November 05 2011
I have been toiling in the salt mines of luxury – well, all right then, writing about those who toil in the salt mines of the luxury – for almost a quarter of a century, but there are still some things that I have yet to cross off my bucket list.
Earlier this year, for instance, I managed to visit the Breguet factory – the glittering diadem in the Swatch Group’s crown jewels. I was never on particularly good terms with Nicolas G Hayek, the cigar-chomping patriarch of Swatch who departed this life last year and whose role in saving the Swiss watch industry from itself and from foreign competition cannot be underestimated. Alas some misunderstanding, in which I was probably at fault, prevented me from enjoying cordial relations – a pity really as smoking cigars and looking at watches are two of my favourite pastimes. But I seem to get along better with his grandson, Marc, who, as well as being a keen cigar smoker, has a deep love of Swiss watchmaking culture – at least his grandfather was a wise man and he showed great wisdom in handing Breguet over to his grandson.
I was blown away by the skills and the machinery on offer here. Take the guilloche machines. Guilloche is a type of engraving where the tool (which looks like a prop from a Jules Verne novel) stands still and the engraved surface moves. The equipment has not changed much in a couple of centuries, so those few guillocheurs who still work in Switzerland use machinery that tends to date from the late 18th to the early 20th century. But at Breguet they had new ones built – which is a bit like using F1 technology to make a better version of the horse and carriage; somewhat eccentric, but utterly brilliant.
My other recently realised ambition and “I-don’t-know-how-they-do-it-for-the-money” moment came when I visited the historic Louis Vuitton factory in the sylvan suburb of Asnières, a sort of Parisian Richmond, where old LV set up his workshops in the 19th century. Today it is run by Patrick Louis Vuitton, great-great grandson of the founder.
Now I know that overall LV is a machine run by the incomparable Yves Carcelle, a man in whose honour – as I have often said – Bernard Arnault ought to raise a statue on every street corner in Paris; but, in the parallel inner universe of Asnières where there is always cake for tea in the exceptional art nouveau billiard room, I found another Louis Vuitton; a Louis Vuitton that is a world away from the shiny universe of contemporary art happenings, bag bars and “sleb” endorsement.
Instead what I found was a charming island of calm craftsmanship, presided over by a pipe-smoking man who is as human and authentic as the public face of Vuitton is airbrushed and glossy. Now, don’t get me wrong – I like airbrushed and glossy as much as the next man, but I also like a good bit of brown overall action, and there is plenty of that at Asnières, where everyone has their own overalls with their name and the year in which they started at Vuitton embroidered on the pockets.
Anyway, it was a lovely afternoon during which I sat in rapt attention to his stories about his grandmother, who died aged 104 in early 1960s and used to regale him with tales of the Paris Commune and the Impressionist painters who used to come out to Asnières when it was a patch of countryside on the banks of the Seine. I find it exciting to meet someone for whom these historic events were the stuff of family experience shared in conversation around the dinner table, and I find it even more enjoyable when history collides with luxury, as it does in the genial shape of Patrick Louis Vuitton who, as well as being able to talk of the Siege of Paris and the rise of the Impressionists as if they were family events, also told me that, having done his apprenticeship at Asnières, he could make any piece of luggage that LV has ever come up with.
It is a privilege to meet such characters and it is always interesting to ask what, among the things that their company makes, they choose to wear themselves. For instance, Philippe Stern of Patek Philippe favours the Ref 3940. For Patrick, his taste is for luggage made entirely of vache végétale naturelle, or VVN as you will know it if you are an LV junkie. For the rest of us, this is the pale leather used as handle straps on the monogrammed pieces and, while at Asnières, I learnt the correct way to break in your new VVN: it is to leave it near the window for a week without touching it (a big ask, as the young people say) while it begins to get hint of a sun tan. And if the handle happens to leave a shadow, don’t worry – this is called a smile line and is the mark prized by true connoisseurs.