As Louis Vuitton launches its new Metiers d’Art collection, we discover how Jean Arnault’s new strategy is changing the face of fashion watches

The extraordinary collection, created at Le Fabrique du Temps Louis Vuitton, is inspired by ancient Japanese artefacts

Jean Arnault Louis VuittonWhen Louis Vuitton announced the appointment of a new director of watches development in Jean Arnault — the youngest son of LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault — in 2021 it marked a seismic shift in the fashion giant’s approach to watchmaking. No longer is Louis Vuitton content to produce fashionable but technically simple watches. Instead, Jean, 25, is leading a transformation of form and function, applying the same meticulous mechanical and technical brilliance to Louis Vuitton watches as LVMH-owned brands TAG Heuer, Hublot and Zenith enjoy.

It began with technique: Jean partnered with master watchmaker Michel Navas, the Gerald Genta-trained creative behind Patek Philip and Franck Muller’s most exciting and quirkiest complications. Together, they turned to La Fabrique du Temps Louis Vuitton, the manufactory in Meyrin, Geneva (founded eight years ago by Michel and watchmaker Enrico Barbasini) that combines expert research, design and manufacture within three key departments — cases, dials and movements.LVThe centre’s blend of traditional Swiss savoir-faire and cutting-edge technology — some of which already features the elusive Poinçon de Genève seal — has already resulted in the new look Tambour, as well as the development of the brand’s patented Spin Time movement, certified tourbillons and an atelier dedicated to grand complications such as minute repeaters and automatas. If that’s not enough, the in-house Métiers d’Arts team, led by Dick Steenman, emphasises ancient craftsmanship and embellishment techniques to bring special edition timepieces even further to life.

Jean graduated from MIT and Imperial College London where he studied mechanical engineering, before gaining experience at Morgan Stanley and McLaren Racing. But his interest in the mechanics of watches came from his elder brother Frédéric’s involvement with TAG Heuer, where he served as director of the brand’s Connected smartwatches from 2017 to 2020, before taking over as CEO. Frédéric’s success saw the creation of a new role as head of LVMH watches, which the 29-year-old assumed in January.LVLike Jean and Frédéric, Bernard’s children all enjoy leadership roles within LVMH. His daughter Delphine, 48, is the CEO of Dior and executive vice president of Louis Vuitton, son Antoine, 46, is CEO of the holding company Christian Dior SE, while Alexandre, 31, serves as executive vice president of Tiffany & Co.

As Jean has told the FT: “[Frédéric and I] have a close relationship, and he started talking to me about the new watches and all the different things he was working on. I was fascinated, and that’s really the turning point.”

Jean’s influence in Louis Vuitton is equally impressive. Under his tenure, the brand’s watch division has undertaken a redesign and uplift of its watch cases and, crucially, a major turn towards creating fewer timepieces at a much higher level of quality, innovation and price point. This clever repositioning of the brand’s former fashion watches as sophisticated Swiss watches that stand toe-to-toe — or, rather, hand-to-hand — with significant watch and jewellery brands, but with all the legacy of one of the world’s most recognisable designer brands, is a truly changemaking shift.Louis Vuitton watch ambassador Bradley Cooper for Louis Vuitton ©️Mario Sorrenti/Louis VuittonThe first release under Jean’s direction was the updated Tambour in 2023 — coinciding with a series of cinematic campaigns led by Oscar-nominated actor Bradley Cooper — whose fearless biopic of composer Leonard Bernstein, Maestro, saw the actor and director train for six years as a conductor — as the first ever ambassador for Louis Vuitton Watches.

“We are lucky to have what I’d humbly call an icon in the watch industry, born in 2002,” Jean said of the Tambour. “We’ve taken the historic codes of Tambour, like the shape of the case — immediately recognisable, so that you can identify it across a room — but have brought to it the taste of 2023.”

Upon relaunching the new and vastly improved Tambour in 2023, Jean told the New York Times: “This is probably the most important launch for Louis Vuitton since the launch of the Tambour 21 years ago.”

That is, of course, until now.Louis VuittonINNOVATION BY DESIGN

There is no clearer an illustration of Jean’s approach than in the brand’s first ultra-luxury collection: Louis Vuitton Escale Métiers d’Arts. Spearheaded by master watchmaker Michel, the collection was inspired by the remarkable collections of Gaston-Louis Vuitton, the son of Louis Vuitton’s original founder.

Gaston-Louis cut a stylish and artistic figure in his time. The only surviving son of Louis Vuitton, Gaston-Louis was an avid traveller, artist and art collector. He was known for always carrying a notebook with him, in which he sketched ideas for fashions, bags and accessories that are still inspiring Louis Vuitton creations today.

Among his fascinations was an extraordinary collection of tsubas — the decorative hand guards found on the swords of Japanese Samurai warriors. Gaston-Louis collected more than 1,000 of these round discs, which not only protect the swordsman but provided balance to the katana. Importantly, each tsuba was an expression of the individual swordsman, decorated with highly symbolic imagery or depicting the stories of ancestral heroes, and passed down between generations.It was in these decorative but meaningful pieces that Michel found his inspiration for the Escale Métiers d’Art.

“I like very complicated watches, but I also love simple watches with novel and original complications. That is difficult to achieve,” says Michel. “Louis Vuitton is at the heart of travel… This is a mix between the art of watchmaking and the art of theatre. You’re captivated by the details of the enamel. [Each one is] a masterpiece.”

The collection consists of a trilogy of expressions, with each 20-piece limited edition adorned with a different animal motif based on traditional tsuba and Japanese culture. The Koi’s Garden features two carp engaging in a swirling dance encased in white gold. Surrounded by a pellucid stream and colourful quartz and crystal diamond-set pebbles, the dial is a calm and meditative scene created through 150 hours of handcraftsmanship. Sculpted from white gold, each scale, fin and whisker is engraved by hand before the dial is kiln-fired to oxidise the carp and amplify the three-dimensional effect. After detail work is completed by the engraver to create iridescence, a miniature painter coats the carp in translucent blue lacquer to make them glisten as if in the clear waters of the stream. Gaston-Louis Vuitton’s personal monogram is sculpted from contrasting gold and onyx at 6 o’clock.The second timepiece in the collection, the Snake’s Jungle, is set in the heart of a bamboo forest, where a jewel-toned serpent rears its head, extending its fangs at an orb of gold and nephrite jade forming the monogram of Gaston-Louis. The bamboo forest itself is composed of 367 pieces of wood, parchment and straw in 14 shades of green, using marquetry techniques. The serpent is composed using micro-sculpture, engraving and champlevé enamelling to give three-dimensional depth.

The triptyque is completed with the Dragon’s Cloud watch, a majestic dragon clutching a carnelian-set GLV monogram. Created using damascening — a rare form of decorative inlay using metals of contrasting colours — as well as hand-engraving and paillonné enamelling (containing pieces of gold leaf suspended between layers of enamel), this is a remarkable combination of some of the rarest, most delicate and technically demanding artisanal techniques in watchmaking. Yellow and rose gold monogram flower paillons adorn the dragon’s scales against a black enamel background and the dial. Finally, the dragon’s eye glows thanks to a cabochon-cut ruby.If this collection is a sign of things to come from Jean Arnault’s strategic vision, then Louis Vuitton may find itself among the leading lights of haute horology sooner than it might expect, thanks to its emphasis on high manufacture, protecting and reviving ancient techniques and speeding ahead to innovate a limited number of truly groundbreaking timepieces.

“My father has always told me the same thing: if the product is good, the results will come,” said Jean — and it’s hard to argue with such impressive new releases.

Read the full article in our Spring Edition featuring Bradley Cooper and Louis Vuitton.

    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop