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Beyond Time, Expressing Tales: The Curiously Intelligent Watches of Van Cleef & Arpels

by Jonathan Ho on February 22, 2017

It’s always a major travesty when brands like Van Cleef & Arpels, Harry Winston and Jaquet Droz don’t get enough discussion simply because we miss the interesting calibres for the pretty Plique-à-jour enamel trees. It’s not hyperbole either when I describe the travesty as a major one, Van Cleef & Arpels and even Piaget are often missing brand discussion pages on the various watch forum platforms.

That said and in all fairness, brands like Van Cleef & Arpels, Harry Winston and to a lesser extent Piaget have pigeon-holed themselves in the bejewelled luxury watch segment through no fault of their own-  They often make many high horology watches so often decked in the fine jewels which renders the timepiece fiscally (and genderly) out of reach for all but the most ardent fans but honestly, if one claims to be a watch aficionado or WIS, you better sit up and pay attention to Van Cleef & Arpels because they are seriously producing seriously fantastic mechanical timepieces, made possible with the cooperation of some of the most talented watchmaking geniuses of our time.

Jean-Marc Wiederrecht: One of the Brains behind (Some) of the Curiously Intelligent Watches of Van Cleef & Arpels

Jean-Marc Wiederrecht is one of the greatest independent watchmakers of our time. Together with his wife, Catherine, Jean-Marc Wiederrecht founded Agenhor, an independent watchmaking company whose creations have won numerous prestigious watchmaking awards. His creations for Hermes, Van Cleef & Arpels, MB&F and Harry Winston’s Opus series, have all been celebrated as some of the greatest creations in the watchmaking industry.

Wiederrecht specialises in the design of complex mechanical modules for watches. It’s a complex process which begins after getting commissioned to performing technical design studies; and then finally development and production for some of the world’s most complex and beautiful mechanical complications. It is to Van Cleef & Arpels’ credit that in order to work with a man like Wiederrecht, you have to first be able to conceptualise what it is you wish to accomplish – for a brand like Van Cleef & Arpels that means movements which do more than express time-keeping, it means telling a tale: an expression of poetry, romanticism and whimsy.

A complex system of wheels and elliptical gears make the random retrograde butterfly dance of minutes possible in the Van Cleef & Arpels Rotonde des Papillons.

The automatic winding calibre of the Van Cleef & Arpels Rotonde des Papillons has a retrograde jumping hour represented by the Swallow; meanwhile three Butterflies serve as minute hands that travel on their corresponding minute arcs from 0 to 30, 30 to 35, 35 to 60. But, when you press the activation button on the left side, magic happens, all three of the butterflies “fly” and fly at different speeds – the illusion of life made possible by elliptical gears and inertial regulator, adding quite a bit of complexity. Is it absolutely necessary? No. But then again, with modern hairsprings, neither is the tourbillon.

 

The intelligent movement also controls the small retrograde arc for hours on the Van Cleef & Arpels Rotonde des Papillons, I don’t know many classical traditional complications expressed in such a fine manner.

“People come to me with new ideas in their heads, and we are in charge of making them come true. The big difference between the others and us is that we don’t make standard movements, and after [working with us] the designers and the brands make the finished watches. We need a wish, an idea, a drawing from our clients, and we make the movements from the drawings,” – Jean-Marc Wiederrecht, Brains behind Van Cleef & Arpels’ smartest movements

It is important to note, that while many high end brands commission the services of Wiederrecht (for perpetual calendars and the like), only a handful credit him (and Agenhor) for his genius, preferring to take credit (and rightfully so – money for services and the protection of a Non-Disclosure Agreement) for themselves. Wiederrecht’s most discussed accomplishments just happen to be men’s watches –  MB&F’s Horological Machine No.2 in which Wiederrecht was the principle watchmaker, winning the prestigious 2007 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève and Harry Winston’s Opus 9 for which he won the 2009 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève – Watch Design Award.

Unabashedly feminine, tragically ignored by most watch lovers. A tragedy because the Jean-Marc Wiederrecht’s calibres beneath are expressions of high horology beyond your typical tourbillon. The Retrograde movement is one of four movements featured in the Van Cleef & Arpels Poetic Complications collection.

Yet, there was one brand for whom he toiled which won numerous awards – Van Cleef & Arpels. With 2010’s Pont Des Amoureux winning not just the Ladies’ Watch Award but also six other international prizes. What makes these Van Cleef & Arpels watches (and their calibres) so curiously intelligent is directly correlated to the watchmaking philosophy of the man behind them – Wiederrecht expresses the purest side of watchmaking as an art form away from commercial sensibilities. In essence, he’s an academic watchmaker obsessed with the theory and practice of micro-mechanics rather than the sale of it; this in turn makes the movements of Van Cleef & Arpels not only beautiful but ground breaking.

 

Wiederrecht’s first in-house movement in a Van Cleef & Arpels Poetic Wish.

 

Unlike companies like La Joux-Perret and BNB, Agenhor does not make movements. As a complication specialist, Wiederrecht makes modules and integrated complications and adds them base movements, that was until he broke his rule for a worthy master, Van Cleef & Arpels.  At SIHH 2012,  Wiederrecht unveiled his first in-house movement in the Van Cleef & Arpels Poetic Wish.

Christiaan Van Der Klaauw: the brains behind the Van Cleef & Arpels Midnight Planétarium

Christiaan Van Der Klaauw is the brains behind 2014’s watchmaking masterpiece, the Van Cleef & Arpels Midnight Planetarium. Like Wiederrecht, van der Klaauw spanned an impressive career. In 1974, he presented a lavishly yet classically decorated astronomical clock with moon phase.It was to be the start of what would ignite his curiosity and his muse in the stars.

A pink shooting star acts as the hour indicator rotating on a 24 hour adventurine disc.

Over the course of his watchmaking career, van der Klaauw operated like some genetic heir to the talents of Copernicus and Leonardo da Vinci, developing mind-blowing high complication models which calculated astronomical phenomena and expressing them in the forms of  a 3-D moon phase and solar declination in 1980 and a table clock featuring a 3-D planetarium, astrolabe, and planisphere of the northern and southern hemisphere in 1989. Naturally, when Van Cleef & Arpels wanted to recreate the solar system in all its exquisite beauty, they turned to one man – Christiaan Van Der Klaauw.

It is Van Cleef & Arpel’s most complicated watch to date, and for van der Klaauw, the work of two and a half years developing the proprietary planetarium module which would sit on top of the Richemont Group’s in-house calibre produced at the company’s Stern manufacture (Roger Dubuis manufacture shares a building with them).

The movement totals 396 parts all together and for such a complicated watch, the movement is intelligent where it matters most – ease of use. In conceptualising the Van Cleef & Arpels Midnight Planetarium, Denis Giguet, International Director of Watchmaking at the Maison challenged van der Klaauw to create a movement that was both easy to operate yet elegant.

 

van der Klaauw designed the movement to operate the functions of day, month and year through two pushers at the side of the case. Though not within the scope of this essay, the adventurine rings forming the dial of the Midnight Planetarium is so challenging to cut and tool precisely that we would be remiss to not mention that the speckled quality of the stone and the brittleness in engineering and polishing it to such elegance, combined with the remarkable lack of “gap” between each rotating disc is nothing short of miraculous. Back to the movement:

Yes, each aventurine ring holding the various planetary bodies of the solar system moves independently around the dial, thankfully, the energy requirements and thus torque to rotate each disc is small due to the long orbits of each planet around the sun ranging from 88 days to 29 years.

The intelligence of van der Klaauw’s Midnight Planetarium movement lies in the particularly epic way the solar system is represented at any given date. Using well calculated gear ratios, van der Klaauw’s astronomical positions are unnervingly precise: if you pick a date at random, the planets on the dial will be in the exact positions in space as they were on that very day. Geek out on that.

When you combine intelligence with gorgeous romanticism, you get the Natalie Portman (Hollywood actress, Harvard grad and hot since she was 12 in the movie – The Professional) of watches – the red arrow of the Van Cleef & Arpels Midnight Planetarium is controlled by a rotating bezel; allowing you to set the arrow to a special date like a wedding anniversary or the birth date of one of your children; in doing so, the precious stone representing Earth will position itself beneath the engraved star on the sapphire.

Max Busser once described to me that traditional watchmaking is “steam engines in the era of the space shuttle” – he was in essence saying that our passions are basically hallmarks of a foregone era: more art than actual function. From the arguable utility of the tourbillon to the beauteous finishing on a double split chronograph, we are really in love with the story and history of watchmaking rather than the utility itself; by that very argument, we do ourselves a disservice when we ignore a brand like Van Cleef & Arpels when they are expressing the very essence of that philosophy – love of time-keeping and story-telling.

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