Did you know that there’s an official list of Métiers d’Art or artistic crafts. It includes 198 crafts and 83 specialist fields, making a total of 281 activities. Hermès is intimately acquainted with many of them.
The famous Parisian saddlemaker uses them to transform time into an object – a precious object of its own making. It shapes it, gives it wings, and makes it run, growl and roar.
Arceau Grands Fonds © David Marchon
In order to do this, it calls upon a range of truly unique artisanal techniques. They may not be the most arcane or difficult, but that’s not the point. Hermès finds and reinvigorates rare and forgotten crafts, twists them to its own purposes, and has fun. Hermès pushes beyond tradition and transcends the fusty image of arcane, outdated techniques. Hermès time is fun, modern, contemporary, playful, unique, creative; it’s a stylistic exercise in the noblest tradition. It’s about making beautiful things because they are beautiful. What more do you need?
One craft in particular has earned a great deal of attention from Hermès in recent years: marquetry. Wood marquetry is familiar; it’s what the term most often conjures up. Hermès joined the party in 2019 with a horse (of course…) fashioned from precious purpleheart, Macassar ebony, chestnut, huanghuali and madrone burl.
Slim d'Hermès Pegase Paysage © David Marchon
But Hermès has also taken marquetry in new creative directions. First, by moving from wood to straw. It’s an incredible material: long, smooth stems of rye grass are carefully selected and sorted into useable sections. The stems are of a specific variety, grown on a single farm. The plants are harvested by hand, and the stems are then dyed in batches. After being plunged into several different dye baths, then dried flat, the resulting colours are deep and vibrant with a subtle sheen. The Arceau H Cube provides the perfect setting, taking its place alongside the Arceau Marqueterie de Paille, which has two variants dating back to 2013.
Arceau H Cube © Hermès
Clearly, Hermès wasn’t going to be limited to wood or its flimsier cousin, straw. From the vegetable world, Hermès moved to the animal kingdom – a logical next step for a company that started out making saddles. Leather marquetry took up the baton in 2018, with the Arceau Cavales and Slim d’Hermès Les Zèbres de Tanzanie. Equine silhouettes and zebra stripes are picked out in a patchwork of vibrant leathers, meticulously assembled on the dial. The composition is made up of tiny fragments of Swift calfskin, a triumph of miniaturisation. Rouge H, Malta Blue and Graphite, the signature colours of the maison, define this assembly of leatherworking and horological expertise. Indeed, leather marquetry requires a similarly meticulous approach to watchmaking. Cut from full-grain calfskin, the sheets of coloured leather are shaved down to a thickness of just half a millimetre. Each element of the motif is then stamped out. One by one, the artisan takes these fragments and places them on the dial to create the design.
Arceau Cavales © Joel Von Allmen
Hermès has also developed a few dials using the even rarer technique of millefiori. From vegetable, to animal, to mineral. La Montre Hermès borrows from the 19th-century paperweights created by the Cristalleries Royales de Saint-Louis to inspire dials and pocket watch covers. Long, delicate stems of glass that look like barley sugar, handcrafted by a glassblower, are cut into sections and vertically stacked to form multicoloured flower motifs. In 2014 two Arceau watches (34 mm and 41 mm) made the most of this explosion of colour to create an effect rarely seen in watchmaking.
Arceau Millefiori © Hermès
Finally, this year Hermès unveiled a new Arceau named “Soleil”. It’s inventive: the diamond hour markers are set into the sapphire crystal, creating the illusion that they are floating above the dial. It’s a first for Hermès, and probably for watch design in general. It’s also a technical feat, the kind of challenge that the in-house artisans are used to. Sapphire crystal is difficult to work because it is so hard – but that’s why it is invaluable for protecting watches from shocks and scratches.