Time, art and poetry Featured

Watches in which precision-engineered movements are accompanied by works of art on the dial, case and strap

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03 July 2013

A visit to one of Switzerland's watch museums confirms that from the dawn of watchmaking, timepieces were not just masterpieces of miniaturized engineering, but also works of art, incorporating superb engraving, guillochage, enamelling and gemsetting.

In the 19th century, Vacheron Constantin was already making pocket watches specially for women, pieces whose small size required advanced skills in miniaturization and decoration. From then on, right up until today, the maison has been proud of its in-house 'métiers d'art,' kept in good health by a workshop-apprentice system. In the Florilège series, the beautiful dials are crafted in guillochage engraving and Grand Feu cloisonné enamelling, with motifs based on the work of a 19th-century English botanical illustrator, Robert John Thornton. The enamelling is breathtaking; a magnifying glass reveals the incredible detail. Inside the case is a manually-wound movement, just 2.8 millimetres thick, visible through the sapphire caseback.

"At Van Cleef & Arpels, we often say that VCA stands for Very Creative Artists," says Geoffroy Medinger, managing director of the U.K., Swiss and Italian markets for the brand. "A Van Cleef & Arpels watch is a work of art, with content that includes symbols so that you can tell your own story and make the piece your own." It offers a different way of looking at time: not just to discover 'what time is it?' but to enjoy a moment of poetry. "We started our poetic theatres, with stories based on the seasons, or tiny characters who live out a scene over 24 hours. This year's Charms Extraordinaires watches are like four little stories: each piece has a lucky charm that rotates around the dial, echoing the motif, such as the dandelion clock for a wish, or the swallow that ushers in the spring season." They are limited-edition watches, superbly crafted with sculpture in gold, and dials in translucent lacquer and champlevé enamel.

"This is not a watch," as Magritte would say. In Cartier's Les Heures Fabuleuses collection, 41 timepieces change identity with a generous touch of irony. A ring embellished with a parrot transforms into a tiny watch, while in a bracelet, a watch at one end of the open curve is mirrored by a green beryl, set in an openwork mesh of diamonds. A peacock can take flight from the watch on which it rests, becoming a beautiful brooch in rhodium-plated white gold, diamonds, natural ruby and jade, perfectly coordinated with the timepiece featuring mother-of-pearl marquetry flowers. Cartier's metamorphosis of time is witty, precious and brilliantly creative.

Chaumet's series 'Montres Précieuses' presents six miniatures inspired by nature, such as a beautiful nocturnal scene in which insects, grasses and flowers are meticulously painted and sculpted, silhouetted against a moon in saltwater mother-of-pearl shining from a sky of lapislazzuli with pierrite stone stars. As you study the dial, you discover the details, a snail, dragonfly and a caterpillar, and a hand-painted ladybird right on the edge, inside the diamond-set bezel. The strap in blue gros-grain satin is enhanced by the pin buckle in white gold and brilliant-cut diamonds. The watch is powered by a Swiss self-winding movement.

Rolex brilliantly combines fine watchmaking with sophisticated beauty. The new version of the Oyster Perpetual Lady-Datejust Pearlmaster is a symphony in gemsetting, with two lines of diamonds looping around the strap and meeting the diamond-set bezel. This in turn frames a dial in black or white mother-of-pearl, adorned with a lotus flower motif in pink gold. The self-winding Calibre 2235, with COSC certification, is protected by the case in 18-carat Everose gold, guaranteed waterproof up to 100 metres depth. Never was the description 'Oyster' more apt.

Last but not least, a look at a one-off piece by uniquely American brand Jacob & Co. Founder Jacob Arabo's designs are startlingly different, as in the case of Ghost, a pentagonal watch providing multiple time zone readings, in a wide variety of finishes and materials. The most spectacular is named 'Grand Baguette,' a piece that is one of the most complicated settings ever done on a watch, with the case invisibly set with 360 baguette diamonds. A limited edition, number of pieces: one. Price: one. Of course.