From floral folly to Métiers d’art


Watch brands, by and large, tend to focus on watches for the male of the species rather than the female in their major yearly launches, but this year Vacheron Constantin focused on women, bringing out some Métiers d’art pieces for women that showcase some of their skills in enamelling, gem-setting and guillochage (engraving hollow lines and intersect them to decorate jewels, dials and watches), with a master guiollocher in their SIHH 2013 booth showing his skill at this extraordinarily delicate work with a large piece of machinery.

These ladies’ Métiers d’art are called ‘Florilège’, inspired by the celebrated botanical folly of Robert John Thornton (1768 – 1837), physician and botanist. Noted for two tomes, “A New Illustration of the Sexual System of Carolus Von Linnæus” and “The British Flora”, Vacheron Constantin’s watches are directly inspired by Part III (The Temple of Flora) of the former.

Thornton was nothing if not ambitious, declaring in its prospectus that the object of the book “is to trace in as perspicacious a manner as possible the philosophical principles of botany, from the earliest times, up to the present period, and by faithful and well executed engravings of the several subjects of the investigation, to render this curious and interesting inquiry level to everyone’s comprehension.”

As was common practice at the time, he sought subscribers to fund this three volume elephant folio-sized extravaganza. ‘The Temple of Flora’ was to include 70 folio plates of plants, and although he managed to convince some wealthy subscribers such as Queen Charlotte, the Prince and Princess of Wales, various other British and other royalty and a few hundred English nobleman, gentry, medical folk and public institutions, it was not enough to save the project, nor was convincing the government that a public lottery of 20,000 tickets to support its production would complete it. Only 31 of the 70 plates were printed between 1799 and 1807, and Thornton died destitute.

The thirty-one plates that were produced were printed in colour and afterwards finished by hand, but during production most of the plates were altered or added to, producing a different ‘state’ in each case. As a result, some plates have as many as four different states.

For all the folly of its creation, ‘The Temple of Flora’ remains one of the world’s most magnificent and idiosyncratic flower books, its focus less on being a purely botanical book, with its unusual use of backgrounds such as churchyards and poetical and other forms of accompanying text, and more as simply a thing of great floral beauty, and it is this that has made its way to the dials of these watches.

Vacheron have chosen three flowers from Thornton’s book – ‘Lys Blanc’ the white lily, ‘China Limodoron’ and ‘Reine’ (queen) is the Bird of Paradise. The Reine will be limited to five pieces. China Limodoron and Lys Blanc, twenty pieces each.

As mentioned at the outset, the creation of each of these dials and cases involves guillochage, cloisonne and grand feu enamelling by Anita Porchet, and gem-setting. If you look closely at them, you can see the gradations of colour in the flowers, from a deep pink to a pale pink, or the same with the orange in the Reine.

Quite remarkably beautiful. Inside, they all contain the manual wind Cal.4400 with a power reserve of 65 hours. The hands are white gold, as are the cases, and the white gold buckle, diamond-set. The Reine’s bezel is set with baguette-cut diamonds, whilst the other two have round-cut.

Although cheaper editions of his magnum opus were issued during Thornton’s lifetime during his failed attempts to complete the project, there have only been a few generally smaller editions made since then, including a limited edition private press one and Folio Society fascimile, both elephant folio sized facsimile. The Folio Society one is quarter-bound in Nigerian goatskin and weighs 28lb.

These new ladies’ timepieces are available to order only from Vacheron Constantin boutiques. If you would like a first edition of Thornton’s work, I’ve found one for sale at approximately AUD200,000. If you are interested, I can provide you with the details.

Categories: Limited Editions, SIHH 2013, Switzerland, Vacheron Constantin, watches, Women's watches

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