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The Craft Behind Haute Horlogerie

Feature: Long Read
Words by Robin Swithinbank

When does a fine watch become a work of art? While it could be argued that all mechanical watches are in some way elevated, especially in a digital age, connoisseurs tend to gravitate towards those with high-end complications, rare artisanal decorations and intricate gem-setting. Such pieces tend to be low-volume, high-tariff and hugely collectable – even more captivating as a result. As with haute couture and haute cuisine, this rarified category of watch is known as haute horlogerie, which sounds rather more romantic than its nearest Anglo-Saxon equivalent: fine watchmaking. Here are some of the ‘hautest’ examples currently available at and through Harrods.

Vacheron Constantin Égérie Moon Phase Jewellery

Totalling more than 12 carats, some 1,377 diamonds are set into every visible facet of Vacheron Constantin’s 37mm white-gold Égérie Moon Phase Jewellery – a bewildering object to behold. Get past the ice, and you’ll find the complication from which the watch takes its name, a moonphase function that shows the 29-day lunar cycle.

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Vacheron Close Up

"The poetry of the delicate moonphase complication is brought shimmering into the open by clouds finished with mother-of-pearl and a star-spotted sky"

Vacheron Close Up
Hublot Rainbow Watch
Hublot King Gold Rainbow Spirit of Big Bang

So-called ‘rainbow watches’ have become de rigueur in recent times – testament to the huge investment that brands have made, both into sourcing rare stones with gently graduating colours and in artisans who can transform them into dizzying watch decorations. Hublot’s barrel-shaped Spirit of Big Bang is easily one of the most memorable of the genre, setting no fewer than 431 coloured gemstones into its dial, bezel and fiery ‘King Gold’ case.

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Zenith Defy Zero G

There’s no easy way to say this: Zenith’s angular, techy Defy Zero G features a ‘gyroscopic Gravity Control regulating organ module’. This describes the assortment of parts that you’ll spot hovering in a circular void at six o’clock, which – goes the theory – remain horizontal when the watch moves, therefore greatly reducing the impact of gravity. Why does that matter? Because little by little, over time, gravity makes a watch less accurate. Zenith’s clever, absorbingly finicky solution to this age-old problem is a thing to behold and well worth seeing in the flesh.

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Panerai Luminor Tourbillon GMT – 47mm Lo Scienziato

If the silhouette of Panerai’s Luminor is familiar – that bulging, ear-like device that wraps the crown has been around since 1950 – the dial perhaps won’t be. It’s been hollowed out or ‘skeletonised’, a process that involves removing as much of the material weight in the movement as possible without compromising performance. In this case, that’s six days of power and a second time zone function. Its name Lo Scienziato – meaning ‘the scientist’ in Italian – points equally to the watch’s case. This one (pictured above) is made in laser-sintered titanium and Panerai’s Carbotech, a form of carbon fibre.


"The skeletonised look was originally conceived as a means for talented watchmakers to show off their craft, and the effect still has the capacity to grab our attention"

Audemars Piguet green face watch
Audemars Piguet Magnified Close Up

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Selfwinding Tourbillon

Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak is routinely touted as one of watchmaking’s design icons, and indeed it is. What is less well known is that the watch with the taut flanks, octagonal bezel and exposed screws is also a tableau for some of the great Swiss company’s most mechanically complex movements. Here, for example, the Royal Oak is a frame for a flying tourbillon – a version of the ‘whirlwind’ anti-gravitational device – that now appears to float in an aperture at six o’clock, thanks to some clever hidden mechanical sophistry. The watch is 41mm wide, built from titanium, and claims a highly unusual green dial with a radiating ‘tapisserie’ finish. Proving the rarity factor, only 50 will be made.

Jaeger LeCoultre Blue Face Watch
Jaeger-LeCoultre Rendez-Vous Celestial

Highly complicated watches tend to come with added heft – all those extra mechanical parts must go somewhere. But Jaeger-LeCoultre, arguably the greatest movement inventor in watchmaking history, has spared this complicated ladies’ watch the ignominy of indelicate proportions with a movement that is just 5.23mm thick, despite having 238 components. It drives the watch’s eye-catching celestial display, which is illustrated by renderings of the constellations and zodiac signs on a lapis lazuli dial and tracks sidereal time – the hour according to Earth’s position in relation to the stars. One sidereal day is about four minutes less than 24 hours. The final playful touch is the star running around that dial, which you can set to remind you of your very own rendez-vous. If you’re late, simply explain you’re right on (sidereal) time.

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Van Cleef Magnified Floral Watch
Van Cleef Floral Watch

Van Cleef & Arpels Heures Florales Cerisier

As a rule, haute horlogerie is the realm in which watchmakers are given free rein to let their imaginations run wild. Parisian jeweller Van Cleef & Arpels’ concepts are always a step or two wilder than most, as per this mechanically bewitching métiers d’art piece. It has no hands – instead, it tells the time using opening flowers, each miniature painted and set with diamonds. One opens for one o’clock, two for two o’clock and so on... Even more spectacularly, the flower-opening sequence is irregular. For example, 2pm is never shown by the same two flowers two days running. As for minutes, they are tucked away on a display in the case’s left flank.

Roger Du
Roger Dubuis Carbon Excalibur Spider Skeleton Flying Tourbillon

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that everything that emerges from Roger Dubuis’ state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Switzerland is haute horlogerie. Rather than futzing around with brass and steel, Roger Dubuis tends to work in space-age materials that push the boundaries of mechanical watchmaking. Here, we get a layered carbon case and movement in a package that weighs less than 50 grammes – alone, the movement hits just 7.52 grammes, despite its 198 pieces. Because of those featherweight figures and the movement’s low inertia, the watch can run its flying tourbillon for a hugely impressive 90 hours.

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