What does the world’s oldest watchmaker and the world’s most visited museum have in common?
When Vacheron Constantin and the Louvre partnered in 2019, they discovered a shared love of history, culture and art. Their relationship reached a new milestone in May this year with the release of four limited edition watches inspired by ancient civilisations.
In case you were wondering, centenarians can still have an active social life. Take the example of watchmaker Vacheron Constantin and the Louvre Museum. The 266-year-old and the 229-year-old, respectively, are now into the third year of their relationship.
In May, the pair threw a lavish party to celebrate their latest lovechild: A series of four artistic watches inspired by ancient civilisations. But more on that later.
It all began in 2016, when the Louvre knocked on the doors of Vacheron Constantin to seek the latter’s expertise in restoring an 18th century astronomical clock. According to Forbes, the clock sustained heavy damage after two years onboard a French navy ship. Despite the efforts of various other watchmakers over the subsequent decades, the clock was never fully functional.
Enter our protagonist, Vacheron Constantin, which spent a good three years getting the clock, called La Creation du Monde, back to good working condition. The timekeeper is now on display in the Louvre, a symbol of that momentous meeting.
Both sides were so pleased with the outcome that they swiped right, and the relationship was formalised in 2019. It made sense: Both were patrons of the arts, and had common values and shared interests. History, culture and heritage were paramount, with priority given to restoring, conserving and archiving art.
Plus, both were veterans in the business, having survived the French Revolution, two World Wars and other crises along the way. Across the centuries, many watches, clocks, paintings and sculptures would have succumbed to the ravages of time, requiring the nimble hands and deft patience of restorers to be reinstated to their former glory.
“In fact it was quite obvious that the two institutions [should] meet and have this collaboration because we [both] have this legacy introduced through artistry and culture, emphasised through craftsmanship and [artisanal qualities],” said Sandrine Donguy, Vacheron Constantin’s product marketing and innovation director.
“There are multiple angles to this partnership,” added Christian Selmoni, Vacheron Constantin’s style and heritage director. “Of course there’s the notion of patronage – supporting the Louvre. But since the beginning, we thought we could create a really interesting partnership with exchanges between our artisans.”
One such exchange took place recently, at the Homo Faber international exhibition in Venice, which ran from Apr 10 to May 1. There, Vacheron Constantin showcased the skills of four master artisans: A watchmaker, an enameller, an engraver and a gem-setter. Right alongside Vacheron Constantin were the framing-gilding workshops of the Louvre (one of 13 artistic craft guilds in the museum).
Vacheron Constantin produced two single-piece edition watches for the occasion, with artisans from the Louvre creating their own artwork – an engraved and gilded wooden panel – inspired by the watch designs. Think of it as next-level art-jamming.
Homo Faber is an event that’s little known outside the industry. Good thing, then, that the two institutions decided to throw a big launch party at the Louvre to attract global media attention (CNA Luxury included) to their cause.
The party, of course, was simply a grand finale to a three-year-long project, the Metiers d’Art – Tribute to great civilisations watch series. Four limited edition watches were created, each one boasting a dial inspired by an ancient civilisation (Egypt, Persia, Greece and Rome) that has artefacts housed in the Louvre.
“Our designers had a clear vision of which main art pieces they would like to express. But of course without the Louvre curators, we wouldn’t have been able to make the selections [based on the context],” explained Selmoni.
“So I think this is something great because every element of the watches that you have here is absolutely consistent from a historical point of view and a crafts point of view. This can only be done with specialists, like the kind you have in the Louvre.”
Ryan Ong, a Singaporean watch enthusiast who attended the launch, said: “Apart from the historical significance of the four different civilisations, I was blown away by the amount of detail that went into each dial. Techniques such as Champleve enamel, grisaille enamel, stone marquetry, and stone micro-mosaic were featured; these being taken from various works of the same period similar to the design depicted in the applique.”
Ong, who documents his love for horology on his Instagram account @ryehn, also noted that since he posted pictures of the watches, his followers have had varied responses.
“[The] majority of the responses have expressed excitement for the collection. As watch enthusiasts, we not only appreciate the exceptional history behind each piece, but we also tend to obsess over the aesthetics and the mechanical details within,” he said.
“Some people may have mixed feelings about the collection, but when you view them as unique art pieces [created] by the artisans, rather than a time-telling wristwatch, you really start to admire the splendour of fine craftsmanship and artisanal mastery of Vacheron Constantin.”
It is not clear if any or all of the new watches have been sold yet (Vacheron Constantin would not divulge any information). What is clear is that an earlier project, a one-of-a-kind bespoke watch, sold for €280,000 (S$412,000) at an online charity auction in December 2020, with 100 per cent of the proceeds being donated to the museum.
According to Donguy, the timepiece is currently being produced, and will be delivered to the client by the end of this year. The owner got to select his/her choice of dial design, based on an artwork in the Louvre. He/she settled on a piece by Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. Vacheron Constantin’s artisans were then tasked to bring the artwork to life using either grisaille enamelling or miniature enamelling techniques.
So what’s next for Vacheron Constantin and the Louvre? “There are so many ways to express this collaboration,” offered Donguy. “[We could consider] ways to express time or astronomy at the Louvre. They’re such a source of inspiration that we could explore other dimensions that emphasise both [our] values.”
CNA Luxury was in Paris at the invitation of Vacheron Constantin.