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A cultural bridge between East and WestExceptional timepieces: Métiers d’Art La Symbolique des Laques

The Métiers d’Art “La Symbolique des Laques” watch series was born of a respect for traditions and for the watchmaking creativity that since 1755 has been convincing Vacheron Constantin of the need to pass on skills, art and the craftsman’s motions so they will be written on the pages of history. This is more than a conviction; it is a calling to perpetuate the skills that combine virtuosity with precision, in both the technical and decorative realms.

These talents, inherited from past centuries and handed down from generation to generation, are continually enriched by the quest for excellence and the support for creativity that are two of Vacheron Constantin’s key values.

La Symbolique des Laques

Echoing the Métiers d’Art “Les Masques” series born of the encounter between Vacheron Constantin and Geneva’s Barbier-Mueller Museum, the Métiers d’Art “La Symbolique des Laques” opus is another illustration of the alchemy between the cultural, artistic and Fine Watchmaking crafts. The vision of a timepiece as a cultural bridge between countries is one that, in the eighteenth century, was already impelling François Constantin to travel around the world and extend the Manufacture’s expertise to other continents. What better tribute to its origins could Vacheron Constantin now pay than this Art collection that brings together watchmaking technique, history and decorative technique?

As a human adventure, an invitation to discover new horizons and to explore a new place where craftsmanship and innovation meet at their zenith, the Métiers d’Art “La Symbolique des Laques” series relates the encounter between the men of one of the oldest Japanese lacquer firms – Zohiko, located in Kyoto since its founding in 1661 – and those of Vacheron Constantin, the world’s oldest watchmaker to have been producing continuously since its creation in 1755. While chance and luck play a role in every meeting, a true relationship can be built only on the basis of deep affinities and shared values. These are immediately evident between these two companies, which have the same respect for traditions.

Experts in the art of maki-e, Zohiko’s craftsmen carry on an unequalled tradition of excellence built on artistic continuity and continuously renewed creativity. Maki-e, which as the most sophisticated technique of the art of lacquering is the province of a few rare craftsmen, means “sprinkled picture.” It consists of creating a design by sprinkling gold or silver dust over lacquer – usually black – while it is still wet. The lacquer is made from the sap of the lacquer tree, Rhus verniciflua, which originated on the high plateaus of central Asia and Tibet but today grows only in southern China, Vietnam and Japan. Maki-e developed very early in Japanese history. It fully matured as an art form between the eighth and twelfth centuries, becoming the predominant method of decoration beginning in the seventeenth century and remaining so to this day.

Because it knows what time means, Vacheron Constantin kept to the natural pace of exceptional creations. True to the spirit of the Métiers d’Art collection, the “La Symbolique des Laques” series was created over three years; each year saw a new set of three watches in a limited series of twenty.

This year the “Kame Kaeru Koi” watches, dedicated to the aquatic realm, present animals selected from the vast symbolic legacy of Far Eastern artistic traditions. Incarnations of longevity, luck and strength, the turtle, frog and carp disclose their attributes in stylised waters on the enamelled dials. No fewer than four months were required to make each one. Each animal lends a powerfully symbolic face to the passing of time orchestrated by the skeletonised version of the ultra-thin Calibre 1003 calibre.

Here made in 18-carat gold, which is harder to work, this legendary movement is treated with ruthenium to match the dials and humbly allow the superlative excellence of the art of maki-e to shine through. Bearing the Geneva hallmark, a guarantee of quality manufacture in the purest Geneva watchmaking tradition, Calibre 1003 remains one of the standards of reference in Fine Watchmaking history. It is the world’s thinnest hand-wound mechanical movement, at only 1.64 mm thick. It was designed, developed and manufactured entirely within Vacheron Constantin’s workshops. The sapphire crystals on both sides of the watches reveal exceptional finishes, including chamfering, drawing and engraving, all done by hand. Eighteen jewels also bear witness to the exceptional workmanship. In an echo of Japanese culture, the simplicity of the round case that serves as the setting for this exceptional movement and for the two maki-e dials reflects the collection’s zen-like spirit.

Turtle (Kame) and Lotus Watch

“A crane lives a hundred years, a turtle lives ten thousand years.” In the imaginary realm, for Japanese, the turtle embodies longevity. The way it moves rightly symbolises patience and authority, and the pattern on its shell is also a sign of good luck, as is the octagonal shape of its carapace. Here associated with the lotus flower, it celebrates purity.

In the purest maki-e tradition, the animal’s shell is brought out by a light momidasi polishing done using oil stones, in such a way that the light reflects on its patterns, setting off their geometric precision. Its eye is incrusted with shell using the raden technique, while the taka maki-e technique lends a relief effect to the leaves floating on the shimmering waves.

Frog (Kaeru) and Hydrangea Watch

Venerated since the dawn of time in Asia, the frog is the symbol of returning. Its name, kaeru, also means “return.” The frog is known for its faithfulness; legend says that it always returns to its starting point, no matter how great the distance. Living along rivers and rice paddies, the frog has always been very close to Man. It is naturally associated with prosperity in an essentially agricultural, rice-growing economy. Its croaking is often heard in spring, the season of renewal. And if it decides to live in someone’s garden, it protects that person from danger and bad luck.

Paired with the hydrangea, the frog is one of the most glorified animals in Far-Eastern mythical traditions. This association symbolises patience—the same patience that has enabled Zohiko’s craftsmen to depict the frog on the watch dial. Its glistening eye is made using the hirame technique, which consists of spreading hirame powder before applying a lacquer that is to be darkened; its body captures the light thanks to momidashi polishing done with oil stones. The kakiwari technique, which reveals the underlying layer of lacquer, is used to depict the detailed veining in the plants’ leaves. The regular round pools, which seem to ripple away to infinity on the dial, reflect the calm and serenity that emanate from this watch.

Carp (Koi) and Waterfall Watch

Originally representing perseverance, the carp is also famous for its courage and determination. Many Chinese and Japanese legends praise its ability to swim upstream to negotiate rivers and waterfalls, despite currents that often are very strong. Even though carp usually live in calm waters in Japan, they are often represented as moving, bursting powerfully from the water. A symbol of success and good fortune, the carp is behind the May 5 Japanese holiday known as tanngo no sekku or “kodomo no hi,” the Children’s Day festival.

Its association with waterfalls symbolises strength and willpower. On the watch dial, the carp moves gracefully through the tumultuous water. The coloured lacquers, applied to the maki-e powder using the iro-katame technique and then polished, contrast with the black background. On the back, the waterfalls flow gracefully. They were created with the maki bokashi technique, which uses gold powder dispersed on the lacquer to blur the pattern.

These three watches are three unique illustrations of the culture of the Beautiful and of surpassing oneself. The art of maki-e has come down through the ages without losing either its personality or its rarity. Its technical mastery is crowned by a symbolic aura that anchors it even more firmly in the collective memory, Japanese history, Far Eastern history, and the world’s artistic heritage. Each pattern depicted – whether animal, vegetable, or mineral – tells a story. In combination, they are transformed into attributes and point back to age-old legends and literary or poetic works. This year, the theme of longevity is the thread that ties the three new watches together, but more symbolically, which bears witness to the continuity of the arts and of cultures throughout the world – a continuity that Vacheron Constantin carefully perpetuates in each of its creations.