Can a watch be ‘art’?


That must constitute one of the oldest and most re-hashed discussions possible amongst the human species, but though whether something might constitute ‘art’ will inevitably result in animated discussion amongst the great and  good (and the rest of us), perhaps a few core commonalities remain – that of creation through imagination and technical skill something which communicates, through images or objects etc, the thoughts and emotions of the creator(s).

This post is not to debate or muse upon the merits of ‘what is art’, but it comes to mind because of an online comment made recently by someone who said that “watches are not ‘works of art’. They are enchanting objects, perhaps.”

I would disagree with the latter, as ‘enchanting’ is not a word that I would necessarily apply to bulky tool watches, amongst many others, but it was the first part of this assertion that sprang to mind when I was looking at photos of Van Cleef & Arpels and in particular, their Poetic Complications.

Even for these not interested in women’s watches or bejewelled pieces, Van Cleef & Arpel’s Extraordinary Dials ™ and Poetic Complications are highly anticipated and regarded. They have become something quite special in the watch world and yes, I would argue that they are both ‘enchanting objects’ and works of art. The artisans who worked on these are experts in their crafts and whether you call them ‘artists’ or ‘crafts(wo)men’, the results of their labours are what some would consider ‘art’.

The Extraordinary Dials ™ novelties are described by VC & A as “an enchanting interpretation of the passage of time”. Their focus is on whimsy and often, nature, with butterflies a recurring theme for the brand not just for these Dials, but historically with their collections, and so it is again this year, with seasonal influences.

The Lady Arpels Papillon Extraordinaire is a 38mm white gold piece with a diamond bezel and a dial containing sculpted mother-of-pearl, lapis lazuli, enamel and diamonds. The use of blue and pink for the butterfly represents a burgeoning springtime.

The Lady Arpels Papillon Rouge Gourmand is in the same case, also with a hand-wound movement, its dial showing a butterfly and strawberries and summer. The dial again has mother-of-pearl and some beautiful varied enamelling techniques including champlevé, where ‘cells’ are carved or cast into the surface of the metal object, and filled with vitreous enamel. The piece is then fired until the enamel melts, and when cooled the surface of the object is polished. The strawberries are created using cabochonné enamelling – applying a thick layer of enamel which is then untouched, to create a relief effect on the dial. Instead of being flat, the enamel has a rounded surface.

Although I didn’t manage to get photos of them, autumn is represented by the Lady Arpels Papillon Orange Solaire and winter is all snow and ice with diamonds representing frost on the dial.

Each of these is in a limited edition of twenty-two.

In addition to the seasonally themed butterflies there are also four Extraordinary Dial ™ watches with butterflies-as-kites in fuchsia, indigo, carmine and cyan colours.

Last but definitely not least, the Poetic Complication for 2013 – Lady Arpels Ballerine Enchantée. This complication has its inspiration from the brand’s relationship with dance. Drawing on their ballerina pieces of the 1940s and Van Cleef & Arpel’s relationship with choreographer George Balanchine, the depiction of the ballerina on this piece is inspired by dancers such as Pavlova.

In a white gold 38mm case with diamond bezel, the dial is guilloché with translucent and champlevé enamel used for the dancer, with diamonds highlighting her features.

This was my first close-up with a Poetic Complication and prior to seeing it, I was unsure what my response would be, as my admittedly very personal approach towards many women’s watches is to err on the side of low-key rather than jewel-laden, practical over emphasis on decoration. But as I watched the butterfly wings appearing out of the tutu skirt as they revealed the time through the double retrograde, showing the hours on the left for three seconds then the minutes on the right before gently falling back down simultaneously back into the skirt, I realised something – that I should look at it less as a watch and more as an artistic endeavour.

With a double retrograde with a time ‘on demand’ function, a 60 hour power reserve and taking two years in development this is, as other Poetic Complications have been, very much about horology. Perhaps it lies in the eye of the beholder, but I dare anyone to look at this watch in the metal, to step back from looking it as a watch and tell me that it isn’t, in its own way, also a small work of art.

As a wearable watch it is not really ‘me’ but as an elegant small work of ‘art’ painstakingly created by talented artisans and craftsmen and women, there is much in it to admire.

Categories: SIHH 2013, Van Cleef & Arpels, Watch shows, watches, Women's watches

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