Sometimes, the beauty and originality of Van Cleef & Arpels watches obscure the technical wonders. We are bowled over by the creativity of the designer and the opulence of the jewels. We don’t dissect a work of art on first viewing, after all.
After seeing some tantalising previews of the Lady Arpels Papillon Automate, visitors at SIHH were drawn to the watch like insects to pollen. None was disappointed. The watch face is a canvas of nature – a constant theme in Van Cleef & Arpels collections. It is decorated with jewels and rich enamel: champlevé, paillonné, plique-à-jour and curved plique-à-jour.
Butterflies are a motif that Van Cleef & Arpels uses widely in its jewellery and watches. In the Lady Arpels Papillon Automate, a butterfly hovers above a fairy-tale garden containing exquisite flowers, situated by a pool of water in which the moon is reflected. All this is done in blue, mauve and violet sapphires, diamonds, mother-of-pearl and vivid hues of enamel. The butterfly has blue wings in plique-à-jour enamel.
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The rendering of the scene would be enough of a masterpiece if it were simply a still picture. But this is a Van Cleef & Arpels watch, so the butterfly is an automaton, which flutters its wings delightfully under the slightly domed glass. The wings flutter at various rates and frequencies in response to various stimuli, one being the wearer’s movements. Van Cleef & Arpels calls it, aptly, a Poetic Complication.
The 38mm watch case is white gold, with brilliant diamonds on the bezel and case band, and a diamond at each point of attachment to the strap. The transparent caseback reveals the self-winding mechanical movement. The finishing touch is the blue alligator strap with diamond-set pin buckle.
The watchmaker was prompted to create the Lady Arpels Papillon Automate by the work it did on another extraordinary timepiece, the Automate Fée Ondine. The Automate Fée Ondine is a clock – and what a clock it is. It depicts a fairy on a lily pad contemplating a water lily as it blooms. The scene is completed by a butterfly, a sprinkling of glittering drops of water and a ladybird. The depiction is said to have required eight years to plan and craftsmen belonging to 20 European ateliers to execute. The craftsmen were stone cutters, stone setters, enamellers, watchmakers and even cabinet makers, who worked under the direction of François Junod of Switzerland.
The 60 blades that make up the representation of the lily pad move in sequence so that the lily pad appears to ripple. The water lily flower opens to reveal the butterfly, which rises into the air, making the fairy come to life. As the flower closes, the butterfly descends and the fairy falls asleep. The action is played out over 50 seconds as the clock chimes. If you are still interested in what time it is after witnessing all that, there is a retrograde hour display at the base of the clock, and the cutest ruby pavé ladybird runs around an invisible track on the dial, always returning to her starting point at 12 o’clock.
Van Cleef & Arpels uses white gold for the fairy. Her garb shines with diamonds and graduated blue sapphires. Her translucent wings are done in blue-green plique-à-jour enamel. Her face is an aquamarine. The lily is crafted in silver, enamel, yellow gold, and yellow and orange sapphires. The butterfly is white gold and white opal, set with rose-cut diamonds and pink sapphires.
The Automate Fée Ondine and the Lady Arpels Papillon Automate were the showstoppers, but not the only Van Cleef & Arpels marvels at SIHH. The Heure Marine is a true jewellery watch, in the Van Cleef & Arpels Seven Seas collection. It is a substantial white gold bracelet studded with diamonds and sapphires and bearing two huge, sugarloaf Sri Lankan sapphires, weighing 27.34 carats. A tiny emerald clip in the middle of the bracelet is lifted to reveal the mother-of-pearl dial of the manually wound watch.
Another secret watch by Van Cleef & Arpels, the Cerf-Volant, hides in a pendant. The watch, driven by a quartz movement, hangs from a long necklace of black spinel and onyx, white diamonds, pearls and rubies. Opening the pendant reveals the watch face reflected in a mirror. Then there is the Ruban Secret Watch. This is a wholly diamond bracelet ornamented with a diamond-studded bow. To see the watch, one twists the bow. Van Cleef & Arpels offers the watch in white gold with diamonds or in pink gold with pink sapphires.