Van Cleef & Arpels: A Company of Artists and Poets

Jean Bienaymé describes some of the latest watch innovations by Van Cleef & Arpels.


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07 February 2017

Poetry may seem a world apart from the technology of high-end watches, but Van Cleef & Arpels succeed uniquely in combining poetry and engineering in its complication timepieces. We spoke to Jean Bienaymé, the company’s International Marketing and Communication Director, in Geneva, about the brand’s latest innovations. Starting with the enchanting Lady Arpels Ronde des Papillons watch, which tells a story of aerial ballet, with three butterflies and a swallow, hand-painted with delicate precision, darting in and out of the clouds.

nuitLady Arpels Ronde des Papillons hand painted swallow

“It’s an interesting complication, in which it’s as if you had three hands for the minutes, in the form of the three butterflies which show the time on three scales, the first from zero to 30, the second from 30 to 45, the last from 45 to the hour. The hours are shown by the swallow on a retrograde scale. The user can also trigger an animation lasting ten seconds: by pushing the button at eight o’clock, the butterflies set off for a dance around the clouds. All this is powered by a new automatic movement, in which the butterflies move at variable speeds, made possible by an elliptic gear, part of a patent pending mechanism. Even if the user activates the animation repeatedly, in the meantime there is a differential wheel that keeps track of the time so that there is no loss of time-keeping accuracy.”

Watches by Van Cleef & Arpels often tell a story, a narrative in precious metals and jewels. But which comes first, the movement or the tale? “We start with the poetry,” says Jean Bienaymé, “whether they be lovers on a bridge, planets, or a star marking your lucky day, and then we design the movement in accordance with that, focusing the attention on the story.”

headshotJean Bienaymé

Related: Walter von Känel, the man who makes time

Where do the ideas come from? “Creation is a lot about talking to each other. We are greatly inspired by the high jewellery collection, in which many unique pieces tell a story around a single theme.” Another watch presented in January 2016, inspired by the dazzling stars in the night sky, incorporates another branch of technology: electro-mechanics. In Midnight Nuit Lumineuse, the deep blue dial in aventurine glass provides the backdrop for several constellations of diamond stars. When the pusher is pressed, the movement transmits a mechanical vibration to a strip of ceramic, which generates enough electricity to power six diodes that light up six of the diamonds. The effect lasts for about four seconds. The time is indicated by a retrograde hand on a scale running up to 12.

The idea of a watch that constantly changes appearance during the course of the day has been a part of Van Cleef & Arpels’ philosophy since 2006, when the first pieces in the Poetic Complications collection were presented. This year, Lady Jour des Fleurs and Lady Nuit des Papillons are a combination of refined gemsetting and haute horlogerie, on a dial that rotates through 12 hours every day, powered by the hand-wound mechanical movement. Lady Arpels Jour Nuit Fée Ondine is another watch expressing the natural rhythms of time, by means of a 24-hour module that drives the gradual rotation of the dial, on which the sun crowns the day, replaced by the full moon at night. This piece was inspired by the high jewellery brooch Fée Ondine (2005), and the nymph’s delicate features are reminiscent of that original.

Fée OndineFée Ondine

It’s intriguing to watch the constant stream of new ideas emerging from Van Cleef & Arpels year after year. We ask Jean Bienaymé whether there is a specialist department of artists, poets and dreamers at their headquarters?

“I think that we are all a bit artists and poets. It’s a value, the people working at the maison are interested in telling and sharing a story, transmitting it to other people.” At Van Cleef & Arpels, savoir faire is accompanied by savoir rêver.

Van Cleef & Arpels

9 New Bond Street London W1S 3SW

+44 (0)20 7493 0400