The Escale Cabinet of Wonders symbolises the transformation of Louis Vuitton Watchmaking

A bold statement about Louis Vuitton’s future in high watchmaking was made in the beginning of this year, unveiling the next chapter in Jean Arnault’s masterful plan.

In Megève, a somnolent French ski village located a mere one hour away from Geneva in early March, the world’s mightiest luxury brand unveiled a series of métiers d’art watches inspired by Gaston-Louis Vuitton’s love for Japanese art.

Three of these were cased inside an all-new Escale case, a watch whose form was inspired by the iconography of Louis Vuitton’s legendary travel trunks, first created in 1858, with a collection that expanded in the 20th century in response to the travel needs of the global elite.

Escale Cabinet of Wonders

The signature leitmotif of the new Escale is a pair of exaggerated, stylized lugs that is, in one way, a tribute to the formed metal corners found on Louis Vuitton trunks, and in another way, and especially if you know the man behind this watch, Jean Arnault, a tribute to the stylized lugs that embodied the golden age of case making in the 1940s and ’50s, perpetuated by the likes of Borgel, Wenger and Gerlach. That’s the intelligence of the new Escale, which will be launched this summer in a regular production edition. It works brilliantly and simultaneously on two levels: the first is as a repository of Louis Vuitton’s trunk codes translated into its indexes, dial, texture, minute track and much more; the second is as a showcase for Arnault’s sincere passion for the history of watchmaking expressed by all these same details.

Jean Arnault

The three métiers d’art watches, collectively known as the Escale Cabinet of Wonders, are inspired by Japanese tsubas, the highly decorated hand guard of samurai long swords or katanas.

Louis Vuitton Escale – Cabinet of Wonders – Koï’s Garden

The first amongst these watches features a pair of Japanese koi fish nestled in a yin and yang position. The fish and background are entirely hand engraved before lacquer is applied to them. They are complemented by translucent enamel bubbles featuring the LV motif and flower.

Louis Vuitton Escale – Cabinet of Wonders – Koï’s Garden

This watch, which will be made in 20 examples, also features a new “Gaston-Louis Vuitton” or GLV signature on the dial in a very cool stylized Deco motif. However, what is interesting is that because of the subtly modulated tone-on-tone chromatic execution, the watch feels highly contemporary. As I point out to Arnault, “It does a great job of connecting métiers d’art to the modern customer.”

Louis Vuitton Escale – Cabinet of Wonders – Snake’s Jungle

To which he replies with a smile, “That’s exactly the point.” The koi-themed watch is joined by a fantastic serpent-themed watch. The snake appears about to strike at the GLV logo, as it hovers over it. The background for this motif is crafted out of straw marquetry in 14 shades of green, while the snake is a masterwork of three-dimensional champlevé enameling. Rounding out the trinity is the dragon-themed watch, which somehow avoids feeling cliched thanks to the genuinely cool black and gold scales rendered in Louis Vuitton’s blossom motif, which add just the right soupçon of street style, “Pharrell-like” swagger to the design.

Louis Vuitton Escale – Cabinet of Wonders – Dragon’s Cloud

These three impressive craft-based watches are joined by two tourbillons. The first is in a platinum Voyager case. The vertical minimalistic design of the LV 104 in-house Geneva Seal tourbillon movement leaves a great deal of space around it. In the best instances, the brand capitalizes on this with decorative techniques and smart design. Here, the dial is rendered with a series of V-shaped white gold latticework that complements the V-shaped motif of the tourbillon cage. It is then filled with plique-à-jour enamel, a technique that creates colored transparent enamel reminiscent of stained glass windows.

Voyager Flying Tourbillon “Poinçon de Genève” Plique-à-jour Q7EBBY

The second watch is a full sapphire Tambour tourbillon made in collaboration with architectural legend and the man behind the design of Fondation Louis Vuitton, Frank Gehry. The dial of this watch — if you can call it that — is a formed art piece of undulated three-dimensional skeletonized waves that wrap around the underlying skeletonized tourbillon.

Tambour Moon Flying Tourbillon Poinçon de Genève Sapphire Frank Gehry

When asked which watch he is the proudest of, Arnault replies, “This one [the Tambour Moon Tourbillon Frank Gehry] because we had to really push the limits of what was possible with sapphire crystal to realize Frank’s design.” Amazingly, this compelled Arnault and his team to take the making of sapphire crystal components fully in-house at La Fabrique du Temps, Louis Vuitton’s high watchmaking manufacture.

All Expertise Under One Roof

Taken together, the five timepieces offer a very clear statement of intent from the brand. When I interviewed Arnault at Geneva Watch Days 2022, he said, “We have the intention to bring all the highest craft-based expertise, from the most complex enameling to the highest levels of finishing and decorative techniques, in-house in Louis Vuitton. Because I feel the best investment for the future, for the type of watchmaking we want to create, is the investment in human expertise.” Cut to one and a half years later, and we already see that Arnault’s investment in craft has started to pay significant dividends for him.

Jean Arnault at Geneva Watch Days 2022

“The watches unveiled at Megève have led to very strong results,” says industry expert and author of the Morgan Stanley report on the luxury watch industry, Oliver Müller. He adds, “This is just the beginning. Jean is one of the smartest young leaders in the watch industry. He knows that having all this expertise in-house gives him the ability to make anything he wants in the future and [he can] start to have a real foothold in ultra high-end watchmaking in a very real and authentic way.” Add to this Louis Vuitton’s in-house expertise in other aspects of watchmaking from sapphire crystal to guilloché à main — Arnault even bought a vintage engine-turning machine capable of domed shapes and recruited a super skilled craftsman just to render the “mustache” on the new Daniel Roth watches. Combine all this with two of the greatest living watchmakers of our era, Michel Navas and Enrico Barbasini, and you can begin to see Arnault’s plan for the future take shape. He has set Louis Vuitton on the path to become a serious player in haut de gamme horlogerie.

None of this would have worked, however, if he hadn’t first completely repositioned Louis Vuitton from where it was as a watch brand. OK, let me explain this in the following way. Before I got on stage in my role as master of ceremonies of the Louis Vuitton Watch Prize for Independent Creatives in February this year, I was warned by my friend and Louis Vuitton’s international watch press manager, Penelope Guedj, “Do not praise Louis Vuitton too much.” She explains, “This is not meant to be a marketing exercise. This initiative is important to us. It’s meant to be about genuinely uplifting the next generation of watchmaking talent in a sincere and authentic way.”

I looked at her as the ceremony’s production manager gestured for me to take my place by the stage door and replied, “Penelope, you are my friend. But I respectfully refuse. Because I’ve been waiting for 12 years to finally celebrate Louis Vuitton’s watchmaking. And if you want to talk about uplifting the next generation of watchmaking talent, then it falls to me to recognize the accomplishments of Jean Arnault.” So what’s so impressive about Arnault? What became resolutely clear to me as I mingled amongst the crowd before the event, rubbing shoulders with watchmaking luminaries, including Kari Voutilainen, Denis Flageollet, Michael Tay, Laurent Picciotto, Ben Clymer, Carine Maillard, director of the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG) and the inimitable Nick Foulkes, was that in just two and a half years, Louis Vuitton has gone from being one of the least watch-centric brands in the world, to becoming one of the most watch-centric. And by that I mean it has become a rallying point for the greatest watchmakers, retailers and opinion leaders in modern horology in a very genuine and authentic way. So much so that I think how Jean Arnault has achieved this ought to be taught as a master class on brand repositioning.

Strengthening Louis Vuitton’s Connection to Watchmaking

First, and one cannot overstate the testicular fortitude needed to make this move, Arnault had to recognize the disconnect between Louis Vuitton’s position as a watchmaker and as a luxury brand. It is important to understand that he could identify this problem while others could not because he genuinely loves watches. By the time he took the helm of Louis Vuitton, he was already steeped in an almost encyclopedic knowledge of everything horological, from the most obscure vintage watches to the most rarefied independent timepieces and the vast culture underlying them. He decided, and this was the moment that took massive balls, to discontinue Louis Vuitton’s bestseller, the Tambour, and at the same time, get rid of all quartz watches. He then replaced the old Tambour with an all-new integrated sports chic watch that is both genuinely good and damnably original. How good is the new Tambour? I’ll put it this way — I’m buying one. And like all watch journalists I’m a cheap bastard, but I’m willing to pay full price.

The reinvented Louis Vuitton Tambour

Then, Arnault channeled his love for independent watchmaking into partnerships with the world’s greatest watchmakers. He explains, “When I first got into watches, I loved vintage. But then I started to think it’s a bit depressing that the underlying message is that everything great is only from the past. Then I discovered the independents and realized that this is the most exciting watchmaking of today. These are the watches from my era.”

The Louis Vuitton x Akrivia LVRR-01 Chronographe à Sonnerie

His first collaboration was unveiled last year with Rexhep Rexhepi in the form of a very cool double-sided tourbillon chronograph with a sonnerie en passant for the chrono’s elapsed minutes. I can only say without revealing too much that the projects Jean is working on now will not just create great collaborative watches, but they will also write the next chapter in watchmaking’s history.

At the same time, Arnault recognized the brilliance of Michel Navas and Enrico Barbasini and empowered them to create the type of watches they loved. Says Arnault, “The day I joined Louis Vuitton, I was told my first job was to prevent Enrico from quitting. I went to see him and asked why he wanted to leave. He replied that he didn’t want to work on quartz watches. I asked him what he wanted to develop, and he said a jump hour, retrograde minute repeater. I told him to go for it, and today, this is the movement that is inside the new Gérald Genta watch made for Only Watch.” He also empowered Barbasini and Navas to create the magnificent movement for the new Daniel Roth Tourbillon Souscription, which is a virtual master class in hand finishing replete with concave black polished countersinks amongst other fine details.

The rear dial and calibre of the Louis Vuitton x Akrivia LVRR-01 Chronographe à Sonnerie

Says a completely re-energized Barbasini, “We didn’t create this movement to show off hand finishing with a crazy unnecessary number of internal angles. Instead, we wanted this to be the type of movement that, when watchmakers look at it, they say, ‘Wow, everything is perfect.’”

Says Navas, “The magic at Louis Vuitton today, the feeling that the world recognizes what we do, is all because of Jean Arnault.”

Next, Arnault created the Louis Vuitton Watch Prize for Independent Creatives, which is a genuine giveback to the watch industry. The evening when Raúl Pagès won the inaugural prize and walked on stage to touchingly thank his wife, I looked around the star-studded room. It dawned on me that if someone were to kidnap the bus of people on the way back to the hotel, there would be no more watch industry. I realized that Arnault has galvanized watch culture in a way that perhaps only the GPHG has. And, finally, that brings me back to Megève. The unveiling of the extraordinary métiers d’art watches are a statement of Jean Arnault’s focus on bringing every conceivable handcraft and expertise under the roof of Louis Vuitton. The statement is clear. Today, Vuitton has firmly planted its flag in the realm of high watchmaking, and its future, guided by a young man who has emerged as a once-in-a-generation leader in our industry, is limitless. When introducing Arnault on stage at the presentation of the Louis Vuitton Watch Prize, I said, “I’m so thankful Jean didn’t chose leather goods or fragrances or fashion. He chose watches. And we as a community are all the better for it.”

Tech Specs

Louis Vuitton

Escale Cabinet of Wonders

Ref: W3WG11 (Koi’s Garden); W3WG21 (Snake’s Jungle); W3PG41 (Dragon’s Cloud)
Movement: Self-winding caliber LFT023; 50-hour power reserve
Functions: Hours and minutes
Case: 40mm; 18K white or rose gold; water resistant to 50m
Dial: Artistic depiction of Koi’s Garden, Snake’s Jungle and Dragon’s Cloud using a variety of techniques, including hand engraving, miniature painting, champlevé enameling, paillonné enameling and straw marquetry
Strap: Color-coordinated hand braided calfskin leather inspired by katana handles; 18K white or rose gold pin buckle engraved with Japanese wave motif
Price: Upon request
Availability: Limited edition of 20 pieces in each reference


Voyager Flying Tourbillon Plique-à-Jour

Movement: Manual winding caliber LV 104; 80-hour power reserve
Functions: Hours, minutes and flying tourbillon
Case: 41mm; 950 platinum; water resistant to 50m
Dial: Blue plique-à-jour enamel
Strap: Navy blue leather with tone-on-tone stitching; platinum folding clasp
Price: Upon request


Tambour Moon Sapphire Frank Gehry

Movement: Manual winding caliber LFTMM05.01; 80-hour power reserve
Functions: Hours, minutes and flying tourbillon


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