Hermès is on a tear this year, like a runaway horse pulling a carriage full of the GPHG awards it racked up a few weeks ago. The brand won both the Mens’ and Ladies’ complications categories with their respective Arceau Le Temps Voyageur models. It still may come as a surprise to a lot of the watch community, however, that the maison has so many complicated offerings in its catalogs that many haven’t even made it to its website.
Case-in-point: Hermès Arceau Lift Tourbillon Répétition Minutes So Black. Though not GPHG award-nominated (I’d imagine it would be in the running for any “longest name” category) it’s still a technical marvel. In this case, the achievement is not just making a watch with a tourbillon and a minute repeater, rather, it’s the fact the designers have paid homage to the brand’s heritage, showing their confidence that Hermès can hold its own against the big names of the watch industry.
Assuming there’s not a lot of crossover between the Birkin bag crowd and the general watch world, I’d suspect that quite a few people would look at the Arceau Lift Tourbillon Repeater (as I’ll call it for some semblance of brevity’s sake) and not understand why a horse is staring back at them through the partially skeletonized dial. I didn’t really even see the horse on the dial at first, nor did I question why the Arceau watch, with its peculiar lug design, looked the way it did in the first place.
How foolish of me, in hindsight. But each motif is there for a good reason – reasons that lead me down the rabbit hole of creative and horological design at Hermès. Inside the case is more than just a tourbillon and a minute repeater, it’s also a lesson in what makes Hermès Hermès. It just so happened that Laurent Dordet, the CEO of Hermès Horloger, was in New York for the grand reopening of Hermès flagship boutique on Madison Avenue. Despite a late celebration the night before (packed with celebrities, food trucks, and its own musical), Dordet met me over lunch to help me better understand both the watch and the brand – straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.
“The horse has always been part of Hermès DNA and history,” says Philippe Delhotal, Creative Director of Hermès Horloger. “The story of Hermès began in 1837 when Thierry Hermès, a harness-maker and saddler, opened a workshop in Paris, at 56 rue Basse-du-Rempart, in the district of the Grands Boulevards.”
“The issue was that the harnesses of the time were strong but not elegant,” Laurent Dordet, CEO of Hermès Horloger, says. “Thierry Hermès saw this not just as something that impaired the strength of the horse but something that impaired its beauty. From the beginning, Hermès has always wanted to make things that are functional and elegant. But at the same time, those first customers were horses.”
Obviously, things have changed over the years – I wouldn’t recommend putting the Arceau Lift Tourbillon Repeater on the foreleg of your quarterhorse – but the dedication to form and function has remained. As the company transitioned into making bags and other accessories, the horse motif continued to be prevalent, especially on items like scarves. The company, which is still family-owned, had an early interest in watchmaking dating back to the 1920s, with admiration of Patek Philippe, Universal, and, of course, what was at the time LeCoultre, says Dordet. This led to collaborations with all these brands, especially Jaeger-LeCoultre, and a few rare examples of other watch collaborations.
The biggest shift for the brand came in 1978 with the founding of the company’s new watchmaking arm, Montres Hermès by Jean-Louis Dumas, the company’s then-CEO, that would bring Hermès into the international spotlight. The company was founded in Biel, Switzerland (also now known as Hermès Horloger) with a straightforward goal: make simple watches, with the best supplies and attention to detail, and to do so by working with anyone besides traditional watch designers.
“Dumas said, ‘If you come to this market to bring what the others have been doing for generations, there’s no point,'” Dordet recounts. “He told them, ‘Please be as different as possible in terms of style, fantasy, or humor. Maybe people will like it, maybe they won’t, but at least we will have tried something new.'”
It was at that time, in 1978, when Henri d’Origny, the famed Artistic Director of Hermès, designed the Arceau as a part of Montres Hermès. It, too, drew on the equestrian past of the company, with the same asymmetrical stirrup-shaped lugs and sloping numbers, evoking a galloping horse.
“The equestrian spirit is present everywhere in our collections of objects, it is common to recognize in some shapes or details parts of the horse equipment (buckles, bits, stirrup…), and this is the case for our Arceau line,” Delhotal says.
That creative perspective led to other iconic case shapes, notably the Cape Cod, which had great success as quartz pieces, largely for women, up until the year 2000. That year was another turning point for the brand, one where Hermès decided to create a local manufacture in Switzerland and consolidate its watchmaking knowledge and production into one company. By 2006, they purchased a stake in Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier and immediately started diving into complications.
Their first foray, the Hermès Le Temps Suspendu or “Time Suspended,” released in 2011 – similarly in an Arceau case – was a masterwork of emotion and engineering. The watch still remains among the most captivating complications in my memory, allowing you to press a button on the case to “stop time,” or at least the passing of it on the watch, to be present in the moment, and then press the button so the watch returns to its functional state, having secretly tracked the time for you under the dial.
It’s obvious that Hermès is particularly proud of endeavors like Le Temps Suspendu, made in collaboration with Jean-Marc Wiederrecht of Agenhor, or L’Heure De La Lune, made in collaboration with Jean-François Mojon of Chronode. Borrowing from the wisdom of Andrew Carnegie in some respects, Hermès has surrounded itself with people who can help it create extremely complex timepieces that might be difficult for a smaller brand to achieve. But despite being a more “traditional” complication, the Arceau Lift Tourbillon Repeater follows the same iterative approach that Hermès, and Delhotal in particular, have refined with years of balancing technical and design constraints.
“Creation is at the center,” Dordet says. “Sometimes it comes from design, sometimes from technical innovation. Philippe [Delhotal] is constantly meeting people within the industry and developing mechanisms, often not knowing what to do with them when they’ve been made. But in this instance, Philippe had hoped to find a more classical complication to integrate into our collection that has become known for experimentation.”
“In this case, we had a clear idea of what we wanted, in terms of design and style,” Delhotal says. “We had to take the framework of the movement as a starting point, as it is a high complication with lots of requirements to respect, and then we bring all the Hermès twists and design elements, one by one, into the project.”
Here, Hermès collaborated with Pierre Favre of Manufacture de Hautes Complications, to create the Hermès H1924 hand-wound movement with a flying tourbillon, minute repeater, and remarkable 90-hour power reserve. The movement was initially cased in both a unique pocket watch and two Arceau wristwatches. The pocket watch featured a dinosaur designed out of leather mosaic, leather marquetry, and grand feu enamel on the case front, while the wristwatches were made in white and rose gold. Tragically, Dordet informed me (the first I had heard this news) that Favre passed away last year due to complications of COVID, less than a year after the announcement of the watches.
Such a complex movement often doesn’t allow much room for such “twists,” but somehow Hermès has put its touch on it all the same. What results is a geometry that, from the front of the dial, follows the arch of the horse’s mane. The screws not only secure parts of the movement architecture but evoke the horse’s nostril and eye in the process. And, as mentioned before, it works in such a way that’s so unobtrusive you can actually miss it while just looking for the time, which was partially the point.
“The main struggles are to be consistent and faithful to our origins and not to be cliché,” Delhotal tells me. “The horse head appearing in the dial face is inspired by the Samarcande motif [a sculptural horse head], a dear motif to the maison. We reworked this motif in order to have a horse head that would be stylized, sharpened, and refined. Like this, the motif will be well integrated into the overall without overwhelming the dial and its reading.”
Then there’s the intertwining double-H motif on the tourbillon that lends the watch the “Lift” name. Why? Well, that same motif is found on the “lift” (elevator, for you Yanks) in the Hermès Faubourg boutique. It’s a detail that also might get lost among those not steeped in the tradition of Hermès, but also a testament to the fact that, while based in Switzerland and not alongside the rest of the brand in Paris, Hermès Horloger is still Hermès to the core.
On the rear of the movement are more touches of equine anatomy. While the original unique pocket watch had bridges carved into the shape of a dinosaur, this time the ruthenium-treated satin-finished bridges feature silhouettes of a small band of horses. The mainplate has circular graining with a black PVD coating.
Finally, there’s the case. With the black enamel dial and DLC-coated black titanium case, the “So Black” name might seem obvious. But rather than a solely aesthetic choice, there’s a practical component as well, Delhotal told me. DLC coating aside, the repeater transmits sound best through a light metal like titanium. It also balances out the weight of a watch that measures 43mm wide and 15.35mm thick – 3mm wider, and nearly 5mm thicker than a Patek Philippe 5178G housing the same complications. But I’d venture to say that Patek’s aesthetic is not nearly as creative.
As I finished lunch with Dordet, we discussed the watch and Hermès’ plans for the future. Demand has been up for Hermès watches, he confirmed. While waitlists aren’t something Hermès is new to – their bags, for instance, can have waitlists to rival the demand for watches from notable brands – Dordet told me that Hermès Horloger isn’t quite facing such a problem quite yet and is actively working on ramping up production to meet growing interest from the watch community. But more than that, I was curious about why Hermès so confidently speaks about its collaborative partners when other brands often speak opaquely about whether or not their movements are “in-house.”
“Someone asked me a few days ago about that fact,” Dordet says. “‘Is the key for your customers to be in-house?’ My answer was that, of course, it’s an asset but today it’s not key. Our customers request the truth. They request authenticity, they request quality, they request creativity. And they want it all with the Hermès DNA.”
And it’s hard to say the Arceau Lift Tourbillon Répétition Minutes So Black is anything but pure Hermès to the core.
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