A watch with a butterfly automaton

Van Cleef & Arpels recreate nature on a watch, with a surprising degree of interactivity

by Omer Unlu 25 January 2017

One of the most surprising watches presented at SIHH was the Lady Arpels Papillon Automate watch by Van Cleef & Arpels, which has an animated butterfly on the dial. The butterfly and its setting of verdant nature is evoked by a range of artisanal techniques, including enamel, sculpted mother-of-pearl and jewel-setting. But the most unusual feature of this watch is that it is interactive. The frequency at which the butterfly is activated, and the number of wing beats, depends on the user’s activity. Considering that the watch is entirely mechanical, this is no mean feat.

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The watch is powered by a self-winding movement, with an oscillating weight, visible through the sapphire caseback, that transforms movements of the wrist into power for the mainspring. If you place the watch on a table, the butterfly beats its wings randomly, for from one to four wing beats, 19 times an hour. There is a gear with 19 irregularly-spaced teeth determining this frequency. But if you put the watch on and move about, the oscillating weight not only winds the mainspring, but also increases the frequency of the flapping sessions, and the number of flaps in each session. So the butterfly’s behaviour matches that of the wearer. The movement includes a wing-beat speed regulator analogous to that on a minute repeater.

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Of course, the owner of a watch like this will want to demonstrate it to her friends, and so there is also a pusher that triggers the wingbeats. The butterfly itself is a miracle of jewellery, with wings framed in gold, and coloured with two shades of plique-à-jour enamel. This new technique, developed specially by Van Cleef & Arpels, enables enamel to be shaped into three-dimensional forms. On the butterfly wings it has an ethereal transparency that is perfectly evocative of the insect’s delicacy.

The background is full of figurative references, with a moon in paillonné enamel reflected in water that is set with blue, mauve and violet sapphires. All considered, this piece is a masterpiece both of jewellery and of watchmaking. The base movement for time functions has 147 components, but the movement powering the butterfly has a staggering 417 parts. The piece includes some new inventions, for which there are four patents pending. The watch is a numbered edition, part of the permanent collection. See more at http://www.vancleefarpels.com/

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