In an era where some enormously successful brands find themselves hemmed in by a single collection, Blancpain continues to demonstrate that it is indeed possible to be successful producing classical timepieces, ridiculously robust sports watches, and even a reissue or two. We do indeed have the Air Command model in mind, especially on that last point, and thinking about that watch rather naturally leads to a consideration of Blancpain’s other competencies. This is a manufacture with a lot of depth, including a penchant for somewhat naughty watches (that we can describe but not show, unfortunately). This is not just a matter of history for Blancpain — something for a museum tour for example. It is all present tense.
This got us thinking about the special métiers d’art watches that Blancpain is also known for, but that usually never make it into our hands. These are the kinds of watches that are always spoken for because they are rare marvels. Sadly, this means we hardly ever feature these fascinating watches, because you too will be hard pressed to find examples in stores anywhere in the world. Indeed, your best bet to come to grips with this type of watchmaking is to visit the manufacture itself, which is challenging these days. All the more reason perhaps to showcase some métiers d’art creations here, where we have some breathing space.
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As usual, Ruckdee Chotjinda rode to the rescue with the right story: an interview with Blancpain President Marc A. Hayek, but with a twist. The entire subject of this interview is about the Métiers d’Art collection at Blancpain, which itself might surprise you given how strongly Hayek is associated with dive watches. A man of action and passion, you might recall pictures of him in our story on dive watches in issue #59, fully kitted up and ready for action. The more seasoned amongst you will no doubt also recall Hayek’s demonstration of his motor racing skills, but his reputation as a diver has been made over several decades. Blancpain’s reputation with dive watches goes a little further back, but it is dwarfed by the firm’s expertise in horological decorative arts. Hayek helps us set the story straight about a core competency at Blancpain, sharing a few secrets in the process.
What are the main requirements for a watch to be created in Blancpain’s Métiers d’Art collection?
Two main characteristics are evaluated before starting a new project: technicity and beauty. We are trying to put forward techniques that have rarely been seen in the world of watchmaking — as is the case with damascening and shakudo, for example — or master processes in-house that are usually handled by third-party manufacturers. Our aim is to show clients that Blancpain’s creativity and expertise are limitless, and this is what they are looking for.
With our Métiers d’Art pieces, we allow clients seeking to acquire a personalised model to contribute to the design of their watch, while benefiting from our ideas and savoir-faire, in harmony with our DNA and watchmaking tradition.
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And these are done at the small workshop known as La Ferme or the Farm?
Our Manufacture in Le Brassus, affectionately named La Ferme, is not only dedicated to the Métiers d’Art, but also to the most demanding and challenging complications such as minute repeaters, carrousels, tourbillons and ultra-complex calendars. The Métiers d’Art workshops are composed of five talented artists who practice the full range of artistic forms of expression applicable to watchmaking: engraving, damascening, enamel work in multiple forms, carving, binchotan, and of course shakudo.
Asian motifs and techniques seem quite prominent in your Métiers d’Art watches. Would we be correct to assume that Asian customers make up the majority of buyers for these artistic timepieces?
The artistic themes and projects usually originate with our team rather than with an edict from management. Our artisans put forward proposals according to our clients’ cultures and their own interests and sources of inspiration. We jointly define the selections keeping in mind that Blancpain’s DNA and watchmaking tradition have to be respected.
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And Blancpain’s tradition is to innovate. We are committed to inventing and expanding the boundaries of watchmaking, which doesn’t apply for movements only, but also for the aesthetics of our watches. We make it a point of honour to put forward decorative techniques that have rarely been seen in the world of watchmaking, as is the case with shakudo, binchotan and damascening, and which are at the same time interesting and challenging, resulting in one-of-a-kind pieces that no other techniques can achieve.
How did they train for Japanese arts like shakudo in the first place?
We have the chance to work with artists whose education in dedicated fine arts schools gave them the skills and training to master a variety of techniques. Everything is done in-house in a true spirit of curiosity. We do extensive research and development on the techniques we seek to integrate within the Métiers d’Art workshops before starting multiple rounds of testing until we achieve the desired results. The processes are long and stem from important investments, but they’re undeniably worth it.
For you personally, what is it about the art of shakudo that most fascinates you?
What I love about shakudo is the fact that the piece you are creating keeps a part of mystery until the dial is finished. Although we master the technique, the final result is not 100 per cent predictable. And the variations in hues between chestnut brown, blue and black obtained with the shakudo process feature a remarkable richness that is unique to this art.
The same is true for the art of enamel painting?
First of all, I’m fascinated by the art of enamelling itself. When you see an enamel dial, you may think it is easy to create, but it is in fact extremely demanding. It is only when you look carefully at the dial that you notice the depth and texture of the pure, elegant white colour, and realise the work behind it. The same goes for the painting. Every time you look at an enamel painted dial, you see something different, a tiny detail that your eye didn’t catch before. I’m impressed by the way our artisans are able to fashion miniature worlds within the micro dimension of a watch dial.
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