"We often say that VCA stands for very creative artists." Geoffroy Medinger should know. As managing director of the United Kingdom, Swiss and Italian markets for Van Cleef & Arpels, he has a privileged viewpoint of the maison's timepieces and the way they are received.
"What really makes the difference is that our collections are created by artists, not by marketing specialists. We are not cynically targeting a certain segment of customers. 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. When you buy a Van Cleef & Arpels piece, you are acquiring part of our heritage, and we are there to participate in an important moment in a person's life."
The maison's approach to time is very different to that of just precision. Our perception of time is not the same from second to second. Special moments acquire significance, and an instant can stretch to form a memorable experience. Van Cleef & Arpels call it 'The Poetry of Time:' ways of looking at time in a magical way instead of just saying 'What time is it?' or 'I'm late!'
"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, so you can turn the lucky charm to exactly the time at which you need a bit of luck. This echoes the story on the dial, such as the dandelion clock for a wish, or the swallow that ushers in the spring season. A watch like this helps the wearer remember that any moment can be special; it's always a good time to enjoy a bit of luck or emotion."
The Charms Extraordinaires are limited-edition watches, superbly crafted with sculpture in gold, dials in translucent lacquer and champlevé enamel, and diamonds highlighting the details of the enchanting scenes. The bezel is set with three rows of diamonds and coloured stones. The crafts techniques used include miniature painting on mother-of-pearl, which provides an infinite range of shades and details, but can only be performed by highly skilled craftspeople. Dandelion clock, lily of the valley, lotus, swallows: the subjects belong to a universal language of good luck.
The same superb craftsmanship appears in this year's Extraordinary Dials collection, featuring butterflies and kites, whose dials are delicately assembled from white gold, mother-of-pearl, lapislazzuli, enamel and diamonds, evoking the glorious colour of sky, nature and butterflies. But the true horological masterpiece for Van Cleef & Arpels this year is the Ballerine Enchantée Poetic Complication.
"This watch incorporates a wealth of tradition and imagery. The retrograde movement was inspired by the Magicien Chinois pocket watch dating back to 1927, in which the magician indicates the time by raising his arms. We have been inspired by the world of ballet for years, with many jewellery clips made during the 1940s. The opposite is true as well: choreographer George Balanchine was inspired by Van Cleef & Arpels jewellery pieces that he saw on Fifth Avenue every day and fell in love with; the scenes of his ballet Jewels are titled Emeralds, Diamonds and Rubies. For the new Ballerine Enchantée watch, the maison was inspired by a quote by dancer Anna Pavlova: 'I've been dreaming that I was a ballerina, and that I was spending my whole life dancing as lightly as a butterfly...' The mechanism is complex, providing time on demand. At rest, the dancer's butterfly-wing tutu is folded downwards; when the button at 8 o'clock is pressed, the tutu starts to move, rising slowly to mark first the hours on the left, then the minutes on the other side. After remaining in position for a couple of seconds, the wings slowly return to the resting position. This complication took a few years of development, and it continues the idea of telling a story in a beautiful way."
The movement has a subtle feature. You may think that if you press the button a lot, the watch will run down more quickly, but this is not the case, because every time you press it, you inject a little energy into the mainspring.
"We always start from the design idea and the poetry, and then we think about the technical aspects: how can we tell the story in the most beautiful way? This year, the challenge was giving the ballerina very fluid movements to match the visual beauty. The ballerina herself is very detailed, in sculpted gold and multiple layers of enamelling to create volume. The head of the ballerina is a pear-shaped diamond. The whole piece expresses the quest for absolute perfection. That's what luxury is about, when everything is perfect even when you don't see it; or when it's still perfect even if it has been enlarged 100 times. It's very wearable, not at all pretentious: it's simply beautiful. It gives a woman an idea of how beautiful a creation can be."
The appreciation of beauty is made very easy by an interesting departure: L'École, founded in 2012, giving everyone the chance to find out more about the crafts techniques used by Van Cleef & Arpels, once close to being industry secrets. We asked Geoffroy Medinger about the reactions to these courses.
"Feedback has been amazing. Under the leadership of Marie Vallanet-Delhorn, L'École has already had 1,500 students from 28 countries; at the moment, there are 14 classes that provide a good overview of jewellery and watchmaking. You learn about the history, fashion, gemstones, you meet our 'mains d'or' and you can try the techniques yourself with their guidance. After this sort of experience, you look at the pieces very differently."
Van Cleef & Arpels' unique timepieces can be made even more unique by personalization.
"You can engrave any of our pieces to deliver your message. Or we can make a piece just for you. We have a whole team that works to make your own unique piece, whether a watch or a piece of jewellery. You can have a Midnight in Paris watch, with the night sky on the dial designed just for you, according to the time and location that you want to remember. It's more than personalization, it's making something unique, like you."