GENEVA - For those who follow the watch world, over the last couple of years the words métiers d’art have cropped up with increasing frequency. I first heard the term about a decade ago when Vacheron Constantin launched a fascinating series of watches based on masks in the Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva. They stick in my mind because they were genuinely artistic interpretations of the sort of African, Asian and South American works that inspired Picasso and his circle.
Defined by both craftsmanship and creativity, métiers d’art is not a new thing. As Julien Marchenoir, Heritage Director at Vacheron Constantin, points out, the famous Genevese maison has been using the same principles to embellish timepieces since it was founded in the 18th century. And should you be in Geneva I urge you to visit the Patek Philippe Museum, which has one of the finest collections of this genre of watchmaking.
Cartier’s Ronde Louis Cartier XL watch with a filigree panther motif (left) and Vacheron’s Métiers d’Art The Legend
of the Chinese Zodiac 2015, Year of the Goat (right), are both set to be released this year.
A generation ago enamelling was an almost-dead art, yet in recent years has enjoyed a huge revival. Now for the watch lover in pursuit of something bright to look at on his wrist, plenty of different techniques have been revived including cloisonné, paillone and plique-à-jour.
What makes the current trend even more interesting is that watchmakers are becoming ever more inventive in the way that craft skills are borrowed from other disciplines, much in the way that ten or fifteen years ago the watch industry borrowed “new” materials from elsewhere.
For instance, Hermès has used millefiori paperweight-making skills to create some dazzling dials. The French luxury house has also made watches using straw marquetry, a nod to its work during the Art Deco period with Jean-Michel Frank, arguably the most important interior designer in France between the wars.
Microsculpture is another decorative skill that allows watchmakers such as Roger Dubuis to evoke scenes ranging from the legends of King Arthur to the wildlife of Africa. Meanwhile, detailed needlework known as micro-peinture à l’aiguille has been used by both Piaget and Chanel (who have drawn on the savoir faire of its embroidery firm Lesage) to make dials.
Cartier has been among the more innovative houses in the field of métiers d’art. This year it has already unveiled a watch featuring their famous panther in filigree detail. For its sheer inventive chutzpah, I still think the famous Parisian jeweller’s flower marquetry of last year is hard to beat. Cartier took rose petals – treated so they did not fade or degrade – which were then cut into tiny fragments to resemble feathers and sculpted into the head of a parrot on the watch’s dial.
Cartier clearly believes there to be a great future for this sort of work. It has restored an 18th-century farmhouse near its La Chaux-de-Fonds factory, an environment that encourages Cartier’s specialist craftsmen to exchange ideas and devise new decorative techniques. If flower petal marquetry is one of the products of this creative hothouse, it will be fascinating to see what new avenues of decorative ingenuity open up.
Nick Foulkes is a contributing editor of Vanity Fair and How to Spend It, editor of Vanity Fair on Time and luxury editor of GQ. He is currently working on a book about the French Expressionist painter Bernard Buffet.