Fantastical floral watches

Time-telling blooms are in season, says Nick Foulkes, cultivated not just as decorative showcases but also compelling historical homages

Clockwise from left: Chaumet white-gold, diamond and sapphire Hortensia Tourbillon, price on request. Vacheron Constantin white-gold and diamond Métiers d’Art Florilège Queen, £98,500. Dior white-gold, yellow-gold, sapphire, tsavorite, opal and mother-of-pearl VIII Grand Bal Pièce Unique, price on request. Chanel white-gold and diamond Mademoiselle Privé Lesage Pièce Unique, £59,000. Graff Diamonds white-gold, diamond, ruby and mother-of-pearl FloralGraff, £57,000
Clockwise from left: Chaumet white-gold, diamond and sapphire Hortensia Tourbillon, price on request. Vacheron Constantin white-gold and diamond Métiers d’Art Florilège Queen, £98,500. Dior white-gold, yellow-gold, sapphire, tsavorite, opal and mother-of-pearl VIII Grand Bal Pièce Unique, price on request. Chanel white-gold and diamond Mademoiselle Privé Lesage Pièce Unique, £59,000. Graff Diamonds white-gold, diamond, ruby and mother-of-pearl FloralGraff, £57,000 | Image: Omer Knaz

This year, Philippe Léopold-Metzger, the smooth-talking boss of Piaget, has resolved to spend more time in the garden. June will see him pottering about the rose garden at Château de Malmaison, the former home of Napoléon and Joséphine Bonaparte. Born and raised on Martinique, Joséphine was used to the bright flora of the Caribbean and turned this pretty manor house outside Paris into a splendid extravaganza of botanical treasures, including hundreds of pineapples grown under glass and a rose garden that was the talk of Europe and became the cynosure of imperial horticulture. And if you are planning to spend summer on the Riviera, don’t be surprised to see Léopold-Metzger inhaling the heady perfume of the blooms in another grand rose garden – that of Princess Grace of Monaco.

But before you think that he is on gardening leave, this activity is all in a day’s work for the modern watchmaker. The fact is that this will be the year of the rose for Piaget, as Léopold-Metzger has decided that it will be sponsoring the restoration of these important sites of historical and horticultural interest. The garden at Malmaison, in particular, will be fascinating for historians of both early imperial France and early-19th-century rose cultivation, as on the 200th anniversary of the empress’s death hundreds of old varieties will be reintroduced to the celebrated soils of the Bonapartes’ country estate.

In Joséphine’s honour, Piaget has abandoned itself to a carnival of rose-inspired horology and jewellery. It is a field – or rather a garden – in which the brand enjoys a particular legitimacy, because had Yves Piaget not helmed a hugely successful watch label, he would have quite happily been a rose grower. “When he was in La Côte-aux-Fées [the mountain community where Piaget makes its movements], he was crazy about wild roses,” explains Léopold-Metzger. “He opened a florist in Geneva, and in 1982, a rose was named after him.” Given such horticultural heritage, Léopold-Metzger has done his firm’s eponym proud: among the glittering jewellery watches is a version of its Limelight model called the Limelight Blooming Rose (from £33,700), which turns into an eight-petal rose when rotated on the wrist.  

But this is just one precious flower in an entire hothouse of time-telling blooms. In the Rose Passion collection (example shown in second pictured overleaf, £28,500), the silhouette of petals is mimicked by baguette-cut stones set jupon-style around the dial, a technique that manages to impart a naturalistic, gentle undulation to the bezel. Then, cloisonné enamel is used to create dials honouring the Yves Piaget rose and even needlework is employed to give them a trompe-l’oeil quality, so that, unless one were to inspect them closely with a loupe, they could easily be taken to be miniature enamel paintings. This addition to the battery of decorative-embellishment techniques has been given the grand name of micro-peinture a l’aiguille. And at the risk of reinforcing gender stereotypes, the femininity of intricate embroidery is well suited to the depiction of what Léopold-Metzger calls the Queen of Flowers.

Piaget’s ateliers are not alone in using a needle and thread to bring blooms to the watch dial. Chanel has employed the skills of its embroidery firm Lesage to create Mademoiselle Chanel’s signature camellia on the dial of the Mademoiselle Privé (£59,000, pictured far right). But choice of flower aside, the striking difference is in the way that the two maisons use essentially the same medium to interpret the beauty of the flower differently. Piaget’s rose is almost photographic in the attention to detail, the technique tricking the eye into thinking it is seeing a picture rather than a piece of needlework, while the Chanel camellia uses looser, longer, more “painterly” stitches to create an impressionistic effect.

Clockwise from top left: Van Cleef & Arpels white-gold, rose-gold, diamond, ruby and mother-of-pearl Pavot Mystérieux Pièce Unique, recently sold. Cartier white-gold, rose-gold, diamond, sapphire, onyx and emerald Ballon Bleu floral-marquetry parrot watch, £82,000. Piaget white-gold, silk and diamond Rose Passion watch, £28,500. Chopard white-gold and diamond Red Carpet watch, price on request. Boucheron white-gold, diamond, sapphire and hematite Epure Je Pense à Toi, £68,000.
Clockwise from top left: Van Cleef & Arpels white-gold, rose-gold, diamond, ruby and mother-of-pearl Pavot Mystérieux Pièce Unique, recently sold. Cartier white-gold, rose-gold, diamond, sapphire, onyx and emerald Ballon Bleu floral-marquetry parrot watch, £82,000. Piaget white-gold, silk and diamond Rose Passion watch, £28,500. Chopard white-gold and diamond Red Carpet watch, price on request. Boucheron white-gold, diamond, sapphire and hematite Epure Je Pense à Toi, £68,000.

Dior is also leveraging its eponymous founder’s passion for flowers and gardening with a collection of unique pieces loosely inspired by Mr Dior’s garden – the inventor of the New Look once said that he was “especially happy in the company of gardeners and plants”. And so Dior has applied the frontal rotor architecture of its calibre inversé, from its signature Grand Bal series of watches that mimic the swishing of ballgowns, to precious and semiprecious gems such as diamonds, tsavorites, opals, sapphires and mother-of-pearl to represent flora (example pictured on previous pages, price on request). The thinking is that the stones are to geology what flowers are to the plant world – joyous splashes of bright, nature-given colour.

Jewellers are, of course, suited to this wave of floral horological interest in that the flower is a motif that has long been recreated using precious stones. For instance, the clue to the inspiration behind Graff Diamonds’ signature floral jewellery watch is to be found in the name FloralGraff (£57,000, pictured on previous pages), a dainty, mosaic-like piece with eight stylised petals, each featuring a polished cabochon sapphire, emerald or ruby, surrounded by a delicate tracery of pavé-set diamonds.

A little more elusive is the name Epure d’Art Je Pense à Toi (£68,000, pictured above far right), given by Boucheron to the watch that was a finalist in the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève at the end of last year. All becomes clear when one learns that the bouquet of pansies Frédéric Boucheron was in the habit of sending to his wife would be accompanied by a note declaring: “Je pense à toi” (I think of you).

As well as recalling the history of a house, some floral timepieces are developed by jewellers to showcase specific signature skills. Take, for instance, the recently sold poppy-inspired Pavot Mystérieux watch (pictured above right) by Van Cleef & Arpels. At first, the time is not apparent and it is only when one of the petals is pressed that the stigma and stamens at the heart of the flower open to reveal a mother-of-pearl dial. In keeping with Van Cleef’s history of convertible jewellery, the poppy flower can be removed and worn as a brooch, while its ruby corolla is the perfect opportunity to exhibit Van Cleef’s trademark Mystery Setting.

A couple of doors along on Place Vendôme, Clare Deve-Rakoff, creative director at Chaumet, explains that her work is continuing a tradition that reaches back two centuries to the days of – yes, you guessed it – the châtelaine of Malmaison. “The Empress Joséphine loved the hydrangea so much that she called her daughter Hortense,” says Deve-Rakoff. For Chaumet, this is the year of the hydrangea, exemplified in the Hortensia Tourbillon (price on request). “The idea of this new flower collection is to get us close to the hydrangea because it is a very inspiring flower with a variety of shapes, volumes and colours – hortensias can be blue, white, green and pink.”

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But you do not have to be a former empress of France to fall for floral watches. “What woman doesn’t like flowers?” asks Caroline Scheufele, co-president and creative director of Chopard, adding pragmatically, “If you have a flower in diamonds, it will not wilt.” She also considers it a very topical theme: “You have a lot of flower prints in the fashion industry right now.” For her, the floral world is a natural progression, given that she has just completed a collection of watches and jewellery based around fauna. “Flowers allow me to create very feminine designs. They also enable us to play with different colours, complementing the work we did with animals in which we used many different gems – precious and fine stones.” This artful mixing of colour is evident in a watch from the Red Carpet collection, which has tulip motifs in amethysts, rubellites and tsavorites (price on request), while another has a dial with sapphire-blue hands surrounded by cluster-like flowers of marquise-cut diamonds (price on request).  

This almost infinite tonal variation opens the entire palette of coloured stones to the jeweller-watchmaker, and also suits the increasing interest in métiers d’art – the decorative techniques applied to watches. Last summer, Vacheron Constantin launched a collection of floral timepieces overlaid with a historical significance dating from the late 18th century. Dr Robert John Thornton’s The Temple of Flora, published in 1799, when Josephine was busy planting the gardens at Malmaison, is to botany what the Gutenberg Bibleis to the study of religious texts. It is illustrated with exquisite hand-coloured engravings of rare plants that combine scientific accuracy with an ineffable artistic virtuosity, and Vacheron was inspired to capture these images in enamel watch dials. The enamelwork – carried out by Anita Porchet, the watch industry’s best-known enameller – required skill and knowledge to achieve the right colour tones, a painstaking process that called for numerous firings at different temperatures in the kiln. The first series of Florilège watches comprises three different dials: White Lily, China Limodoron and Queen (£98,500). Three more are due out this summer.

And then, in January, Cartier presented its showstopping new métier d’art with a watch (£82,000) that features a parrot on the dial and does not appear to display any flowers at all. However, upon closer examination it becomes evident that the parrot is actually composed of an intricate marquetry pattern of tiny fragments of rose petal, the natural characteristics of which impart texture and the suggestion of feathers being ruffled in a breeze.

To achieve this effect, white rose petals, selected for their pigmentary neutrality, were injected with coloured solutions, after which they were cut into tiny pieces to be applied to the dial. There is plenty of clever science when it comes to fixing the colours and making the medium stable, but the combination of imagination and expertise is to be saluted. “We are asking our artisans to be audacious and not just to preserve what was done before by their fathers and grandfathers. We are coming up with new ideas, and this year we have presented this marqueterie de fleur,” says Cartier CEO Stanislas de Quercize, who hints at further developments and experiments in the métiers d’art genre, but remains infuriatingly tight-lipped when it comes to disclosing any details.

So, in the absence of any hard information, the imagination roams unfettered over the possibilities. If the visual properties of flowers have been harnessed by modern watchmakers, are their olfactory properties next? Somehow, scratch and sniff does not really fit with the world of fine watchmaking.

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