Founded in 1755, Vacheron Constantin is the world’s oldest watch manufacture in continuous production for over 260 years, faithfully perpetuating a proud heritage of watchmaking excellence through generations of master artisans. And so it is no surprise that they have embarked on a grandiloquent project, conceiving of the Métiers d’Art Tribute to Great Civilisations.
Famed for its horological showpieces, the most well-known among them, the Reference 57260, a single highly complicated mechanical pocket watch, featuring 57 complications; Vacheron Constantin’s Métiers d’Art “Great Civilisations” stands in opposition as an act of horological restraint, allowing its tribute to bygone Empires to speak through artisanal, micro-sculptures.
Inspired by emblematic masterpieces of the Louvre, each of the four Métiers d’Art Tribute to Great Civilisations explores the majesty of antiquity expressed across four eras; the main theme originated in the museum’s incredible collection of antiquities: the Persian Empire under Darius the Great; the Egypt of the pharaohs from the time of the Middle Kingdom; the Hellenistic period in Greece; and the birth of the Roman Empire with the advent of Augustus.
An Opportunity To Travel Through Time With Vacheron Constantin’s Master Artisans
In order to qualify as bonafide Vacheron Constantin Métiers d’Art, each of the four timepieces representing the Great Civilisations has to be emblematic of the brand’s versatility and verve in artisanal decoration in terms of technique and style.
Craft makers required reproducing their expressive metiers on a less than 40 mm diameter dial featuring ornamentation inspired by the decorative arts of the corresponding period, embellished with written elements. Most tellingly, and as befitting the grandeur of such a project, Métiers d’Art “Great Civilisations” are quantitatively and qualitatively more complex in terms of construction and materials than previous editions.
The choice of techniques, the rare talents required to implement them, as well as the original composition of these timepieces converge to offer a fascinating watchmaking spectacle, commensurate with these great moments in history.
Considering the scale of treasures, authentically replicating the symbolic works usually seen in The Louvre was an act of artistic ingenuity where Vacheron Constantin devised a system of nesting several constituent parts in the form of sculpted appliques, as well as various written and ornamental elements, in a dial surrounded by a frieze.
These two distinct and concentric components provide scope to express the talents of the master artisans: artisanal techniques ranging from enamelling to mosaic, render the faces of each Métiers d’Art Tribute to Great Civilisations in tremendous depth and detail representing the decorative arts of different periods: Roman mosaics; a painted Egyptian coffin; painted or bas-relief sculpted Greek ceramics and vases; and a frieze of Babylonian-inspired bricks with coloured glazes.
Métiers d’Art Grand sphinx de Tanis
On this monumental Grand sphinx de Tanis model, the work of cutting the stone with polished surfaces is admirable in its precision. With a dial base of blue-black enamel with decorative elements taken from the cartonnage (quite literally mummy wrappings) of Nakht-khonsou-irou, details for the Métiers d’Art Grand sphinx de Tanis are taken from Nakht’s necklace, translated into the watch via champlevé enamel that form the frieze around the dial, as well as the champlevé enamel wings on either side of the sphinx.
Enamelling is a decorative technique in which coloured glass or enamel pigments are finely ground and mixed with water or oil and applied to a metal surface. This paste is then fired at a high temperature to form a resistant surface that becomes one with its base. Champlevé enamel consists of creating cavities in which the enamels are applied.
The successive layers are fired in a kiln. The necklace is trimmed with petals that are reproduced in champlevé enamel sprinkled with inclusions to give the outer frieze an aged appearance. Under this necklace, a winged hawk with a ram’s head appears and the plumage of its wings is picked up on the dial – again in champlevé enamel.
The last cultural component is the sapphire crystal bearing the gold applique and engraved by metallisation with hieroglyphic inscriptions from a cartouche of the sphynx of Tanis. For the engraver of the carved gold applique representing the head of the sphinx, one of the difficulties – in addition to that of modelling the faces – lay in rendering the large false beard within such a small space. The master artisan had to work in relief using the pounced ornament, despite the thinness of the plate, before accentuating the depth effect by patinating the material with a blowtorch and then by hand.
Métiers d’Art Lion de Darius
Built by Darius, the Achaemenid king during the sixth-century BC Persia (modern-day Iran), the Lion de Darius takes inspiration from a relief taken from his Palace in Susa. The lion symbol – representing both a royal animal and a divine attribute – was frequently found in these pleasure gardens and hunting reserves intended for the Persian monarchs and for the Assyrian sovereigns before them. Made of siliceous glazed bricks that are bound with lime mortar, this decoration mingling realism and powerful stylisation is exemplary of masterpieces of Achaemenid Persian art.
For the engraver of the applique depicting one of the lions, the challenge was to achieve an accurate rendering that matched the advanced stylisation of the muscles and fur of the noble creature’s mane that can be seen on the original.
Recreating the colours of the lion frieze as it was in antiquity and not as it is today, artisans opted for stone marquetry to accentuate the realistic look of tile choosing stone fragments of turquoise, along with tiles of yellow jasper for the upper and lower bands. Given the large amount of waste in the cutting of the stones, three successive orders had to be made to finally obtain the 69 components of this marquetry, different in appearance and size.
This colourful dial reimagines the lion frieze as it was in antiquity, not as it is today: tiles of turquoise, along with tiles of yellow jasper for the upper and lower bands. Sixty nine pieces of stone were required for the dial mosaic, each piece carefully cut and positioned by hand.
Rarely used in watchmaking, stone marquetry consists of forming patterns using fragments of coloured stones calibrated according to requirements. This operation is all the more delicate as each stone is different, with some being veined and therefore more fragile. These fragments are assembled and glued one by one without any binder between the stones.
This construction leaves tiny spaces between the components, giving relief and depth to the composition. The frieze surrounding the dial was inspired by the decoration of the Frieze of Archers. This ornamentation, consisting of a juxtaposition of triangles, is made of engraved metal and champlevé enamel with “ageing” inclusions.
The writing elements engraved by metallisation on the sapphire crystal are taken from a tablet inscribed in Old Persian. This text in cuneiform script is one of the first written by Darius upon his arrival in power.
Métiers d’Art Victoire de Samothrace
Headless, the masterpiece of Hellenistic sculpture is no less graceful. The white Parian marble carving of the Winged Victory of Samothrace represents Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. Sitting centrally on a dial of orange-brown opaque enamel composed of a mix of coloured rare enamels that are no longer available, the technique requiring six firings is especially difficult to accomplish.
The periphery features grisaille enamelling depicting the decorative friezes taken from two Greek vases. These ceramic objects bearing red-painted geometrical figures feature various ornaments with foliage or geometric motifs, which are picked up on the dial. Grisaille enamel is a technique that appeared in the 16th century and consists of applying white enamel touches to an underlying dark enamel dial coating.
Each layer of enamel is also fired at over 800°C. Grisaille differs from champlevé technique in that the top surface of enamel is carefully removed to reveal the contrast-colour enamel below. The grisaille enamel depicts a pattern taken from a pair of Greek vases in the Louvre. And around the dial is a gold ring that’s been hand-engraved with a motif from the Vase of Pergamon, a funerary vase.
The ancient Greek script engraved by metallisation on the sapphire crystal bearing the applied Victory is taken from a second AD votive stele discovered in Samothrace. This work is a list of Athenian initiates to the mysteries of the Great Gods of the island under the guidance of none other than famed philosopher Socrates himself.
Métiers d’Art Buste d’Auguste
The Roman Emperor who succeeded Julius Caesar is shown wearing the iconic oak headdress, but Augustus appears older here in this marble bust than in his other crowned effigies. The carved gold applique reproducing this Buste d’Auguste offers a striking sight in which the drape of the cape accompanying the breast plate, secured by a fibula, echoes the curling locks held by the oak crown.
The famed fourth-century mosaic discovered in Lod, Israel serves as inspiration for the ornamentation motifs found on the dial periphery while the centre of the dial is enamelled in blue-green with its periphery adorned with stone micro-mosaic.
This extremely rare technique in watchmaking refers to mosaic work in which the tiny elements of hard stones forming the decoration are very finely assembled and glued in such a way as to render the joints that seal them practically invisible. The size of the stones – tiny squares measuring just 0.55 mm each – makes this type of ornamentation particularly delicate, not only in the composition of the motifs but also in the way it is set with a binder.
The difficulty for the master lay in the fact that any error in the positioning and glueing of the tiny hard stone fragments would have required re-enamelling the Grand Feu dial used as a base. Meticulous care was required when adjusting the stones so as to follow the contours of the motifs and their colours.
No less than seven different types of stones – 660 in all – were used to compose this micromosaic: quartzite, cacholong, dumortierite, mochaite, red jasper, grossular and red aventurine. For the outer frieze in white gold, featuring line engraving and patinated by firing in the kiln, another mosaic served as inspiration: the one depicting animals playing musical instruments, also from the fourth century and discovered in Sousse, a port city in eastern Tunisia. The Latin script engraved on the sapphire crystal bearing the bust of Augustus is drawn from a dedication addressed to the Genius (divine protector) of the city of Rusicada (Skikda in Algeria).
A Museum On Your Wrist
Across the Métiers d’Art Tribute to Great Civilisations, exemplars of the art of hand engraving abound: creating decorations in hollow, in relief or in the form of a model out of the metal, the pounced ornament technique used here for the carved gold sconces is called ramolayage – removing the material to model the relief. Irreversible, that is to say, an errant cut would consign the attempt to the recycle bin, this operation requires a perfectly assured gesture.
The master engraver first draws the main volumes with a dry point. Then he sculpts the mass and makes a particularly delicate rounding whose contours are accentuated by patina. This trompe l’oeil technique is particularly suitable for creating the illusion of depth of field. Some friezes are made in intaglio or engraving by digging the material.
Topping off the works under “museum glass”, a sapphire crystal bearing a sculpted gold applique depicting one of the four major works of ancient period sculpture is then placed on the dial. This same slightly smoked crystal is also engraved using metallisation with texts in cuneiform, hieroglyphic, ancient Greek and Latin script, depending on the model.
They respectively feature an extract of the founding charter of the Palace of Darius; a transcription of the cartouche of the pharaoh Merneptah engraved on the sphinx of Tanis; a dedication to the Great Gods of Samothrace discovered in the Temple of Samothrace; as well as an invocation to the Emperor Augustus engraved on a Roman stele found in Algeria.
Once these various elements have been placed on top of the movement, the case can then be sealed with the outer crystal. Driven by in-house mechanical self-winding calibre 2460 G4/2 featuring a disc type indication of the hours, minutes, day and date around the dial periphery. This visually “simple” yet technically masterful calibre leaves ample scope for creativity and for these exceptional virtuoso compositions.
(Images: Vacheron Constantin)