Time is also memory. Undoubtedly, one of Vacheron Constantin’s greatest qualities is that it remains faithful to these visionaries and virtuosi of another age. The ethics and commitment to excellence that motivate each of its employees have kept the Company consistent for over 250 years. Embracing the philosophy of one’s forebears, when it includes this essential humanism, brings a kind of happiness that few are privileged to enjoy.
Vacheron Constantin is deeply committed to handing down and developing the watchmaking trades, especially the artistic crafts, which bring together the quintessential skills of the highly specialized decorative arts used in watchmaking (enameller, engraver, guillocheur, and gem-setter). This commitment continues today through timepieces that are true works of art and whose manufacturing secrets survive in the workshops of only a few masters and craftsmen.
Three Years, Nine Designs, Sixty Sets
True to the spirit of the Métiers d’Art collection, the symbolique des laques theme will change over a period of three years, with each year bringing a new set of three watches in a limited series of twenty.
Each set will feature motifs selected from the vast symbolic treasure trove of Far Eastern artistic traditions. Each design, which may stem from the world of animals, plants, or minerals, has meaning and can be combined with another: divine or heroic figures are associated with animals, these animals with plants, the plants with virtues or abstract qualities, and so on. The designs often make reference to literary works, poems, or legends.
From a watchmaking standpoint, the legendary ultra-thin Caliber 1003 has been chosen by Vacheron Constantin to equip this series of timepieces – and more specifically a skeletonized version of the movement crafted in 14-carat white gold. Nonetheless, so as to magnify the overall harmony and to ensure that the maki-e craftsmanship is suitably highlighted, Vacheron Constantin even went so far as to opt for a ruthenium treatment which – by toning down the natural radiance of gold – creates a particularly elegant effect on this model. The sapphire crystals on either side enable one to admire the exceptional finishing, and in particular the bevelling craftsmanship performed in the workshops of the Geneva-based Manufacture.
Meanwhile the deceptively simple lines of the delicately rounded case radiate an exemplary understatement and purity entirely in tune with the zen spirit of the Métiers d’Art – La symbolique des laques collection.
The first set will explore the theme of long life with “The Three Friends of Winter” – Saikan no sanyû 歳寒三友 : the pine tree, bamboo, and the plum tree. This classic trio of the Chinese symbolic system was a very early arrival in Japan, where it is just as popular as in its country of origin. By virtue of their resistance to extreme cold, the “Three Friends of Winter” have longevity as their primary symbolic meaning. By extension, they are also associated with the loyalty of a friendship that survives the hard times symbolized by winter.
Pine trees are venerated for their age and strength. They are also held in high esteem because they remain green in the winter. Bamboo is seen as a perfect gentleman, flexible in the face of change but without ever giving up its ideal: once the storm has passed, it returns to its original position. The plum tree is respected because it is the first tree to flower, while winter still holds sway, and it is the longest-lived fruit tree. The ideal of well-read Chinese and Japanese was to be “strong like the pine, tough like bamboo, and pure like the plum tree.”
Each of the “Three Friends of Winter” is paired with a Bird.
For example, the long-lived pine is accompanied by the crane, whose whiteness recalls the accumulation of years. Bamboo is associated with the sparrow, whose ceaseless activity symbolizes the vitality of the continually renewed bamboo. Finally, the plum tree is matched with the nightingale, because both celebrate the arrival of spring, one with its early flowers and the other with its song.
Vacheron Constantin chose this combination of three double motifs in close cooperation with Zôhiko. Each watch has a double face lacquered using the maki-e technique. The main design of the tree on the front of the watch is matched by the bird design on the back, facing the wrist. Here, too, Vacheron Constantin’s choice falls within a Japanese tradition, as many Japanese lacquerware objects are decorated even on their hidden surfaces, for example, on the insides of lids or the bottoms of boxes.
The Pine Tree and Crane Watch – Matsu to tsuru 松と鶴
In Japan, the pine tree has always been prized for its wood and the beauty of its twisted shapes. Even so, its pre-eminent role in art and literature largely reflects traditions borrowed from the continent. These traditions were inspired in large part by the fact that the pine is an evergreen, and so is associated with longevity and steadfastness. Both Chinese art and Japanese art considered the pine to be one of the “virtuous” plants, both as the symbol of winter and the new year, and as the main symbol of long life and even immortality.
Like the pine tree, the crane has also always been a symbol of longevity and noble elegance. Alongside the phoenix, it is one of the birds most wreathed in the legend and mystery of Far Eastern traditions. It is said that not only can it achieve incredible longevity, but once it reaches an age of 600 years, it can live on nothing but cool water. Furthermore, at the beginning of its 2000th year, its immaculate white plumage turns deep black. The crane is also one of the aerial messengers of Taoism’s immortals. In Japan, the crane’s mythical qualities are joined by a purely aesthetic dimension related to its gracefulness and beautiful plumage. The seasonal arrival of cranes that come to winter in Japan was welcomed joyfully and considered a harbinger of prosperity. For all of these reasons, cranes once enjoyed imperial protection. They were reserved strictly for the Emperor’s pleasure, and until the Meiji restoration in 1868, hunting them was prohibited.
The Bamboo and Sparrow Watch – Take to suzume 竹と雀
In Taoism, and to a lesser extent Buddhism, the tubular structure of bamboo symbolises the notion of emptiness. Like Tao, “the way,” which rises up from emptiness and returns to it, the centre of the bamboo is empty. This emptiness, or space, also represents the simplicity of tolerance and open-mindedness. Bamboo’s flexibility and toughness, which allow it to bend without breaking, represent integrity.
Though it does not live as long as the pine, bamboo is also associated with longevity. While a single bamboo shoot does not live long, an entire grove can grow from a single shoot. Similarly, bamboo dies after it flowers, but many kinds flower only once each century, which means that they do, after all, reach a respectable age.
Bamboo groves make especially attractive nesting sites for flocks of sparrows. Despite their restless and sometimes quarrelsome ways, sparrows are considered to be a symbol of loyalty in Japan. They never stop singing “chu, chu, chu!” or “be loyal, loyal, loyal!” In collections of popular legends, the sparrow is often represented as having a strong sense of honour and duty. The pairing of bamboo and the sparrow also frequently appears in the paintings of Zen Buddhism, in which bamboo signifies the ideal of awakening and freedom from worldly attachments, and the sparrow represents spontaneity and joie de vivre.
The Plum Tree and Nightingale Watch – Ume to uguisu 梅と鴬
The plum tree is known above all for the fact that its delicate, pink-tinged white flowers open in mid-winter. Their subtle perfume spreads through the coldest month of winter, awakening the first hope of spring. Although neither the plum tree nor its flowers are particularly magnificent, they have such a fresh, exquisite character that they delight the spirit in the midst of winter’s desolation. The plum tree serves as a metaphor for inner beauty and humility in the face of the world’s adversities.
The pairing of the plum tree and the nightingale seems to be more of a Japanese development. Both are the first messengers of spring: the first song of the nightingale is called hatsune 初音, or “the first sound of the year.” There are countless examples in art and poetry associating the plum tree and the nightingale. They are frequently depicted with snow as well, as plum trees often open so early that their flowers seem to blend in with the snowflakes.
In 1906, Vacheron Constantin opened its first shop on the island in the heart of Geneva. Right from the beginning, the shop built up a regular and discriminating Japanese clientele from contacts made with people passing through as well as orders from Japan.
From 1917 on, Vacheron Constantin was represented in Japan in the three cities of Tokyo, Yokohama and Kobe. The first watches sent were naval chronometers. It very quickly became evident that the Japanese clients had such specific and pronounced tastes that an entire aesthetic code developed and became known as “Japanese style,” with flat, simple, elegant watches and a preference for the colours white and silver.
The period during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that followed the World’s Fair in Paris and the Exhibition of Arts in Japan, which created sensations, marked the golden age of “Japanism” in Europe. Ferdinand Verger and his descendants, Vacheron Constantin’s Paris representative until 1939, were true creative geniuses who knew how to take advantage of the general fascination with Japan. He made many Japanese-inspired watches for Vacheron Constantin, some of them playing with enamel to create the illusion of lacquer, and others in genuine lacquer that are still part of the private Vacheron Constantin heritage collection.
In 1953, His Imperial Highness Prince Akihito, now the reigning Emperor of Japan, visited Vacheron Constantin’s manufacture and the original shop on the island, and did not neglect to sign the Company’s guest book.