Van Cleef & Arpels on creativity, colour and keeping secrets

Van Cleef & Arpels’ Rainer Bernard exclusively tells Tempus what excites the craftspeople behind the world’s most glittering jewellery watches

We don’t make watches,” says Rainer Bernard, as we meet in a private viewing room in Geneva to view Van Cleef & Arpels’ most artfully bejewelled novelties. “We fashion high jewellery that tells the time.” 

It’s a telling distinction at the heart of Rainer’s work. He has been with the French jewellery maison for 12 years, heading up the brand’s research and development team, and is the creative force behind some of their most intricate fusions of jewellery and watchmaking. It was under Rainer’s direction that the brand’s technical team successfully recreated the defining smooth reveal mechanism of the 1949 Ludo Secret Watch; a feat that allowed Van Cleef & Arpels to bring a range of playful secret watches centre stage at this year’s Watches & Wonders Geneva. 

These novelties were led by jewel-encrusted Ludo Secret Watches, presented in 18k rose gold with a choice of sparkling diamonds or pink sapphires, and the unique single piece Ludo Secret Emerald Mystery Set. Similarly, new releases in the Perlée collection saw pendant watches framed with diamonds and hidden away by gold lids set with blue sapphires, emeralds or rubies. 

In addition to these collections, the brand launched its only complication of the year – the Lady Féerie, which debuted unique enamel colours created in house – and two new automata, Floraison du Nénuphar and Eveil du Cyclamen. While not secret watches, both pieces continue the themes of transformation and revelation. While the Floraison du Nénuphar opens to reveal a butterfly in flight, both feature hidden fairies painstakingly set with tiny jewels and painted gold beads. 

Crucially, none of the timepieces show or even make note of the impressive movements and mechanisms that power them. “At the centre of everything we do is the story we’re telling with the piece,” says Rainer. “We don’t want to show any part of the beautiful movements in the pieces, because the technique distracts from the story. Of course, if you’re interested as a client, we’ll show you. But the most important part of the story, for us, is the jewellery.” 

Here, Rainer shares more about the sense of joy and spectacular gems powering the world of high jewellery watches…

Rainer, what’s the most exciting aspect of developing a new high jewellery watch?
I think it’s the shared search for a new story. We have a very playful team; we laugh a lot. When we find something new to explore, that’s very exciting; that moment of, ‘this could be something cool – let’s do it!’ For instance, in 2022, we launched the Lady Arpels Heures Florales, with flowers that open on the watch dial. We started with the story – what we wanted to say with this design – and only then did we start to explore how we were going to achieve it. It took several trials to find a new solution – we went back to the drawing board many times until a solution became more concrete. 

One of this year’s most exciting novelties is the Ludo Secret Watch. What inspired this reimagining of the original design?
Secret watches are part of our DNA; we’ve been making them for a long time. In the early 1900s it was seen as un-chic for a woman to be wearing a wristwatch, and so the trend was to hide the watch in a piece of jewellery. Our Ludo Secret Watch is based on our founder Louis Arpels’ original bracelet idea and a Ludo watch from 1949. The 1949 watch is a masterpiece – it took us 73 years to learn how to remake it and then decide how we should go about modernising it, without breaking the aesthetic power of the piece. 

We’ve updated the dial and mechanism, so that the spring and tubes are integrated into the watch. We also looked at the stone settings – you can see there is no visible metal between the diamonds – so it’s a very dense setting with a lot of reflection in the stones following the outer form. It is the perfect blending of high jewellery and watchmaking. 

Why is it important to hide these technical elements?
Think of it like an opera. When I go to the opera, I want to see the singers, the decor, the story. I don’t want to see how it’s done – the cables or set changes. It’s the same for our watches. We don’t want to see the technical parts or the movement. If you have rose gold hands, you don’t want to see the white head of the steel axle poking through. 

If you look at the Ludo Secret Emerald Mystery Set, you can see the smoothness of the jewelled bracelet – we have ensured that the stone settings are the perfect shape, so the bracelet goes through the watch seamlessly. The technique serves the story; we are proud that we can hide all those details, because it’s actually more complicated than to showcase them.

This year has also seen a revival in pendant watches, led by the Perlée. Could you tell us more?
We made our first pendant watch in 1912. It was simply a watch worn on a chain; there was no lid. This year’s modern Perlée Collection has six versions of the pendant watch, including three stone-set versions – sapphire, ruby and emerald – each with a bejewelled lid. The key to the beauty of the pieces is the quality of the stones and the evenness of the colour. Each gem is chosen by our stone department, so there is actually a lot of work that goes into the choice of the rough stone, and then the emeralds or other gems that are cut and chosen to match perfectly. It’s incredibly rare to achieve that subtle blend of colour.

Speaking of colour, the Lady Féerie is your only complication for 2023. What is special about this colour transition?
For this new interpretation of our Lady Féerie we developed our own enamelling colours. What you see on the dial is the Lady Féerie herself, a symbol of chance and luck, sitting on the clouds just before sundown. Behind her, the sky is becoming slightly rose-coloured, while around the sun it is still bright. It’s the perfect transition of colour on the guilloché. These colour transitions are extremely difficult to do – it took us two years to create the dial. 

Could you tell us more about the Lady Féerie figure?
The Lady Féerie figure, at the centre of the dial, is created in exquisite detail. Her dress and tiara are decorated with diamonds, sapphires and golden beads, which are hand-painted to enhance the beauty of the dress. Her face is a rose-cut diamond and her gold wings are plique-à-jour enamel and set with tiny brilliant-cut diamonds. But – another hidden secret – there are actually three fairies in the watch. Joining Lady Féerie is a second fairy, who sits on the instantaneous jumping hour hand, and we have engraved a third fairy on the movement itself.

Many of the timepieces in the collection have an element of transformation. Would you say that’s a major theme of the brand?
We love to play around with that theme, and there are many ways to interpret what makes a secret watch. For example, our Lady Arpels Ballerine Enchantée watch [launched 2022] was inspired by dancer Anna Pavlova. It features a white gold ballerina – set with sapphires and diamonds and finished with plique-à-jour enamel on the dial – which transforms into a butterfly when you ask to read the time. That’s a totally different take on a secret watch. 

How do your automata add to this sense of storytelling?
Our first object – the Varuna boat – was released in 1906, at the very beginning of the company’s history. Over time, this objets d’art and table clocks have always been present in what we do, often as private commissions for clients. The automata we have released to the public – like the Floraison du Nénuphar, with the flower opening to reveal a butterfly taking flight – are obviously a much larger scale but are made with the same techniques that go into our jewellery watches: you have the diamond settings, the marquetry, guilloché. 

While a gorgeous movement like this might be very key to the marketing for another watchmaker, we’ll never bring it up, because the story we’re telling is the most important thing. The mechanical movement is not what’s important to us – that’s what stays behind the scenes to make our story come to life.

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