[dropcap size=small]A[/dropcap]lthough celebrated French brand Hermes is known for its long history associated with equine accoutrements – particularly the harness and its famous “saddle-stitch” – it shares an equally long, albeit low-key, relationship with the world of horology.
A quick look at the Emile Hermes Museum collection, tucked away in its flagship store along the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, will reveal hundreds of timepieces and clocks in its archives, while the brand’s collaboration with the best names in mechanical movements to complement its in-house dials for most of the 20th century is no secret. It was only in 1978 that the house decided to seriously relook the future of this business component.
WHAT IS A SADDLE STITCH?
This is a unique way of hand-stitching, inextricably linked to the house of Hermes, where a single thread and two needles are used to cross each other in each hole, almost like balletic sewing, thereby ensuring greater overall resistance.
“Hermes made, primarily, a lot of saddle-stitched cases for pocket watches in the past, but these were a very marginal part of the business then,” notes Marc Stoltz, its directeur de conservatoire.
The catalyst for this change? Jean-Louis Dumas, the fifth-generation descendant of founder Thierry Hermes, who assumed leadership of the family business in 1978. It was he who imagined a bigger, brighter future for the house’s watchmaking business and proceeded to chart a steady course for it.
One of the first things Dumas did was establish a new subsidiary – La Montre Hermes – which he headquartered in Bienne, a famous watchmaking city that is home to numerous other big names, including Rolex and Longines.
Ever since, La Montre Hermes has been quietly investing in the technical know-how that, slowly but surely, is propelling its timepieces into the top tier of the horological big league.
One of the most significant moves was the partial acquisition of the celebrated Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier in 2006, as well as leveraging on the inimitable artistry of its sister companies, like the Cristalleries Royales de Saint-Louis, to create timepieces that not only ticked with the finest mechanical movements, but also boasted dials that were distinctively Hermes works of art.
THE SPIRIT OF SAINT LOUIS
Horological enthusiasts would remember well one of the prettiest timepieces ever unveiled at the annual Baselworld watch fairs.
In 2014, La Montre Hermes showcased its star piece – the Hermes Arceau Millefiori, a glass jewel of a timepiece adorned with a thousand exquisite crystal flowers on its face, made by the famous Cristalleries Royales de Saint-Louis.
Utilising crystal-making know-how that dates back to the 16th century, this Hermes-owned manufacturer is famous for its decorative crystal, particularly its exquisite paperweights. But it also creates miniaturised versions of this precious art as ultra-artisan dials for selected Hermes timepieces.
Part of the magic at the Cristalleries Royales de Saint-Louis lies in the crystal-making process itself, where a handpicked group of artisans work in blazing temperatures to produce “crystal canes” – long, reed-like rods that, when cut, reveal a multi-coloured design.
Referred to as bonbons or “candies”, these minuscule works of art are then placed together on a watch dial to create a totally unique masterpiece, rendering the finished product as much a timekeeper as it is an objet d’art.
THE HEARTBEAT OF THE WATCH
Certainly, the holy trinity of a timepiece with gravitas is comprised of dial, watch case and its own in-house mechanical movement.
In 2012, La Montre Hermes acquired the celebrated La Chaux-de-Fonds-based dial-maker, Nateber. With Nateber in place and the 2013 acquisition of Joseph Erard SA, after a longstanding partnership, thereby securing its supply of watch cases, it would be the celebrated Vaucher name that would complete the strategic component alliance La Montre Hermes had been seeking.
Established in 2003 after Parmigiani Mesure et Art du Temp SA split into two separate entities, Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier is one of the few Swiss watch manufacturers that can boast of being able to perform the complete process of conceptualising, developing and producing the heart of a watch – its precious “movement”.
Certainly the most fundamental component of any timepiece worth its mettle, these critical “heartbeats” of a watch determine its complexity, which covers a variety of aspects, from power reserve and horological complications like chronographs, to perpetual calendars and moon phases.
Located in the Canton of Neuchatel and housed in an impressively modern set-up, Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier is fully equipped to produce the entire movement of a watch completely in-house, which, for La Montre Hermes, include specifi cally the H1837 and the H1912, both of which were unveiled at Baselword 2012 in the men’s and women’s Dressage and Arceau watches, respectively, and, of course, the ultra-thin H1950, which equips the Slim d’Hermes range.
Just as the brand founded its name on the quality and excellence of Thierry Hermes’ saddle-stitch, it goes without saying its wristwatch straps, naturally, reflect this heritage. Having already made exquisite straps for watches since the 1900s, La Montre Hermes has since built on this expertise by inaugurating a dedicated leather workshop a decade ago.
Stocked with an array of the finest and most distinctive leathers, ranging from goat and calfskin to ostrich and precious alligator – of the exact same quality that would go into the crafting of Kelly and Birkin bags, as well as the house’s renowned saddles – a team of leather artisans work swiftly and surely to create each single-watch strap by hand.
Every strap used in La Montre Hermes’ timepieces is produced here, as well as a limited quantity for the house of Parmigiani-Fleurier, due to the close friendship shared between the two maisons.
The process is arduous, involving the pre-cutting of sections of leather, the fixing of buckles and lugs, as well as tracing sewing lines and stitching by hand, which only craftsmen are permitted to do after years of training and practical experience.
Each watch strap is also the mastery of a single dedicated craftsman, whose hands are responsible, from start to finish, for the transformation of a piece of raw material into a wearable work of art, matching perfectly the timepiece it will go on to adorn.
THE ART OF ENGRAVING
One of the oldest and most-admired traditions in Swiss watchmaking’s long history is engraving.
An ancient art, it is primarily a decorative skill that demands extraordinary know-how as well as artistic talent from the engraver.
Tucked away in a little cul-de-sac off a Geneva street is the workshop of one of its great exponents – Olivier Vaucher. And it is in his workshop where the ancient arts of engraving and enamelling come vividly to life.
Overseeing a team of at least 25 artisans, it is here that Vaucher, together with his wife Dominique, work on commissioned engraving and enamelling work for only the finest names in haute horlogerie.
Together, the company of artisans perform the alchemy that will transform a timepiece into an artistic masterpiece, drawing upon their collective mastery in disciplines that range from micro-painting to gem-setting, polishing, marquetry and, of course, the traditional arts of enamelling and engraving.
All these ancient skills are today supported by integrated new technologies that include CNC programming and laser-cutting.
“This is to ensure the quality of execution, complemented by know-how and a very artistic approach,” Vaucher explains.
For those unable to imagine the mastery of grace and shadow that is conjured up by Vaucher and his team, one need only look to the maison’s theme for the year: Nature at Full Gallop.
Inspired by the great artist Robert Dallet, one of the most breathtaking pieces showcased at Baselworld this year was, undoubtedly, the limited edition Arceau Tigre, which is the house’s first timepiece crafted using the technique of email ombrant (shaded enamel), a technique never before performed on a watch.
This latest and unprecedented iteration in the art of telling time could perhaps be the most exciting one yet from the celebrated luxury brand, signalling, perhaps, that La Montre Hermes’ star is well and truly ready now for its horological ascendancy.
THE EMILE HERMES MUSEUM
Where the past serves the future of the brand.
PHOTOGRAPHY La Montre Hermes, Munster, Thibault Breton & Guy Lucas de Peslouan