Author: Spear’s Editorial
HAUTE IN THE COLD
If you found yourself in Paris this winter, you might have had occasion to step inside the Grand Palais on the Champs-Elysées for a peek at some of the most mind-blowing bling ever created.
This exhibition of Cartier treasures, which ran from December to 16 February, was a magisterial trawl through the history of the Grande Maison, from its founding in 1847 onwards. One strange aspect to the show, however, was the somewhat perfunctory attention it gave to Cartier’s watches.
Among the impossibly ornate tiaras, belle époque necklaces, enamelled cigarette cases, bejewelled brooches and bracelets, and myriad other precious glittering objets, watches garnered only a single cabinet, containing a handful of early-20th-century models.
There was little to suggest the powerhouse of luxury watch sales Cartier would become (it is today thought to be second only to Rolex in this regard); nor to reflect the small matter that the Parisian brand has as justifiable a claim as anyone to having instigated the wristwatch revolution in the first place.</p>
That, as an interesting aside, is down to the watch Louis Cartier created in 1904 for his friend, the Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont. Its square case was attached to a leather wrist strap, to make it easier for Santos-Dumont to read the time while at the controls of his flying machines. In 1911 Cartier put the design into commercial production, and the ‘Santos’, barely changed in look, has remained a staple of the collection ever since.
Cartier in the 20th century became one of the most powerful and glamorous watch brands, furnishing the jet set with wrist candy in numerous exotic shapes, many of which became famous in their own right.
Think of the elongated oval of the Baignoire watches; the ‘melted oval’ of the Cartier Crash; the D-shaped Cloche; the barrel-shaped Tortue; and, most famous of all, the Tank, launched in 1916, and so-named because its rectangular construction with elongated flanks resembled an aerial view of the new military tanks being used then in Flanders.
While it was a leader in the style and glamour stakes, you’d never have bracketed Cartier with the pure watchmaking firms of Switzerland, though it worked with the best of them to create its products. In the early days, it teamed up with Edmond Jaeger of LeCoultre, ensuring a supply of the finest technology for its top watches. The partnership continued over subsequent decades, though Cartier worked with plenty of other famous names too.
The idea, back then, of a jewellery house producing anything so mundanely functional and technically devilish as the interior engine of a wristwatch would have seemed really quite peculiar. That was still the case in the late 1990s, when Cartier decided to re-enter the haute horlogerie sector.
The resultant Cartier Paris Collection Privée — elegant watches in various vintage Cartier shapes, with complex mechanisms unique to the collection — was made possible by partnering with the likes of Piaget, Audemars Piguet and (once more) Jaeger-LeCoultre.
This makes what’s going on in Cartier’s watch business today all the more remarkable, for the company has now established itself as a true manufacturer of both high-end and volume watch technology in a few short years. Not only that: it has gone merrily striding past many of those who once supplied it.
Cartier’s fine watchmaking department was set up in 2007 to create limited runs of groundbreaking haute horlogerie pieces entirely in-house, producing its first models in 2009. Every year since, a steady stream of watches has emerged that rethink and re-engineer the world of high complication watchmaking.
If that sounds rather dry, it’s not. Cartier’s long-embedded feel for the theatrical and the downright fun has been well maintained in these creations: there are tourbillons that go spinning round the dial instead of sitting in one place; ‘mystery watches’ in which the hands seem to float in a transparent void, unconnected to any mechanism; skeletonised watches in which those famous Cartier Roman numerals of the dial become supporting bridges of the movement itself.
Effectively, Cartier is taking the playful and audacious inventiveness that has always informed its designs and inserting it into the very engineering itself. Collectors interested in horology at its most extreme and, by extension, most exclusive, were sniffy at first (not least because the Collection Privée was so highly regarded), but you’ll now find plenty who swoon over the fine watchmaking department’s output.
‘When we were working with other partners, we couldn’t ask them to manufacture the kind of creativity we really want — if they have an amazing concept, they’re going to use it for their own products,’ says Thierry Lamouroux, Cartier’s watchmaking development director. ‘Now when we work on these new creations, we ask the question: is this strong enough to be exhibited in a museum like the Grand Palais a hundred years from now?’
In late January at the Salon Internationale de la Haute Horlogerie (fashion week for high-end watches, essentially), Cartier unveiled the latest dazzlers, the standout being the Rotonde de Cartier Astrocalendaire (top right). It’s a perpetual calendar — a watch that will correctly tell the date for up to a century, with no need to adjust for uneven months or leap years — that looks nothing like any perpetual calendar seen before.
A tiered circular opening in the dial — Cartier is calling this an ‘amphitheatre’ display — has indicators sliding around the different levels to point out the date, weekday and month, while a flying tourbillon whirls around.
The action is driven by an inner mechanism of ingenious complexity, involving gear wheels with retractable teeth and a system of cogs and cams the watch’s designer, Carole Forestier-Kasapi (pictured top) — the force behind Cartier fine watchmaking and one of few women working at this level in the watch industry — refers to as ‘the Brain’.
A long lecture with slides and equations is required to explain just what this does and why — I’ve sat through the lecture, as it happens, and I’m hardly the wiser — but the result is a collectors’ item that is more durable and easier to set than its classical equivalents, in an aesthetic that may be unusual but is also harmonious and elegant. Yours for £153,000, I should add.
Rather than any museum, the place to really get a sense of where the past, present and future of Cartier’s horological adventures link together is its huge Geneva boutique. Up on the first floor, for those privileged to be invited in, the entire back wall slides away at the touch of a button, revealing a fascinating inner sanctum where fabulous historic watches are gathered, restored and archived.
A further door from there leads into another studio where the new fine watchmaking pieces are assembled and finished. That’s to say the separate parts are polished, chamfered, bevelled and decorated to microscopic degrees — work that can add hundreds of hours to the watchmaking process — and then put together.
Only a few very serious brands undertake this kind of work, in order to qualify their watches for the Geneva Seal, a hallmark stamp denoting the highest level of watchmaking. Appropriate, then, that the company that first put the watch on the wrist has finally taken its place among them. Roll on Grand Palais 2114.
Roger Smith’s GREAT Britain watch
Among the world’s most exclusive watchmakers, Isle of Man-based Roger Smith commands a waiting list of several years for his bespoke creations. Unless, that is, you’re from Downing Street. The government commissioned Smith to create a watch as part of its ‘GREAT’ campaign, an Olympic legacy venture to promote the UK internationally.
The watch, a dazzling piece entirely fashioned in Smith’s workshop over ten months, will spend the next few years touring key markets. It’s valued at £180,000 – though if ever auctioned, it would likely go for an awful lot more. rwsmithwatches.com
Bremont’s gold chronograph
Henley’s Bremont has created a lovely gold version of its natty Alt1-C chronograph. It arrived at Bremont’s Mayfair boutique in January, where I took a look at it. In gold, the sensuous contours of Bremont’s cases (often overlooked) are apparent, while the classical dial design is perfectly judged. £13,950. bremont.com
On the pulse
Is the medical profession suddenly showing an increased interest in watch collecting? Instead of the common tachymetre scale (for measuring distance), a number of big names have turned to the ‘pulsometre’. In the old days, this was a register against which doctors could measure a patient’s pulse, and lends a dial a certain retro-tinged elegance — probably why Patek Philippe, Longines, Montblanc and Panerai have all adopted it. Panerai’s 1940 Radiomir Oro Rosso watch was launched in January, priced at just under £50,000. panerai.com