Architecture & Design

In-Depth: Inside The Vacheron Constantin Métiers d’Arts Atelier

Dating back to 1755, Vacheron Constantin has been providing timeless style and Métiers d'Art creations which has enticed watch collectors for centuries. These components are embedded in the brand’s DNA since day one. We went behind the scenes to view Métiers d’Arts in person.

By Benjamin Teisseire

On a brisk autumn morning, Watchonista’s team met cheerfully in front of an elegant new building designed by Bernard Tschumi. The welcoming wooden interior reinforced the soft steel curves of the exterior. The atmosphere is plush and calm…but we are excited like kids because we are spending the day at the heart of Vacheron Constantin. Starting at the Métiers d’Art atelier.

The art of stone-setting

We enter an ultra-modern atelier, bathed by sunlight, where a total calm reigned supreme. It is here that Vacheron Constantin creates, in-house, all of its Métiers d’Art pieces: stone-setting, enameling, and engraving all happen right here! Gerard, Master stone-setter, greets us. He has been perfecting his craft for 43 years. His passion immediately strikes us. His eyes light up as he narrated the various steps of his work, the different technics used, the difficulties he has to overcome. Nothing motivates him more than complex challenges where he needs to double his creative efforts in order to achieve the desired effect.

It is often on unique pieces ordered by the Maison’s clients. He tells us about how he prepares his champlevé on the platinas, creates volumes then proceeds to the mitraillage (digging of the holes where the stones will be set) with a burin, a chisel or a miller. How did he learn these technics of invisible setting or snow setting? His father was a jeweler, and at a young age, sat him down at the easel. Passion then took over to acquire these almost secret technics transmitted only from the master's hands to the apprentice's hands. Four years minimum are required to start assimilating the theory. At least as much to gain some of the necessary confidence needed to start working on more complicated pieces. He works with a precision of the hundredth of a millimeter! We could listen for hours…but we had so much to see.

The love of engraving

We meet Emmanuelle who is working on Les Aérostiers, Vacheron Constantin Métiers d’Art pieces from 2018. She comes from the prestigious Ecolle Boulle in Paris, where she perfected her drawing and engraving technics for five years. She specialized in engraving for the next ten years. She confirms that this represents the minimum amount of time to start mastering this delicate craftsmanship. She excels in line engraving as much as in champlevé or ramolayé etching. She realizes bas-relief like so many miniature sculptures. She chisels, she files, she polishes. She shapes matter as she wishes. Her precision is astounding. Indeed, no default, nor recovery is permitted in the infinitely small realm she works in.

With a disarming humility – a character trait common to all these artists of decoration – she confesses that, with time, the hand becomes more and more stable, but still, she sometimes needs to stop breathing to execute her motif to perfection. We quickly understand that practice makes the extremely difficult gesture perfect. But talent is paramount. Each engraver needs to invent technics, sometimes even tools, to achieve the desired rendering, to give life to the model. It all starts with a 2D drawing to which volume needs to be added.

The engraver creates curves, plays with mat and polished finishings, chisels a multitude of details. Each requires constant creativity. The greatest difficulty according to our graceful artist? Human faces' expressions or animal maws. The slightest sideslip completely alters the transcripted emotion. As she unveils examples, the awe increases as we marvel at textures: drapes, animal furs, scales, clouds, salient muscles. It is fascinating! She admits that she loves the fact that there are no instruction manuals. Experience and creativity alone enable to reach excellence. What does she love most? When the Métiers d’Art intertwine because the various technics have to complete each other to magnify one another.

The passion of enameling

Laurent welcomes us at his easel. He started when he was 17 years old. He has been perfecting his craft for 40 years! For him, it is a very subtle art form because there is an unavoidable uncertainty inherent to the physics and chemistry reactions during the cooking. The outside influence of multiple passages in the oven at 850°C is complicated to master, if not impossible. Experience – once again irreplaceable – permits to limit breakage by developing a precise knowledge of temperatures and cooking durations. But a microbubble is always possible. With enameling, you are stepping on eggs. Laurent explains the five great technics that are found in this ancient craftsmanship: champlevé and cloisonné which date back far before European Middle Ages; painted enameling and ‘grisaille' which appeared in the 16th century; and plaque-à-jour. He is currently working on a grisaille enameling and shows us the meticulous accomplishment it represents. The composition appears in a negative format on black enamel. He uses a very special white paint from Limoges, very fine, with very few pigments, blended with an oil that will evaporate during the oven-fire cooking. With a micro brush, he creates colors gradations from very white to very grey. He plays with shades and light to give life to the drawing. He has to superimpose X amounts of layers to render the desired texture…with an oven baking between each layer! A long-haul work which can last up to 2 and a half months. The watchwords at this easel are patience, passion, and creativity.

The temple of guilloché

Still wide-eyed with admiration from seeing so many marvelous creations, we now enter another room solely dedicated to the art of guilloche. A 1950s machine is used for circular patterns; another from 1929 serves for straight lines; the last one, dating from 1900, offers all kinds of madness. Supachai, the Manufacture’s Master guilloche artist, explained right away, "No modern machine comes even close to such beautiful, precise and deep rendering." Despite his young age, he has 26 years of experience in his craft. He was the one to find this incredible machine from another age. He immediately saw unsuspected possibilities. He was the first one to take on the challenge of creating a world map in guilloche. It gave birth to the first timepiece in the world adorned with such a representation. Then he decided to invent and test new technics to draw flowers, then animals, then human faces. The guilloche is now figurative at Vacheron Constantin. Creativity has no limits. And what a technic! He sits at his machine, so we can understand how it works. The left hand controls the speed, and the right one applies the pressure to imprint the pattern. The gesture must be precise and done in one movement. Both speed and pressure must remain constant. Exceptional dexterity, precision, and calm are required. We watch him work, astonished. Only the smooth yet muffled sound of the wheel fills the air, interrupted by the ‘cricket' sound announcing the next design. The rhythm is steady, the concentration maximal: it is a meditation! We are in the presence of a genius of this art. As Christian Selmoni, director of Style and Heritage of the house, puts it: “Supachai is stratospheric”! And of a confounding humility.

For these all so complex Métiers d’Art, Vacheron Constantin has the incredible chance to have passionate artisans – ‘artists' seems more appropriate – in-house. They excel at their craft. They are eager always to perfect their technics, as much as to transmit their passion through their creations. One understands that through their delicate work, each piece made by hand is unique, filled by countless hours of labor, of their personal creativity and expertise. Our visit only unveils a fraction of the excellence. That excellence which is the only one capable of generating the emotions that arose from the Métiers d’Art creations of the venerable Manufacture from Geneva.

(Photography by Pierre Vogel)

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