Vacheron Constantin dials up M.C. Escher.
By Laurie Kahle, January 26, 2012
“The things I want to express are so beautiful and pure,” declared Maurits Cornelis Escher, the celebrated 20th-century Dutch graphic artist. Escher’s enigmatic prints often bend the conventional rules of visual perception with mirror imagery and repetitive interlocking motifs known as tessellations. In its ongoing pursuit to advance watchmaking’s centuries-old métiers d’art for the modern era, Geneva watchmaker Vacheron Constantin approached the Escher Foundation and gained the rights to reinterpret Escher’s works for its latest Métiers d’Art series, Les Univers Infinis.
The first trio of watches, each limited to 20 pieces in white gold, portray familiar Escher themes of birds, fish, and shells with starfish. “It took us about two years to really be able to reproduce the kinds of mind games that you sense when you look at Escher’s designs,” says Christian Selmoni, Vacheron’s artistic director, who points out that every piece is completely crafted in house by staff engravers, enamellers, guillocheurs, and gem setters. “All the techniques in these watches are traditional techniques—enameling, engraving, guillochage,” adds Selmoni. “But Vacheron Constantin is certainly the only brand working with guillochage in a figurative, creative, and artistic way. It is usually a very strict technique for creating uniform patterns on dials.”
Vacheron previewed the Dove watch at the Only Watch auction last September in Monaco, a charity event for which the brand produced a unique piece with a dial of interlocking birds in flight rendered using various métiers d’art. The new limited-edition version also employs watchmaking’s decorative fine arts of engraving, Grand Feu enamelling, gem setting and guilloché. First, the engraver outlines the dove shapes on a yellow gold dial then engraves the motifs, so the enameller can later fill the cavities with colored enamel, a technique called champlevé. With each layer of colored enamel, the artist fires the dial in a high-temperature oven multiple times before applying a top coat of translucent enamel to the violet birds and a coating of opalescent enamel to the white birds. A gem setter then pavé sets a single dove with sparkling diamonds before the dial is sent to the guillocheur, who engraves it to accentuate the dimensionality of the design. While guilloche engraving is commonly done before enamelling, it is rarely a final step in the painstaking process of creating enamel dials.
“The craftspeople all work together, and this is the result of their common crafts,” says Selmoni, who recalls that 20 years ago, it was difficult to sell enamel watches. “When I see this comeback of métiers d’art in watchmaking, I never thought it would be possible. What more can I say? It’s fabulous.”