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"Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without." - Confucius

In January I admired the exceptional craftsmanship of the Métiers d’Arts Fabuleux Ornements and the Mécaniques Ajourées collection. Last week I visited the “Voyage and Ornaments” exhibition at the boutique of Vacheron Constantin, to discover the inspiration and aesthetic influences behind. I got a detailed and professional guide from Jérôme Meier (Expert Watchmaker & Heritage) in the Maison at 7, Quai de l’Île.

From the early 18th century the neighbourhood of Saint-Gervais was famous for “Fabrique genevoise”; it encapsulated many highly skilled artisans such as watchmakers, goldsmiths, and jewellers. The workshops were on the top floor of houses where there was the best natural light condition. Vacheron Constantin had premises at the Tour de l’Île, but in the late 19th century they moved to a bigger, modern manufacture.

There are a few historical tools and documents in the upper level of the boutique, such as the apprentice agreement (1755) of Jean-Marc Vacheron or a signed (J: M: Vacheron A GENEVE) silver pocket watch – the oldest piece of the heritage collection. Among the tools from the 18th or 19th century you can see machines for dividing and cutting the wheels, face-lathes or even the travelling workbench of Vacheron – these are truly appealing in themselves.

Oldest pocket watch from the Vacheron Constantin heritage, silver pocket watch, signed by J M Vacheron

Not part of the exhibition but stunning items are the Chronometre Royal gold open-face pocket watch with white enamel dial, Roman numerals and subsidiary seconds and a gold pocket watch with minute repeater, split seconds chronograph, perpetual calendar with moon-phase.

The presentation included 47 pieces, from the end of the 1800s until early 2000. The imaginary journey is quite international, as the Métiers d’Arts Fabuleux Ornements collection is inspired by Ottoman architecture, Chinese embroidery, Indian manuscripts and French lacework. The Mécaniques Ajourées includes motifs from European art and architecture, like Art Deco and the large glass-domed roofs of historical railway stations. In the exhibition the heritage pieces also accompany a similar route; additionally including pieces inspired by Ancient Greek culture.

The Oriental inspiration comes from India, China, Japan and the Ottoman Empire, so the decoration is diverse. The ancient manuscripts, Chinese embroidery, cherry blossoms, samurai or Byzantine architectural elements are interpreted into little masterpieces with champlevé enamel technique, engraving, guilloché or miniature painting.

Pocket watch, yellow gold, enamelled case, guilloché dial, 1834
Pocket watch with Ottoman inspired decoration, 1824

The tiny pendant watches and pocket watches with Hellenistic motifs are extremely graceful miniatures, representing picturesque scenes or Hermès (a god of transitions and boundaries).

Pocket watch, yellow gold, enamel, champlevé enamelled, 1921

Lace has a long history in France: it became fashionable around 1610. Jean-Baptiste Colbert was the financial minister of King Louis XIV and he decided to improve lace-making in France, establishing companies in Arras, Bayeux, Chantilly and more. I think the delicate lace-like Vacheron Constantin pocket and wristwatches would make even the supreme lace master artisans of Alençon proud.

European architecture at the end of the 19th century or styles like the Belle Époque and later Art Deco provide meaningful influences in the decoration of the cases, dials and even movements. Art Deco as an influential visual arts design style characterized by rich colours, bold geometric shapes and lavish ornamentation was the idea behind many aesthetical concepts also in fine watchmaking.

In the last chapter of the exhibition there were captivating hand decorated ultra-thin skeleton pocket watches and wristwatches representing a reference to industrial architecture, just like the Mécaniques Ajourées.


Photo credits: Vacheron Constantin, Loupiosity.com.
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