The partnership between Vacheron Constantin and the Louvre has led to an extraordinary series of Métiers d’Art watches dedicated to great ancient civilisations. Allyson Klass was in Paris for the launch of four timepieces that are directly inspired by exceptional masterpieces on display at the museum.
Following a pandemic-induced delay earlier in January, Vacheron Constantin finally debuted its eagerly awaited Métiers d’Art series of timepieces inspired by historical masterpieces from the Louvre, with which it has partnered in the conceptualisation and design. Held in one of the most beautiful months of the year in Paris, the end-May launch culminated in a gala dinner for 200 VIPs and media from around the world that was held under the Louvre’s iconic glass pyramid.
While the grand affair was highly anticipated, the cherry on the cake was a surprise private tour of the Louvre. Organised on a Tuesday when the museum is closed, the exclusive visit was reserved for media and Vacheron Constantin staff. After being ushered into what seemed like the museum’s back entrance for the once-in-a-lifetime excursion, we walked in groups through the museum’s many vast halls of awe-inspiring exhibits.
Devoid of the usual swarms of visitors (the Louvre receives some 25,000 a day), each group – accompanied by a dedicated guide who gave bite-sized history lessons along the way – was led to various sections that housed the artefacts and the corresponding timepiece. A maison representative would then introduce the creation and its inspiration at each of the four locations.
As part of a partnership with the Louvre initiated in 2019, Vacheron Constantin joined forces with the museum’s experts to create a quartet of timepieces representative of four eras that honour the great civilisations of antiquity.
Christian Selmoni, the manufacture’s style and heritage director, elaborates, “We’d always had the idea of creating a Métiers d’Art series with the Louvre since the start of this partnership. All through the creative process, our design teams and craftsmen worked very closely with the Louvre’s curators. This is what gives the series its veracity in terms of history and its complexity in gathering multiple art pieces. What’s also very interesting is that despite paying tribute to civilisations from the past, these watches are extremely modern and spectacular.”
Akin to travelling through time, the Vacheron Constantin Métiers d’Art – Tribute to Great Civilisations collection encompasses four important eras:
the Persian Empire under Darius the Great; the golden age of Egypt in the time of the pharaohs; the birth of the Roman Empire with the rise to power of its first emperor, Augustus; and the Hellenistic period in Greece. It revisits significant historical chapters, or artistic and cultural symbols of ancient civilisations, to which we owe the invention of writing, birth of democracy, philosophical thought, as well as history-shaping artistic and architectural achievements.
Taking about three years to realise, the project showcases the extraordinary savoir faire of the maison’s designers, who recreated the miniature masterpieces with extreme precision and finesse. Sandrine Donguy, the maison’s product marketing and innovation director, explains how aesthetics played a big part in selecting the final four artefacts from the over 600,000 exhibits in the museum: “We discussed with the Louvre curators that the chosen pieces must fit the dial harmoniously. We couldn’t just pick a well-known sculpture as it might be unsuitable for miniaturisation. We were also looking for a certain artistic direction in the art piece. For instance, the statue of Venus de Milo is tall and narrow, so it won’t fit the dial, but in the case of the Victoire de Samothrace timepiece, it works very well because her voluptuous wings stretch out across the dial.”
Available in limited editions of just five pieces for each design, the 42mm creations are powered by the self-winding manufacture calibre 2460 G4/2, which features four discs indicating the hours, minutes, days and dates. Replacing hour and minute hands, apertures for the time and calendar indications are positioned symmetrically around the dial’s periphery – an arrangement that accords a larger space for the artistic depictions.
On the reverse, the oscillating weight of the 237-component movement reveals the east facade of the Louvre and its magnificent colonnade,
based on an 18th-century lithograph inspired by the work of architects Louis Le Vau and Claude Perrault. The design was hand-sculpted, then used to stamp the 20 oscillating weights of all the timepieces.
A pivotal period in Roman history, the rise and reign of Octavian Augustus established the Julio-Claudian family’s hold on Rome. Lasting almost a century, their power and dynasty’s most tragic moments have even been retold in the classical theatre of Corneille, Racine and Shakespeare.
The bust of Augustus was an obvious choice as it’s an emblematic representation of the Roman rule that covered the entire ancient world surrounding the Mediterranean. Here, the adopted son of Caesar wears an oak wreath crown – a distinction awarded by a senate decision in 27BCE when he became the principate or first citizen of Rome.
The striking white gold applique of the bust is positioned slightly to the left of the dial for visual impact and to emphasise its presence.
Augustus’ hair falls in heavy locks over his forehead, framing the resolute yet relaxed gaze of a man in power. However, recreating the first Roman emperor’s visage was challenging, as Vacheron Constantin CEO Louis Ferla explained at a luncheon: “Replicating facial expressions on a dial is
one of the hardest things to achieve in watchmaking. It took three tries for the maison to get Augustus’ face right.”
The dial’s centre is grand feu enamelled in blue-green, while its periphery is adorned with stone micro-mosaic that draws from the famous 4th-century mosaic discovered in Lod, Israel. To create this motif, no less than seven different types of 0.55mm square stones – 660 in all – were used, including quartzite, cacholong, dumortierite, mochaite and red jasper, grossular and red aventurine. Mosaic art is a rare technique in watchmaking and for good reason, as the entire dial must be re-enamelled should there be one small mistake in placing a stone.
Another 4th-century mosaic from Sousse in eastern Tunisia featuring animals playing musical instruments served as inspiration for the outer white gold frieze. Engraved on the sapphire crystal is Latin script that pays tribute to the emperor.
Lion de Darius
A brick decor of the Frieze of Lions was discovered in the first courtyard of the palace of Darius the Great in Susa, the capital of the Persian Achaemenid Empire in southwestern Iran. The Achaemenids formed one of the greatest empires in antiquity (550-330BCE), after freeing themselves from the control of the Medes and conquering Lydia, Babylon and Egypt.
Made of siliceous glazed bricks bound with lime mortar, this decoration combining realism and powerful stylisation is exemplary of masterpieces of Achaemenid Persian art. The tribute to royal animals and the divine was an important part of the iconography on Persian palaces, as well as Assyrian and Babylonian palaces before that. The symbol of the lion was frequently found in the pleasure gardens and hunting reserves intended for the Persian monarchs and Assyrian sovereigns.
For the engraver of the patinated white gold applique depicting the big cat, the challenge was to achieve an accurate rendering that matched the stylisation of the beast’s muscles and fur on its mane that can be seen on the original brick motif.
As for the background of the watch face complemented by a pink gold case, Selmoni adds, “The stone marquetry comprises 69 pieces of carefully selected turquoise and yellow mochaite jasper. We had to make three orders of stones from our supplier to complete just one dial, so it’s highly complex work. And as you can see, some stones have veins to replicate the process of ageing.”
Compared to the actual artefact, the much brighter hues of the stones on the watch are meant to recreate the appearance of the frieze as it was originally intended. The frieze encircling the dial was inspired by yet another well-known artwork from the Palace of Darius: the Frieze of Archers.
The motif of triangles is made of engraved metal and champlevé enamel with “aged” inclusions. The text engraved by gold metallisation on the sapphire crystal is taken from a tablet inscribed in old Persian. Written in cuneiform script, it is one of the first written by Darius on the construction of his palace upon his rise to power.
Victoire de Samothrace
Taking its commanding position atop the grand Daru staircase at the Louvre is the Victory of Samothrace or Niké in Greek. Over 2,000 years old, it is a masterpiece of Hellenistic sculpture because of the virtuosity of its white Parian marble carving and the ingenuity of its construction.
The winged goddess of victory resting on the prow of a warship was discovered in 1863 without a head or arms on the island of Samothrace in the northern Aegean Sea. Excavated from a sanctuary dedicated to the great gods worshipped across the Greek world, the statue is an image linked to naval victory. During this Hellenistic period, which ended with the Roman conquest of Egypt in 31BCE, naval battles followed one another for the domination of the eastern part of the Mediterranean.
As if swept gracefully by the wind with a large swathe of fabric falling in deep folds between the goddess’ legs, the intricate drapery on the sculpture posed a major challenge for the maison’s engraver charged with reproducing all its subtleties. The rendering of feathers on the unfurled wing, also ruffled by the wind, needed meticulous care to recreate.
Unlike the placement of the Lion de Darius and Grand Sphinx de Tanis in the centre of the other models’ dials, the white gold applique of Victory is off-centre and sculpted in a three-quarter left view. This position is historically consistent with how the Antigonid period pilgrims, who made offerings to the statue on the small island, would have seen it.
The dial centre features brown enamel, a difficult-to-achieve colour that required a mixture of rare enamels that are no longer produced, as well as six firings in the kiln. The periphery of the dial features grisaille enamelling depicting decorative friezes taken from two Greek vases bearing foliage or geometric motifs. Adorned with line engraving, the dial’s outer gold frieze is inspired by the braiding on the Vase of Pergamon, a 1st-century BCE marble masterpiece sculpted in bas-relief. A white gold case contrasts beautifully against the dark hues on this piece.
The ancient Greek script engraved by metallisation on the sapphire crystal is taken from a 2nd-century CE votive stele also discovered in Samothrace. It includes a list of Athenians, who were instructed in the mysteries of the great gods of the island under the guidance of Socrates, the philosopher.
Grand Sphinx de Tanis
Measuring 4.8m in length and 1.83m in height is the Great Sphinx of Tanis in the capital of the kings of the 21st and 22nd dynasties. Made from pink Aswan granite, it is one of the largest sphinxes preserved outside Egypt, which arrived at the Louvre in 1826 as part of the collection of the British consul, Henry Salt.
Long attributed to the Old Kingdom (2,700-2,195BCE), the sphinx is now generally linked to the Middle Kingdom (2,035-1,680BCE), the golden age of Egypt. The king’s power is expressed through this fabulous hybrid that combines the body of a recumbent lion with a male head wearing the royal Nemes headdress and a beard sported only by sovereigns.
A superstitious people, Egyptians believed that statues had a life force, straddling both the real and supernatural worlds. Donguy reveals a little-known fact of the revered figure that she learnt from the Louvre’s historians: “The sphinx’s nose was broken off deliberately and not destroyed as most would think. The Egyptians believed in reincarnation, so once the nose was broken off, the spirit would stop breathing.”
In addition to modelling the expression of its face in patinated yellow gold applique for the pink gold watch, another challenge for the engraver was the rendering of the sphinx’s large chin strap within a small space. Despite the thinness of the plate, the master artisan worked in relief using ramolayage (also known as the pounced ornament technique, in which the artist engraves the subject in a special manner to achieve a 3D effect) before accentuating the effect of depth by patinating the material with a blowtorch and then by hand.
The main dial is made of enamel, whose deep colours of blue and black are obtained after six firings in the kiln. Decorative dial elements are inspired by the second source of inspiration – a necklace depicted on the cartonnage coffin of a priest named Nakht-khonsou-irou, also displayed at the Louvre. The 22nd-dynasty mummy would have been placed in wrappings or a coffin in cartonnage, a material composed of several layers of glued, stuccoed and painted cloth.
The chest is always adorned with a large necklace of geometric and floral motifs. The one featured on the watch is trimmed with petals that are reproduced in champlevé enamel and sprinkled with inclusions to impart an aged appearance to the outer frieze. Under this necklace is a winged hawk with a ram’s head. The plumage of its wings is picked up on the dial in champlevé enamel as well.
The final cultural component is the sapphire crystal engraved by metallisation with hieroglyphic inscriptions from a cartouche of the Great Sphinx of Tanis. It indicates the name of the pharaoh Merenptah (1,213–1,203BCE), son and successor of Ramses II under the heading: “The king of upper and lower Egypt Baenra-Meriamun. The son of Ra Merenptah, who is satisfied with the Ma’at, endowed with eternal life”.
(Main and featured image: (From left) Vacheron Constantin’s Métiers d’Art – Tribute to Great Civilisations series of four timepieces includes the Grand Sphinx de Tanis; Victoire de Samothrace; Buste d’Auguste; and Lion de Darius)
This story first appeared in Prestige Online – Singapore