At SIHH earlier this year, Vacheron Constantin added to the artistic diversity of its Métiers d’Art collection with Les Aérostiers, five whimsical yet intricate – and strikingly pretty – watches that take inspiration from the earliest days of aviation.
The advent of modern flight arguably began in 1783, when a sheep, a duck and a rooster became the first passengers to brave the air in a prototype balloon over Versailles, as King Louis XVI looked on.
Invented by the Montgolfier brothers, the balloon was attached to a cabin shaped like a gondola and managed to fly about two miles before it landed in the nearby woods with all three aeronauts unharmed. Balloon-mania subsequently swept across the European skies.
The Les Aérostiers are a nod to those pioneering hot air balloons of the 18th century. Each watch depicts a significant balloon, rendered in a variety of artisanal crafts from enamelling to engraving.
The balloons on each watch are created using pounced ornament engraving, a combination of tracing to transfer images (called pouncing) and engraving. It involves transferring two-dimensional drawings onto the dial using an engraving technique known as drypoint, before removing background material in order to leave a bold, relief engraving.
Because the balloons are rendered on such a small scale, the sharp-tipped engraving tools, known as burins, had to be sharpened repeatedly during the engraving to maintain the finest of points, creating the tiniest details on the human and animal figures, right down to fractions of a millimetre.
These balloons are set against a background of plique-à-jour enamel, a technique similar to stained glass.
Transparent enamels are applied in cells, with the dial sitting on a temporary glass base to keep the liquid enamel in place. Once the enamel has been fired and solidifies, the base is removed to create the translucent dial.
The translucency of the means the dial side of the cal. 2460 G4/1 is slightly visible, with the time, day and date shown in windows on each quadrant of the dial.
As miniature works of art, the enamel dial are also framed by a flange that is cast in rose gold and engraved to resemble balloon ropes.
Each watch in the series depicts a pioneering balloon that took to the skies in France between the years 1783 and 1785, and is named after the location and year of the flight.
The Métiers d’Art Les Aérostiers – Paris 1783 commemorates the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon flight on November 21 in 1783, which took place after the successful trial with farm animals.
Their balloon lifted off with human passengers, chemist Pilâtre de Rozier and Marquis François d’Arlandes, on board and landed successful. The balloon is depicted in micro-sculpted pink and white gold, and engraved with France’s royal emblems of the day.
The Métiers d’Art Les Aérostiers – Paris 1784 commemorates the fascinating craft that was developed by inventor Jean-Pierre Blanchard.
His craft was comprised of a carriage suspended from a balloon. But the ambitious aviator had also attached wings to his carriage in hopes that it would propel the balloon through the air. It didn’t work, though the balloon landed safely and Mr Blanchard went on to a successful career as a balloonist.
The other watches in the series are Versailles 1783, Bordeaux 1784, and Bagnols 1785.
Notably, the Les Aérostiers watches feature a brand new case style for Vacheron Constantin, being used here for the first time.
Moderately sized and elegant on the wrist, the cases are 40mm and 18k white gold, with a design that harks back to complicated watch cases of the 1980s and 1990s, featuring narrow lugs topped with screws.
Conceived specifically for Métiers d’Art watches, the self-winding and in-house cal. 2460 G4/1 inside displays the hours, minutes, day and date on four discs.
The indications shown in four apertures at the edges of the dial, freeing up the centre for artistic decoration. As with all Vacheron Constantin mechanical movements, the cal. 2460 bears the Geneva Seal.
Price and Availability
Limited to five pieces each, the Vacheron Constantin Métiers d’Art Les Aérostiers is priced at US$135,000.
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