology behind this disappearing act involves several patents, which Cartier remains tight-lipped about. What we know for certain is how the little golden spheres are made — a process that the craftsmen in the Maison des Métiers d’Art have perfected since Cartier debuted the art of gold bead granulation to the watchmaking world.
Gold bead granulation is an example of an artistic technique brought back from obscurity thanks to Cartier. Found in Etruscan art from as early as 300BC, it is a lost jeweller’s craft that was introduced to the Cartier workshop in 2013, with the help of experts from the Louvre Museum. This is not a job for the faint-hearted: The demanding technique requires the production of thousands of variedly sized golden orbs that need to be painstakingly arranged by hand on a hollowedout dial before being soldered on. When it was first executed on the Rotonde de Cartier 42mm Panther with Granulation watch (2013), some 320 hours and 3,800 golden balls were used to create the face of Cartier’s emblematic panther.
However, it is within the rejuvenated or newly innovated techniques, such as in the examples of floral marquetry (2014), enamel granulation (2016) and flamed gold (2017), that Cartier’s dedication to the arts can be fully admired.
With floral marquetry, Cartier achieved a world premiere when it replaced the traditional materials of wood, straw or feathers (typically used in marquetry art) with dyed rose petals to evoke the feathery portrait of a parrot. The Ballon Bleu de Cartier watch with Parrot motif (2014) was the first time floral petals have been used in marquetry-style art, which explains why it took three weeks just to complete the dial.
Enamel granulation came about when Cartier ingeniously combined the art of Etruscan granulation with its expertise in enamelling, replacing the golden spheres with little tediously produced enamel beads. Finally, with the flamed gold technique, Cartier was inspired by the method of blueing steel (commonly found in hands and screws): Through the process of firing up the gold dial at different temperatures numerous times, a palette of colours ranging from light beige to blue is elicited to form an arresting image of the beloved panther.
ABOVE LEFT: EACH ENAMELLED GRANULE HAS TO BE INDIVIDUALLY PLACED AND SOLDERED ONTO THE DIAL OF THE BALLON BLEU DE CARTIER ENAMEL GRANULATION WATCH; ABOVE RIGHT: THE MYRIAD OF COLOURS THAT HAVE BEEN USED ON CARTIER’S ENAMEL WATCHES
FIXING THE GEM-SET EYE ONTOTHE PARROT MOTIF ON THE DIAL OF THE BALLON BLEU DE CARTIER, THE FIRST WATCH TO FEATURE FLORAL MARQUETRY
APPLYING THE FINISHING TOUCHES ON THE ROTONDE DE CARTIER TIGER, WHICH FEATURES A DIAL DECORATED WITH GRISAILLE ENAMEL
CARTIER’S RÉVÉLATION D’UNE PANTHÈRE WATCH FEATURES900 TINY GOLDEN BEADS SUSPENDED IN A VISCOUS LIQUID