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Exceptional unique pieces: Métiers d’Art Chagall & l’Opéra de Paris

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Timepiece number 1Vacheron Constantin

A tribute to art and cultureExceptional unique pieces: Métiers d’Art Chagall & l’Opéra de Paris

Having been a patron of the Paris National Opera for the past four years, Vacheron Constantin shares with this institution the art of precision, renewal and wonder. Technical and aesthetic mastery of this art depends on a number of artistic trades. In honour of this association, Vacheron Constantin has designed an exceptional series of fifteen unique watches as a tribute to the greatest composers of all time, the very same who were Marc Chagall’s inspiration for the monumental mural on the Opera Garnier’s ceiling.

The unique Métiers d’Art “Chagall & l’Opéra de Paris” series is a masterful illustration of one of the remarkable crafts in Art History, faithfully perpetuated by the Manufacture.

The first watch, presented at the gala evening held in the Palais Garnier on November 20th 2010 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Association pour le Rayonnement de l’Opéra National de Paris (AROP), the Friends of the Paris Opera & Ballet, features a faithful reproduction of the entire Chagall ceiling, using the time-honoured Geneva technique of Grand Feu enamelled miniature painting. The yellow gold case frames a 31.50 mm-diameter dial bearing a work that is actually spread over 200 square metres – an amazing feat in itself that is now preserved within the Vacheron Constantin Heritage collection.

The second watch will be unveiled at the fifth edition of the Journées des Métiers d’Art (Artistic Craft Days) organised in France by the French National Institute of Arts and Crafts (INMA) on April 1, 2 and 3, 2011. It showcases Chagall’s mural devoted to Tchaïkovski’s “Swan Lake” by reproducing every last detail of the great master’s painting.

The Métiers d’Art Chagall & l’Opéra de Paris « Hommage to P. I. Tchaïkovski » for Swan Lake

These unique miniature masterpieces embody the art of Grand Feu enamel painting, based on the centuries-old Geneva technique that has remained the exclusive preserve of a handful of artisans.

Dazzling! Tchaïkovski’s work as seen by Chagall is radiant. With yellow as the predominant colour, it seems to have a triumphant life of its own, which is brought out by the simplicity of the 40-mm-diameter case of finely polished gold. Entirely handmade – with patience, attention to detail and concentration – the enamelled miniature reflects the original spirit of Tchaïkovski’s work. The Russian ballet’s masterpiece, “Swan Lake” was the first ballet to have music written by a symphonic composer. The master dreamed up this fairy tale in the 1870s. Originally created to entertain his nephews and nieces, it became the first true musical drama to be danced. Tchaïkovski infused it with all the majesty and melodic gift of his music—a music that seems to resonate in the light of Chagall’s painting and is faithfully echoed in the enamelled-miniature dial of the Métiers d’Art watch. Its existence is the worthy legacy of the manual skill of the cabinotiers so dear to Vacheron Constantin, a spirit that is also embodied in the watch’s officer-style back which, when opened, reveals an engraved tribute to Marc Chagall that was created by the Manufacture.

The heart of the timepiece beats to the regular cadence of the Calibre 2460 self-winding movement entirely developed and manufactured by Vacheron Constantin. Such a stunning work of art naturally deserved a perfect mechanism: in addition to extreme reliability, it also bears the famous Hallmark of Geneva testifying to the perfect execution of the exceptional finishing crafted in keeping with the finest Geneva Haute Horlogerie traditions.

The 13 other models will be crafted over the next three years, each dedicated to one of the composers appearing in Chagall’s monumental work. Adam, Moussorgski, Mozart, Wagner, Berlioz, Rameau, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Verdi, Beethoven, Gluck and Bizet will each in turn spring to life under the enameller’s expert touch.

The miniature “Grand Feu” enamelled Geneva technique miniature painting: a daunting artistic challenge

The Métiers d’Art – Chagall & L’Opéra de Paris collection focuses on the art of Grand Feu enamel painting, one of the oldest and most remarkable craftsmanship traditions of Haute Horlogerie. The Grand Feu enamels used in the Geneva technique reach their point of fusion at an extremely high temperature, between 800°C and 900°C, thus endowing them with exceptional purity and longevity.

This Métier d’Art, or artistic craft, which was adopted and cultivated by Vacheron Constantin at an early stage in its development, is so rare that only a handful of artisans around the world can claim to have mastered its secrets. While mastering it requires constant discipline, the technique of miniature enamelling is undoubtedly that which requires the greatest expertise from the master enameller.

On a dial measuring 1 mm thick and 31.50 mm in diameter, the artist begins by applying a white base enamel that is extremely hard because of its high fusion point. This dial undergoes a first firing at a temperature of around 900°C in order to be able to withstand the many subsequent firings in the furnace. On this “background canvas”, the artist starts by tracing the outlines of the various motifs with a brush consisting of two or three marten’s hairs. Using a strong binocular magnifying instrument, the miniature is steadily reproduced. This involves a few touches of colour on the chosen shade, placed in successive points in an extremely precise order, moving throughout the entire process from the softer shades to the purer, brighter ones. After around twenty firings in the oven at temperatures of between 800 and 850 degrees Celsius, the work begins to take on its final appearance. During these various stages, the colours are vitrified by the heat and progressively change, become more intense and retract. The enameller’s experience plays an essential and determining role. The furnace firing times must be carefully calculated according to the type and the quantity of matter applied, and their exact duration is part of the workshop secrets carefully preserved by the artist. The path leading to the final touch is strewn with all manner of pitfalls, and the fragile and sometimes refractory enamel is liable to “explode” each time it is removed from the furnace. The cooling stages thus require a great deal of patience to avoid sudden changes of temperature.

A single wrong move can cause irreversible damage and force the artisan to begin all over again. When the miniature enamelled painting has been completed and fired for the last time, it is generally coated with two or three layers of a finishing flux consisting of a transparent enamel serving to protect the work from the potential effects of ageing. Following the final firing of this flux (at 800°C), a fine polish with an abrasive stone is performed, followed by the final polishing operation after the last vitrification in order to achieve the full radiance and pictorial splendour of the work.

Vacheron Constantin is one of the rare watch companies to create such sophisticated enamelled dials. A discipline involving a sense of detail, rigorous care and infinite patience, enamelling is above all a daunting artistic challenge taken up by virtuoso artisans. In its role as guardian of the oldest and most precious traditional Geneva watchmaking skills, the Manufacture is determined to perpetuate such artistic crafts, driven by the firm conviction that they represent a truly priceless treasure.

Marc Chagall and the Garnier Opera House

It was undoubtedly passion that led Marc Chagall to take up the challenge put to him in 1964 by André Malraux, who was serving at the time as French Minister for Cultural Affairs: namely to paint a new ceiling for the Garnier Opera House. The artist received this unexpected proposal after a performance of Daphnis and Chloé, a ballet for which he had created the stage-setting. This wildly audacious project sparked a good deal of debate and opposition, especially from critics who feared a breach of stylistic unity between the concert hall itself, designed by Charles Garnier, and a ceiling created by a contemporary artist… It undoubtedly took a truly visionary spirit to give shape to this idea, and a distinct touch of boldness to dare to take on an artistic monument dating from the Second Empire.

Chagall’s work transformed the ceiling of the Opera House into a vast poetic sky whirling with opera heroes, brilliant musicians, entwined lovers and legendary characters. Concealing the original ceiling painted by Jules Eugène Lenepveu, Chagall’s rich palette with its intense shades and subtle harmonies is deployed over a full 200 square metres, forming an enchantingly luminous flower lit up by the neo-academic gold and purple hues from the era of Napoleon III. Five coloured petals with respective dominant blue, red, yellow, white and green colours each depict two famous musicians surrounded by some of the works they created. The blue one features Moussorgski and Mozart, along with Boris Godounov and The Magic Flute; the yellow depicts Tchaïkovski and Adam, with Swan Lake and Giselle; Stravinsky and Ravel shine in red with The Firebird and Daphnis and Chloé; green lends a fresh touch to Berlioz and Wagner and the love stories of Romeo and Juliet and Tristan and Isolde; while white with a touch of yellow exalts Rameau and Débussy, along with the latter’s Pelleas and Mélisande. The works of Beethoven, Gluck, Bizet and Verdi are represented in the circle of the dome surrounding the central chandelier. Dotted here and there are some of the most famous Parisian landmarks: the Eiffel Tower, the Arc of Triumph, the Place de la Concorde with its obelisk, and of course the Garnier Opera House itself.

The modern, sparkling and vibrant work by Chagall, which he defined as “the colourful mirror of silk dresses and jewellery lighting up the shoulders of the most beautiful women in Paris” achieves a powerful and subtle musicality in which colours set the tone. The artist, an acknowledged master in the field, played on a basically simple orchestration with five dominant themes. Nonetheless, each of them also carries hints of the four others, exactly like in a musical composition featuring echoed and interwoven tones and themes. The exquisite chromatic and almost symphonic equilibrium of the ceiling creates perfect harmony at the heart of a jewel case imbued with history, splendour and symbolism. The magic weaves its spell and proves that art excels in marrying past, present and future, just as Vacheron Constantin loves to do in each of its creations.