I was spellbound the first time I saw Jaquet Droz’s Charming Bird at the 2012 Baselworld fair. The miniaturised automaton bird inside the 47mm-diameter watch turned, flapped its wings, moved its head and tail, and opened its beak to chirp, all driven by an intricate mechanism set against an even more intricate hand-decorated dial which depicted the Swiss countryside. Priced at US$450,000 then, this wristwatch was way beyond the budget of ordinary watch-lovers but I could see why it would be a collector’s hidden treasure.
The maison has continued to astound since then with new creations such as the Lady 8 Flower, featuring a lotus flower that opens to reveal a pearl or a diamond, and the Petite Heure Minute Relief Carps, which used champlevé enamel to create the illusion of carp playing underwater.
Every year, companies introduce watches that astound, including métiers d’art timepieces. In watchmaking, metiers d’art describes art that has been resurrected and reintroduced, via limited edition or bespoke timepieces. These include engraving, enamelling and damascening which have been used for centuries to create intricate timepieces that put aesthetics before gadgetry and hi-tech functionality.
While many fans tend to focus on the technical side of mechanical watches, some well-heeled aficionados and collectors are attracted to métiers d’art timepieces. For them, these watches represent the pinnacle of watchmaking as they incorporate the highest level of craftsmanship and have an inherent value within the movement and a style that is not as concerned with trends.
Métiers d’art timepieces integrate artisanship and laborious hand finishing; hence they pay homage to the brands which have devoted lots of time, energy and money turning them into horological works of art.
They are difficult to buy, due to limited production, making them good investment pieces. Watch investors tend to attribute more value to métiers d’art and aesthetics because they believe their uniqueness will appreciate in value over the years.
Vacheron Constantin is credited with the re-introduction of métiers d’art when it debuted its Les Masques series in 2007. The maison took on an enormous challenge to recreate on gold plates the texture of wood, stone and other materials used in primitive masks. The basic form of each mask was created by laser engraving, with delicate features then added by engravers using burins. In 2008, the set of four watches was sold to a Chinese collector for US$603,750.
There have been some incredible métiers d’art timepieces, from enamel to scrimshaw, and feathers to wood marquetry, and many companies have become involved in métiers d’art as they have become more popular.
Crafting sheer beauty that combines ancient techniques with modern innovations, artisans continue to enthral connoisseurs around the globe.
It seems the only limit to métiers d’art’s creativity lies with the artisans’ imagination. The decorative arts are an endless quest for new techniques and patterns. Some creations are spectacular and this is one of the reasons for their success. As new techniques and materials are created or rediscovered, it deepens the appeal and the challenge to continue crafting spectacular watches that embody creativity, the finest craftsmanship, and of course testify to their watchmaking art.
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