Gems Plus 500 Hours Equal a Unique Watch

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Gems Plus 500 Hours Equal a Unique Watch

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PARIS — In 2013, Christian Selmoni of Vacheron Constantin was in the midst of doing what is part of an artistic director’s job at a watchmaking house: getting ready to abandon a project that wasn’t living up to the initial idea.

The endeavor in question was a métiers d’art series, then loosely called City of Light, intended to render aerial images of world metropolises onto dials. “The vision was of a city as you approached by plane, landing in a big airport like JFK,” he said.

But Vacheron Constantin’s core repertory of in-house decorative crafts — engraving, enameling, guilloché (engraving using a lathe) and gem setting — couldn’t deliver the high level of artistry he envisioned.

Then Yoko Imaï got in touch. Ms. Imaï, a Paris-based Japanese artist, was dipping her toes in the world of haute horology, having just been commissioned by the watchmaker Montblanc to create an artwork for its cultural foundation: the company’s rounded-star symbol painted in Ms. Imaï’s signature mix of ink and precious-stone powder.

After a 40-minute meeting in Paris to discuss her invention (Chinese calligraphy ink mixed with diamond, pearl, gold and platinum powders), Mr. Selmoni saw that Ms. Imaï’s craft could be the missing magic for his City of Light series. “Sometimes you need some luck,” he said.

Ms. Imaï, the daughter of a cosmetics company president, was born in Tokyo and has lived an international and cosmopolitan life, she said, attending events like classical music concerts and festivals that would go on to influence her art (she also plays the harp).

Trained in Chinese calligraphy, she coupled her apprenticeship with a study of makie, the Japanese craft of decorating lacquerware with sprinkled gold or silver powder. But feeling “unsatisfied with this traditional method,” she said she researched a technique of her own, as she was eager to “master the characteristic of powder.”

The materials she uses today include not only gold, platinum and pearl but also lapis lazuli and diamond dust. Sitting in her atelier in Paris’s 16th Arrondissement and wearing a knitted red dress accessorized with an Hermès scarf and matching bracelet, Ms. Imaï described how a stint at Seiko jewelry in Tokyo also influenced her work — even though the experience was different from what she sought: “Jewelry design felt like a very European thing. I wanted something that could express my culture — the history and métiers d’art of original Japanese pieces.”

At first glance Ms. Imaï’s art is deceptively simple: often no more than three or four lines, or dots, of ink, iridescent in their glints of powder. But closer inspection reveals expertly executed lines punctuated with varying proportions of dust, and work, in totality, that recalls classical music. Her painting “Fugue No. 7,” which hangs above her work desk, is inspired by J.S. Bach’s “The Art of Fugue,” the painting’s three lines echoing the score’s trio of melodies: a principal silvered, diamond-and-pearl line, which is followed by a dotted one that is nuanced with lapis lazuli, and both merged with a final, intense black line.

But before Ms. Imaï painted a single stroke, she spent months studying Bach and his counterparts, pouring over biographies to understand why the German composer wrote the piece. “Otherwise realization is just personal and does not connect” with the artist, she said. “It’s too sad.”

Her tools also have the mark of a perfectionist. All the powder is made from the highest quality natural gemstones, while the silklike paper she uses is produced without chemicals by the son of the craftsman who made Picasso’s paper, she said: “He’s like me. It takes 300 hours to make just one paper.”

Her brushes are made from plant root (the same kind used in ancient Japanese brushes) by a craftsman in a tiny village on the island of Okinawa. Ms. Imaï found him on the internet. “I wanted a certain texture,” she said. “He really loves French culture, so he was willing to make these brushes especially for me. We have a really nice relationship.”

Though precious powder is her forte, translating it onto watches was a different story. After meeting Mr. Selmoni, Ms. Imaï spent the next two years experimenting with how to fix the powder onto the watch dials, which now come in representations of three cities — Geneva, Paris and New York. The series has been given the name Métiers d’Art Villes Lumières, which translates to “Light Cities.”

For each dial Ms. Imaï sets some 30,000 points of either diamond, platinum or gold powder with a thin metal stylus, a process that takes more than 500 hours, or three months per dial. And that doesn’t include the background research.

Despite knowing the cities well, Ms. Imaï still studied around 50 aerial nightscapes of each place, alongside the “circulation of the people and movement of light,” to create realistic depictions. “I didn’t want Parisians to say it was an illusion,” she said (she’s called this city home since 2006).

After initially sorting the powder — with each dot or point ranging in size from nine to 15 microns — she only fixes several dots at a time before taking a photograph. It’s a process mimicked from her paintings, where Ms. Imaï examines images of her lines, sometimes for days, before painting the subsequent one.

“Because I’m inside the painting, I can’t see objectively,” she said. “So I take a photo in the evening and morning, just to verify the line is right.”

For the dials, she also photographed her work under different lights — the sun streaming in from the window of her top-floor atelier, an LED and halogen bulb, and the 16th-century Murano glass lamp that illuminates her work desk.

She also tested the dials on herself. Unlike paintings, “a watch is always on the wrist: It’s living with the wearer,” she said. “I thought I should analyze the movement of the body.”

It’s an idea that underlies her invented craft: “We live in 3-D,” she said. “I’m always looking for the brightness, shadow and graduation in 3-D. That’s why I use powder.”

Before Ms. Imaï receives the dials for embellishment, Vacheron Constantin’s crafts experts first apply their own art.

A gold dial is treated with a technique called champlevé grand feu enameling — what Mr. Selmoni calls “tiny walls” that create the structure of the city. These gold dividers then separate the colored enamel that is applied to depict, say, the blue water of Lake Geneva or green park surrounding the Eiffel Tower — or just the many shades of black to create an atmospheric, nocturnal landscape. The dial is then fired several times at 1,562 degrees Fahrenheit (850 degrees Celsius) before a final gloss finish is added.

Mr. Selmoni and Ms. Imaï said they were in constant communication throughout the development of the final designs, with both describing a shared sense of “exigence” for the highest quality. “We wanted to create this ‘wow’ effect,” Mr. Selmoni said.

The watch’s artistry is matched by its internal specifications, which include a 40-hour power reserve, 182 parts and the Poinçon de Genève, the seal indicating quality craftsmanship and timekeeping standards for watches made in Geneva.

The collection is limited to a few pieces, each of which comes with its own loupe to admire the detailed scene.

Each 40-millimeter watch is priced at 111,800 Swiss francs, or $110,267. Asked about applying her distinctive craft to a commercial product, Ms. Imaï seemed unfazed. “I don’t think I’ve transformed the art into an industrial thing,” she said. “I’ve just harmonized the two.”

By | 2017-03-30T04:47:01+00:00 March 30th, 2017|Comments Off on Gems Plus 500 Hours Equal a Unique Watch