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The Face of Heritage Featured

From Geneva to Kyoto: the latest addition to Vacheron Constantin's peerless Metiers d'Art collection is a celebration of beauty that pairs a sprinkling of gold dust with ancient Japanese craftsmanship and veteran horological verve
by 04 August 2010

Anyone who considers themselves a connoisseur of fine pens will likely have heard of the ancient Japanese art of Maki-e, in which elaborate pictures are created by sprinkling gold or silver dust onto wet lacquer harvested from the sap of the urushi tree.

The most celebrated versions of such pens were created by Japan's Namiki Manufacturing Company, founded in 1918 as a maker of nibs, which produced its first Maki-e decorated fountain pens in 1924. The Pilot 'Giant' Namiki, created in around 1930, became the most expensive pen ever sold at auction when it fetched £183,000 at Bonhams in London a decade ago.

But while Maki-e is relatively well known in the world of high-end writing instruments, it is only this year that it has come to be associated with luxury wristwatches. This is a result of a remarkable collaboration between Vacheron Constantin (the oldest watch firm in continuous production, founded in 1755) and the even older Japanese firm of Zohiko, a supplier to the Imperial Court that has been creating lacquer artworks since 1661.

Zohiko suggested the cooperation after Vacheron Constantin announced its 'Les Masques' collection back in 2007, which featured a set of wristwatches with dials adorned with exquisite precious metals, replicas of a series of tribal masks from Geneva's Barbier-Mueller Museum of Primitive Art. Every year for three years, a £280,000 boxed set of four different mask watches was released in a series of 25 editions, with the aim that buyers could gradually acquire a complete collection of 12 unique pieces. The philosophy behind the creation of the watches struck a chord with Zohiko, so much so that between now and 2013, sixty sets of three Maki-e watches will be released, each in a limited series of twenty.

Unveiled at this year's Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva, their dials come meticulously adorned with Maki-e lacquer paintings inspired by different Japanese motifs. Each of the three watches in the first set, for example, will be decorated respectively with images of a plum tree and a nightingale, a pine tree and a crane, and bamboo shoots and a sparrow, all of which represent different manifestations of longevity in Japanese culture.

To best complement the remarkably delicate nature of the Maki-e art form, Vacheron Constantin has chosen its wafer-thin Caliber 1003 mechanical movement as the basis for the watches, refining it further by crafting the mechanism from 14-carat white gold and skeletonising it. The completed movements and lacquered dials are housed in simple, perfectly round 40mm cases, made from either rose or white gold and fitted with black alligator straps.

Considering that, by the very nature of 'sprinkled pictures', each of these watches will be unique and just 20 of each design will ever be made, the £160,000-per-set price tag seems far from unreasonable – but don't expect to be able to rush to your nearest Vacheron Constantin boutique and snap up a set there and then. Each watch takes several months to complete, and there is already a waiting list.

After all, as the Japanese proverb so rightly observes, "art is the illusion of spontaneity."

Related articles:
Patrimony Line by Vacheron Constantin
Watchmaking Perfection by Vacheron Constantin

London FW 2010