Van Cleef & Arpels is nothing if not an escape. An escape from the harsh realities of the outside world; a safe haven to burrow oneself in. Indeed, to saunter into any boutique, exhibition or event of the maison and take in its mesmeric array of jewels and timepieces, is to set into motion a serene journey through time. Celebrated the world over as one of the most imaginative and romantic maisons, Van Cleef & Arpels is a name synonymous with the intricate, dreamy world of fine watchmaking and high jewellery. We would be remiss not to acknowledge and celebrate the fact it is also a master storyteller. Founded in 1906, the maison has remained a trailblazer across both platforms and has, for centuries, been shrouded with secrecy and intrigue; an enchanted realm seemingly reserved for a lucky few.
The very concept of time is as intangible as it is tangible, equally positive as it is negative. Sometimes it moves slowly, other times, it’s gone in a flash, yet we cannot speed it any more than we can slow it down. We embrace it as much as we fear it. Living in such a lightning-speed paced work and life culture, we are surrounded by constant reminders that time is running out, how we are always late, and how quickly it can pass us by. The notion of time has become a source of stress and aggression, as opposed to deeply romantic, and in the world of serious watchmaking, much of the approach to time veers towards mundane functionality. Every hour, minute, second and millisecond is accounted for with the utmost accuracy and detail. What then makes a maison such as Van Cleef & Arpels so incredibly alluring is the manner it views and expresses the notion of time. It would simply be inadequate to create a timepiece with no whimsy or story, and indeed, its Poetry of Time complications have been a spellbinding addition to the industry over the years. This particular theme has initiated great curiosity, where an elegant exchange between mechanics and artistry is afoot, and demands one to pause and observe.
As I began my day at the Sharjah Center for Astronomy and Space Sciences a mere 30 minutes outside of Dubai, I sat down with Nicolas Bos, CEO and Creative Director of Van Cleef & Arpels, who mused,“I think for us, the key to success for watchmaking has come down to doing something different and unexpected the last 10 years. Instead of trying to approach a certain segment, to fill a certain gap in the market, we just try to tell stories in a different way, and to use the possibilities of traditional watchmaking to express the identity of the house, which was primarily expressed in jewelry. So, we took a very, very specific approach; very narrative. We call it “poetic” and it turned out to be something quite successful even though it was not something that existed before. It has confirmed to us, for more than 10 years with that specific philosophy now, that there is really a collector and an audience for pieces that come with this very specific kind of combination of strong inspiration and strong story. The use of craftsmanship and somehow jewellery craftsmanship on the dials, such as enameling or work with precious stones. Also, the work on the traditional mechanical movements but revisited to tell the story. So yes, a slightly different approach to watchmaking, but really successful.”
So why the Middle East to launch this collection? I gaze curiously at the sandy surroundings that really couldn’t be more far-flung from the romantic, inspired birthplace of the maison. However, it soon became apparent the Middle East has become a very important market for Van Cleef & Arpels over the years, with the maison holding more and more activities here, not just for the local market, but internationally. The Middle East is a burgeoning region full of opportunities and, Sharjah, the state we are in this particular day, holds close links with the maison. “It’s a state in the United Arab Emirates which is extremely involved with education, science; along this boulevard, there are a number of universities. They are very involved in art as well. We saw on one of the visits, this planetarium with an interesting theme and destination. It’s so close, visually, to the spirit of our watches. Besides the guests from the region, it’s exciting to have guests form around the world here. The Middle East is not always associated, and wrongly so, with art, education, culture and science, so it was interesting to expose that aspect,” said Bos.
It was inside this state-of-the-art planetarium that a new chapter of Van Cleef & Arpels’ Poetic Astronomy journey was revealed. Following the spectacular reveal of the Midnight Zodiac Lumineux mens’ timepieces at SIHH earlier this year, a set of twelve complementary ladies’ pieces was unveiled under the sedate glow of the planetarium sky. Each of 12 Lady Arpels Zodiac Lumineux timepieces is powered by an automatic mechanical movement which when illuminated, represents each zodiac sign. The magic behind this mechanism lies in a marvel known as piezoelectricity. It’s not the first time the maison has chosen to use this technology; it first made its debut in its Midnight Nuit Lumineuse collection in 2016 and holds a patent for it. A push button along the case at 8 o’clock reveals the Lady Arpels Zodiac Lumineux’s spellbinding secret. A ceramic strip within vibrates once this button is activated, creating piezoelectricity, which was discovered in the 18th century and allows certain materials to build up an electrical charge when faced with mechanical stress.
Depending on which astrological sign you have on your wrist, between four and six delicate enamel beads light up for roughly three seconds, and wearers can rest assured this action will not drain the power reserve, as they rely on two separate energy sources. So, even if the watch itself is unwound, the light can still be activated. As if gazing up at the night sky, the deep blue enamel dial is fractured by various constellations. Should it slip your mind this is a time-teller, there is a simple hour and minute hand to represent exactly how long you will spend gazing at this beautiful dial, which was brought to life in the Meyrin workshops in Switzerland, using a mesmeric glitter-effect blue embracing the dreamy chemistry of light and shade. It was swiftly evident the crowd favorite was indeed the Leo dial, with even Bos himself reserving a soft spot for this particular sign.
When asked about the maison’s fascination with the sky, he explains, “At the end of the day, it’s the representation of nature. In the past, it’s been through earthly representations such as the forest, flowers, as well as the oceans and seas. The skies are certainly fascinating and there is a certain richness of inspiration here that goes way beyond the stars; the shapes and colors that come together. Of course, also the presence of imagination which is also important in a representation of nature, that comes with the fairies, the mermaids, there is also that whole inspiration of the skies that goes from Jules Verne, to science fiction, to poetry; all these imaginary stories and worlds associated with the skies, which is also an endless inspiration. It can be treated a bit like for other inspiration; very figurative, very abstract.”
“The challenge here is to take the story to life. These pieces, these projects; they really start as a simple vision, story or inspiration, and then we try to see how we can find existing techniques and somehow revisit them or create some specific techniques to serve that purpose. We liked this idea of these old objects, you know, this planetarium on a large scale that can be beautiful, and we want to take it to the size of a watch, with the planets going around. Or we want a night sky to create light, so that the zodiac will illuminate. So, in a way, it’s a simple starting point, and then it will sometimes require years and years of development to make to life. Sometimes we have to face the impossibility or too high a difficulty to make it happen. So, the challenge is, unlike in traditional watchmaking, we don’t start with the technique and the movement. It’s not like you start with developing a minute repeater, and then you start developing what watch you will be creating around that movement. Here, we always start with the visual aspect of what we want to show and what we can do behind to make it work,” Bos goes on to clarify.
Mere hours later, I found myself laying languorously on a sumptuous leather lounge chair following a rather vigorous camel ride across the dunes, in the middle of the pitch-black desert an hour outside of Dubai, gawking at the sky. It is in this moment I realize why we were brought out to the desert to witness this launch. Where else would you be able to sit in complete darkness and silence to see the stars? As we were being guided through a variety of constellations on show that evening, the occasional shooting star interrupts the scenery and I realise I have, without even knowing it, been swept up into yet another enchanting voyage by this inimitable maison, being told yet another story in the captivating manner only Van Cleef & Arpels knows how.