As Louis Vuitton approaches its 20th anniversary in watchmaking, we take a journey through time with its master watchmaker MICHEL NAVAS on the making of the iconic Tambour.
It could be a surprise to many horology lovers that some of the watchmaking industry’s greatest achievements were born in Paris, not Geneva. During the 17th century in the City of Lights, Place Dauphine was home to the workshops of Ferdinand Berthoud, Jean-Antoine Lépine, and a young Abraham-Louis Breguet. Each man shaped watchmaking destiny in his own way.
Like his respected French peers, Louis Vuitton, who was born in 1821 in a small hamlet in France’s Jura region, too had a profound impact in the luxury craftsmanship sphere. Over an hour away by car from Vuitton’s hometown of Anchay lies the maison’s famed watchmaking division, La Fabrique du Temps Louis Vuitton in Geneva.
It was in the Swiss city, considered to be the centre of high watchmaking, that Michel Navas and Enrico Barbasini – two of the best horology complications specialists in the world – founded La Fabrique du Temps as an independent watchmaker and turned it into a celebrated name. It collaborated closely with Louis Vuitton before it was subsequently acquired by the maison in 2011.
The Tambour collection, released in 2002, had already set in motion Louis Vuitton’s nascent rise in haute horlogerie. Post-acquisition, Navas and Barbasini were given the mandate (and financial war chest) to pursue ambitions for the highest level of watchmaking that combines the finest traditions with new innovations and uncommon designs – reflecting, in short, the indomitable spirit of Monsieur Vuitton, who revolutionised trunkmaking and travel.
Two milestones that define Louis Vuitton’s high watchmaking have since been achieved: the popularity of the drum-like Tambour case that was unseen in the industry until its conception; and the use of cutting-edge technology to elevate the time-telling experience of traditional haute horlogerie.
“It begins with an idea,” says Navas, on how a new watch takes shape. “We meet the marketing team in Paris every week, together with our designers, to discuss these ideas. Once decided, we think about which type of case is best suited for the complication or maybe, develop an entirely new case for it.”
He continues, “Of course, Enrico and I will decide on the movement and how we can go ahead with it. The designers will focus on the case – it could be the iconic Tambour, maybe the Voyager, Escale or a completely new case. The development of the case and movement goes hand in hand.”
Marching to its own beat
In just two decades, the house has proven its deep passion for watchmaking to be equal to its panache for trunks. In 2009, it made quite a name for itself with the Tambour Spin Time by reinventing how time is displayed, with rotating cubes instead of clock hands and indexes. Navas explains, “The Spin Time is iconic in terms of movement and indicating time. It is the most successful because of its way to display time using cubes, which is very unique and patented by Louis Vuitton.”
Not content to rest on its laurels, Louis Vuitton has continued to create new concepts for its signature case. For instance, the 2016 Tambour Slim with a tourbillon, which is sleek and discreet on the wrist, is an apparent departure from the collection’s strong, masculine lines. With 2017’s Tambour Moon, the watch kept its unmistakable round case while reversing its caseband’s curve.
In 2020, the Tambour Curve pushed the envelope with a titanium and Carbostratum case that features a surprisingly elongated convex curve. Nestled within is a phenomenal flying tourbillon calibre, stamped with the prestigious Poinçon de Genève (Geneva Seal) – a perfect match between a high-complication movement and bold creativity.
Over the years, the Tambour’s timeless aesthetic has been deployed on all kinds of watches, from the more classic iterations to those with the most complex movements, culminating in 2021’s Tambour Carpe Diem, which is an automaton-equipped minute repeater timepiece that won the Audacity Prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève. This creation, which is designed as a memento mori (artistic symbol of the inevitability of death) with a jacquemart (bellstriker), was a major milestone.
It is not hard to imagine the immensity of the Tambour’s potential – a sentiment that Navas also shares: “The Tambour Carpe Diem was so successful. This was one of the launches where people realised how far we can go in terms of high watchmaking. With Louis Vuitton and La Fabrique Du Temps, we are the absolute dream team to achieve this level of complications. We have all the skills, materials and savoir faire. We have dial makers, engineers, watchmakers, designers… Altogether, we rise to these incredible high complications.
“We’re a human-skilled company focused on craftsmanship, and it’s truly the best company to make these complications. Where I came from previously – very famous companies, I couldn’t do these kinds of exercises that I do at Louis Vuitton. That’s why I love to surround myself with my colleagues and craftsmen to materialise these watches.”
Last year, the brand’s attempt at an utilitarian daily “beater”, the Tambour Street Diver, also won the Diver’s Watch Prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève. Keeping in mind that the timepiece had been, to date, the most unique take on a very well-developed genre, its creation was risky given that the market was used to dive watches looking a certain way.
On its raison d’être, Navas says, “I felt that a watch like the Tambour Street Diver was missing from our collection. It’s very elegant yet sporty, when materialised in our iconic Tambour shape. We used new materials and gave more visibility to the hours. I think this model fits perfectly in our collection.”
Spinning the industry around
This year, the Tambour Spin Time Air Quantum is the latest masterpiece featuring Louis Vuitton’s signature Spin Time complication. Introduced in 2009, the Spin Time mechanism transformed the jumping hour complication from a conventional display of hours into a three-dimensional dance within the Tambour case.
Once again, Navas has subverted expectations of time display, with hour cubes illuminating on demand on the new model. This fourth dimension of the complication is made possible by a layer of microelectronics added to the highly complicated movement – forming a single unit that captures time and emits light.
“The original Spin Time was a concept inspired by old-school airport flipboards that announced cities, departures, arrivals and gates with boards of flipping text and numerals,” Navas adds. “I endeavoured to think about another way to display time, not with hands, but something flipping.”
Located just below each hour cube is a Maltese cross gear. Also known as a Geneva drive named after its city of origin, it was reputedly devised by Geneva watchmakers in the 17th century. The Maltese cross gear is the classical solution for periodic motion in a watch movement. Specifically, the cubes of the Spin Time each make a quarter revolution twice a day – a task that requires delicate, individual adjustment of each cube’s mechanism by a watchmaker to ensure a crisp, timely jump. The unique twist here is that the Maltese cross gears are positioned at a right angle to the movement, so that the resulting Spin Time display is three-dimensional.
In 2019, the complication is reimagined in the Spin Time Air, which showcases a dozen “floating” cubes of the jumping hours around the movement suspended between the front and back sapphire crystals.
Taking the airport flipboard concept further, the new Spin Time Air Quantum is fitted with a hidden LED ring lighting up the 12 cubes of the jumping hours. Here, microelectronics goes toe-to-toe with mechanical engineering, resulting in a “unique and disruptive complicated hybrid watch that combines the best of the mechanical and electronic worlds at the service of both legibility and design”.
On whether the Spin Time mechanism could be paired with other high complications, Navas answers, “It’s quite difficult because the Spin Time takes room within the movement. It was a challenging feat but we added the central flying tourbillon where the hands are placed. We used the Spin Time cubes to display the hours, the little hands for minutes, and the central flying tourbillon for seconds. It’s difficult to have another complication within because of space constraints. We’re in progress with a new Spin Time watch that will display something else on the hours, but I’m quite proud of how we executed the cubes with fused silica.”
Although competitors have attempted lighting complications in mechanical wristwatches, the Spin Time Air Quantum’s solution is brighter and more enduring. The microelectronics part is also separated from the mechanical calibre itself, making the changing of batteries an easy task in the boutique. This means that the watch is not away from its owner for extended periods.
“We are very, very close to our clients, and attentive to what they want, miss and need on their wrists. This is incredibly important. La Fabrique du Temps Louis Vuitton is a tiny and human-skilled company, so we can really take care of our clients. This is something you cannot find elsewhere,” asserts the watchmaker.
The current limited supply in high watchmaking production has encouraged consumers to explore Louis Vuitton’s singular and often iconoclastic approach to watchmaking – a change from collectors’ long-held obsession with provenance. Navas says, “We are very new in the watch industry. We are 20 years young, but becoming more and more credible. We have developed so many in-house movements. We are real watchmakers, but it takes time.
“In the fashion world, the growth is rapid and fast, as there are several fashion shows in a year. But in the high-watchmaking world, it takes a few years to create a timepiece.”
Every objet d’art produced by a brand is sold at its own boutique or private VIP events, and Louis Vuitton’s timepieces are no exception. That, together with the maison’s low production numbers, bequeaths an unbelievable exclusivity in collector circles. It is only a matter of time that Louis Vuitton’s horological creations, which are already winning the hearts of those drawn to the imaginative and unconventional, will
become a hot topic in the conversations among watch purists
Photos Joel Low and Louis Vuitton; Styling Daryll Alexius Yeo
This story first appeared on Augustman Singapore and the September 2022 issue of Prestige Singapore.