In an increasingly wonder-less age, it takes considerable discipline to imagine the sense of anticipation that must have hung in the Versailles air as Étienne de Montgolfier prepared to launch his first ‘aerostatic experiment’ in 1783. On board his voluminous contraption – what we now prosaically refer to as a hot air balloon – were a sheep, a rooster and a duck, sent into the unexplored heights on a survival mission. Was there sufficient oxygen ‘up there’ to sustain life?
This elevated moment in aviation history is one of the subjects of Vacheron Constantin’s latest Métiers d’Art collection, the exquisite Les Aérostiers, unveiled in Geneva at this year’s edition of the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie. The collection, made up of five handcrafted pieces, remembers as many historic moments in aviation history between 1783 and 1785 in intricate, sometimes microscopic detail, using a combination of rare artisanal techniques called ‘pounced ornament’ and ‘pliqué à jour enamel’.
The former is the process of creating an engraved relief effect, painstakingly removing material from a base to form shapes and motifs. This Vacheron’s in-house team of engravers used to sculpt the balloons seen on the dials, and indeed the extraordinary detail in each one; the decoration on each balloon, the filigreed ropes and the first voyagers themselves, who ventured into the skies later in 1783 (following, in Biblical fashion, in the footsteps of pioneering farmyard animals).
The enamelling technique ‘pliqué à jour’ is one of the more uncommon enamelling processes, in this case used to give the dials their translucent background in one of either sky blue, dark blue, turquoise, brown or burgundy. The glorious impression this gives is of airiness, as if the balloons were floating in their own tiny, wrist-mounted bubble.
Few of Switzerland’s watch houses can summon anything like the mastery applied by Vacheron to these watches – mastery, it shouldn’t be forgotten, that stretches beyond the artistry of the dials and into the movement beneath. Calibre 2460 G4/1, also produced in Vacheron’s gleaming Plan-les-Ouates manufacture, is a most unusual concoction, displaying the minutes, hours, day of the week and date without the use of a single hand. In their place are four windows positioned in the dial’s corners (such as they are); the time discs ‘drag’ in conventional fashion, while the day and date ‘jump’, skipping from one to the next at midnight. Much of the complex inner workings of these complications is faintly and tantalisingly visible through those enamel dials, like a forest view seen through a stained glass window.
The ambition behind each model is frankly enormous. Remember, for example, that it takes the engravers and enamellers three weeks to produce a single dial – a process fraught with the threat of disaster at every turn. Remove too much material and there is no ‘undo’ function; should the enamel firing corrupt, it’s back to square one. Such is the courage required of those who bring métiers d’art visions to life.
As with Vacheron’s previous Metiers d’Art collections, Les Aérostiers will be extremely limited. Only five of each piece are slated for production. No doubt their owners will find possession an uplifting experience.