The Epic New Louis Vuitton Tambour
Redesigned as a lugless, bezel-less, integrated bracelet sports chic watch, the new Louis Vuitton Tambour is the most fiercely original offer in this hotly contested category, and speaks to the design intelligence of its creator, Jean Arnault.
I’m just going to come right out and say it. The new Louis Vuitton Tambour, created by Jean Arnault — Louis Vuitton’s watches director as global reset to the watch vision for the world’s biggest luxury brand — is fantastic. This integrated bracelet three-hand sports chic timepiece defines an all-new watchmaking language and introduces the new horological genetic code for Louis Vuitton from this point forward. So much so that, to me, despite the storied history of the Tambour model, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, 2023 now represents Year One of Louis Vuitton watches.
Because the Tambour, its fiercely original design and the serious game elevation in terms of content, now represents Louis Vuitton’s intention to make serious quality and highly desirable watches. There is no more uncertainty. No more vacillation. These watches are a declaration that Louis Vuitton is here to be a real contender in the high luxury watch category. If any other brand in the integrated bracelet luxury watch space is wondering why its windows are reverberating, that’s because the world’s mightiest luxury brand has just made a pretty emphatic cannon shot across your bow.
Revamping the Tambour
Says Jean Arnault, “It was clear that while we had some impressive high complications when it came to the entry level for our watches, there was a disconnect between the desire generated by our other product categories and the desirability of our watches. We decided that watches don’t necessarily have to be our largest product category, but it can be the category we are proudest of, that creates real desire and represents real excellence. To some degree, the fact that watches are not our largest category gave us a certain creative freedom when it came to the redesign of the Tambour. My father always says, ‘Start with the product first and everything else will follow.’ We used this philosophy in the approach to recreating the Tambour.”
Is this a big roll of the dice? Did the move take cojones the size of Mount Augustus to mess with the Tambour, the brand’s bestselling model? You bet. Because such is Louis Vuitton’s leadership position in the luxury world that if the new Tambour was in any way subpar, horologically naïve, uncomfortable on the wrist, and perhaps most of all, derivative in any way, it would have been a disaster. The number of self-anointed interweb evangelists sitting in their greasy underpants in their mothers’ basements ready to savage the Tambour would have numbered greater than the army of Persia’s Cyrus the Great. But they can’t. And even if they try, their feeble lamentations will soon dissipate like the winds over Vesuvius. Because the new Tambour is good. I mean really good.
How do I qualify this? Let me quote my hero, the great gentleman gourmand Hannibal Lecter, “We begin by coveting what we see every day.” And the immediate visual impression created by the Tambour is of damnably beautiful and truly original timepieces. Irrefutably appealing in the way that Catherine Deneuve is in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and that is, undeniably gorgeous, with that wonderful sense of an ingenue taking her confident step toward superstardom. That provides the perfect transition to the watch which I feel will be one of the greatest success stories of the year — Louis Vuitton’s new integrated bracelet, lugless Tambour.
Connecting to the Zeitgeist
Wait, did I just say lugless? Yes. As the design process of these watches began in September of 2021 when Arnault arrived at La Fabrique du Temps, it would have been impossible for Arnault to foresee the current trend for lugless integrated bracelet watches. It nonetheless seems that Arnault has precisely tapped into the zeitgeist of our era. He says, “While I have nothing but the greatest respect for the Tambour, I felt the design has to evolve.
“The epiphany was when we discarded the lugs altogether and decided to integrate the bracelet directly with the case.”
But, of course, it is daunting to change the design of what we considered to be an icon for us. Then I started to think, actually, when you think of the Tambour, you think of the case itself, how it is subtly wider at the bottom and has this drum-like shape. The epiphany was when we discarded the lugs altogether and decided to integrate the bracelet directly with the case.”
But where the Tambour comes alive is when it is strapped to the wrist and realizes the focus Arnault has placed on comfort. He states, “Absolutely — there is nothing worse than a watch that is visually appealing but uncomfortable on the wrist, and so we set about really working on the ergonomics, in particular how the bracelet and case integration were made. We knew we didn’t want to have any “overhang” and needed our bracelet to flow down smoothly so that it would fit a wide variety of wrist sizes and be appealing to both men and women.”
One thing I am immediately struck with the new Tambour is the slimness of its 8.3mm profile, which is impressive considering the previous model’s thickness. Says Arnault, “While absolute thinness was not our goal, in terms of both ergonomics and also design appeal, I wanted our proportions to be just right. The diameter at the base of the case is 40mm and narrows to 39mm at the crystal. The entire watch is just 8.3mm in thickness. But then we added a line at the side of the case.”
One detail which made me chuckle was that the old Tambour features a strong, some would say, in your face, engraving of the name “Louis Vuitton” in the side of the case. Arnault has kept this engraving and placed it within the thin line in the case flank, which aids in visually slimming down the watch, but reduces the size of the letters to be almost microscopic. He chuckled as well when I squinted at the miniscule wording, saying, “The idea was not to get rid of all these signature details, but to bring a sense of subtlety and refinement to the design. The Louis Vuitton signature here is almost a secret, meaning that’s a detail you keep for yourself.”
Perfectly Proportioned and Unique
Looking at the dial of the watch, it resonates with a perfect golden ratio-like sense of balance. Arnault explains, “We wanted the position of the sub-seconds indicator in the watch to be perfectly symmetrical and fall equidistant from the cannon pinion and the rehaut. So we had to design the dial first and then create a movement to fit this requirement, rather than use an off-the-shelf movement. For the hands, we tried 50 to 60 different styles before we arrived at these which feel really timeless but [are] also quite original.” There are however some details that speak of the unabashed watch nerd in Arnault. He laughs and says, “We used ‘Fab. en Suisse’ because this was used in old Pateks delivered to the French market. It’s a bit of a clin d’œil to vintage watch culture.”
The end-result are watches that resonate with a visual richness. It is clear that every small detail is made to meticulous perfection. What is also undeniable is the lavish sense of finishing applied to every aspect of each timepiece. Jean Arnault says, “We realized that we had to bring the highest level of finish to even our most accessible watches. At the same time, it was important to be original. So even the finishing of the movement, which is created for us by Alain Schiesser at Le Cercle des Horlogers, is unique to us and might look like a frosted finish but actually echoes the pattern of the canvas on our trunks.”
Looking back at the entire history of integrated bracelet watches, they have a tendency to start to blur together. Yet when you see a Tambour, there is something boldly different about it. Here is a watch confidently born into the new millennium without even the faintest backward glance at the past. “It’s the bezel,” Arnault explains, “People tend to look at a watch from across the table and be able to identify it immediately. We wanted to create this same sense of immediacy in recognition of the Tambour, but at the same time, we wanted our watch to be totally different from the others. As we worked on the Tambour, we realized that the strength of the pure round form with the bracelet integrated directly to the case already made it very unique. As such, we were able to make the bezel as thin as possible so that it almost disappears as it flows into the case and reinforces the shape of the drum.” Once he explains that to me, I understand why I find the new Tambour so unique. It is a highly appealing, perfectly proportioned integrated bracelet that does away with both lugs and a bezel, and in so doing, feels incredibly fresh and original.
Louis Vuitton Watch Prize
What is also impressive is that the creation of a new Tambour is only one of the accomplishments for 2023. Earlier this year, Arnault announced the creation of the Louis Vuitton Watch Prize for Independent Creatives. This prize identifies the next generation of breakout horological talent and awards them a financial grant and a mentorship.
When asked about the inspiration for this, he explains, “When I first got started in collecting, the world was crazy about vintage watches. Of course, I appreciated them. But I also didn’t connect with them as much as others did. I asked myself, ‘Is it really possible that no one has created anything else appealing since the Patek 2499 and 3448? Then I discovered independent watchmaking and fell in love with it. I love that there were contemporary creators like François-Paul Journe, Rexhep Rexhepi, Kari Voutilainen and even brands like Krayon that were fabricating modern watches that had such strong authenticity, uniqueness and appeal. I thought to myself, it would be great to use Louis Vuitton’s platform to support this extraordinary industry and the individuals that comprise it. When I started talking to many of these watchmakers, they told me how hard it was to start, how expensive it was, how challenging it was to get suppliers to work with them. And I thought, what if we created a prize where the winner can benefit from all of our infrastructure, and we can really help them to achieve their dream?”
Revitalizing Daniel Roth and Gérald Genta
Finally, as if the successful and massive repositioning of Louis Vuitton watches and the creation of a prize to support independent watchmaking were not enough, Arnault also oversees two of the most famous brands in independent watchmaking — Daniel Roth and Gérald Genta. The first Daniel Roth watch will be a Tourbillon Souscription inspired by the famous C187 double-sided tourbillon watch made for iconic British retailer Asprey. While Arnault downplays his role in the revival of Daniel Roth, it is clear that he personally sought the watchmaker out to ask him to be an adviser to this new project. The revival of both the Daniel Roth and Gérald Genta brands will also give Enrico Barbasini and Michel Navas a great deal of work, as they will be the primary drivers of the high complication language and innovation represented by the resulting watches.
Says Arnault, “It is exciting for them and for us because Roth and Genta give us the impetus to really focus on haute horlogerie, both in terms of advancing our in-house high complications from striking watches, to tourbillons and much more, to working on mastering the very highest level of finish. With a Daniel Roth Souscription Tourbillon, I know that owners will scrutinize every single detail, and I want them to be really impressed with the quality of the watches.” What is also impressive is Arnault’s patience. The first Daniel Roth Tourbillon Souscription is made in just a series of 20 pieces. And at CHF 140,000, it is actually quite a value proposition in a landscape made up of oftentimes very high-priced competition. Arnault explains, “We are in this for the long term. All Enrico, Michel and I are focused on is the watch itself — its proportions, its beauty, how it wears on the wrist at 9.2mm in thickness, which is very thin for a Tourbillon. When we had the opportunity to collaborate with the best, as we did with Kari Voutilainen for the solid gold dial, we seized it. It’s like my father says, ‘Focus on the product first and the rest will come.’
A New Star in Watch Leadership
Earlier this year, Arnault posted an image of himself with Evelyne Genta, Gérald Genta’s widow and the ambassador from Monaco to the United Kingdom. The message was clear that he will approach the relaunch of the legendary designer’s brand with the same patience and product-centric approach. When asked how he manages his time overseeing all four of these initiatives, he replies, “The majority of my time is spent on Louis Vuitton watches. Enrico and Michel are very focused on Daniel Roth and Gérald Genta, and it’s great to see how excited they are. To have this spirit at La Fabrique du Temps is incredibly valuable. And of course, the watch prize is also thrilling. I suppose if you are really passionate about what you do, it doesn’t really feel like work. So even if you have a lot on your plate, you enjoy it.”
Before I end this article, I want to take a moment to explain how it was that I first met Jean Arnault and why I admire him. I had just created one of my first limited edition watches, a collaboration with TAG Heuer named the Carrera Chronograph “Blue Dreamer.” Soon after checking my inbox, I found an email that read, “Dear Wei, I really like the watch you’ve created. Do you think you could consider allocating one to me and one to my brother?” It was signed Jean Arnault. My immediate thought was that one of my friends was playing a practical joke on me. But to play it safe, I called my friend, the fantastic Eberlé-Devaux, who was at the time the heritage director of TAG Heuer, and she replied, “Maybe you should respond to the email,” with her typical diplomacy. I allocated Arnault the watches, though the fact that he was also purchasing one for his brother Frédéric who would soon become TAG Heuer’s CEO was not lost on me.
We began to correspond and discuss watches. I was immediately impressed by the depth of his knowledge which was almost encyclopedic; one of our first conversations was about Auro Montanari’s 3449, one of three in existence and the one with the longest lugs. We both agreed that it was probably made simultaneously as a prototype along with the 3448, but Patek soon decided that an automatic watch would be more practical and commercial. Through all our conversations, I found him to be incredibly passionate and also one of the most polite and humble guys I’ve ever met, as embodied by the tone of his email. This has remained exactly the same after knowing him in person. In fact, the interview for this story was conducted at 6 a.m. his time in L.A. so that he wouldn’t keep me up too late in Singapore — something he had insisted on. The point I’m trying to make is that Jean Arnault is, as a person, genuinely nice, incredibly smart, very horologically educated and unfailingly humble. But what I didn’t know about him until I saw the new Tambour is that he is something of a genius at watch creation as well.
FEATURED FROM ARTICLE
|Self-winding caliber FBN 229.01 with natural escapement; 72-hour power reserve
|Hours, minutes and small seconds
|40mm; stainless steel; water resistant to 30m
|Verdant green, with sector track; applied, white rhodium treated gold Arabic numerals and hour markers
|Brown calf leather with Alcantara lining, stainless steel pin buckle; additional Milanese bracelet in stainless steel
|Limited edition of 15 pieces