Hands On: Louis Vuitton Escale Métiers d’Art “Cabinet Of Wonders”

Intricate, artisanal dials decorated by hand.

The recent debut of the Escale Time-Only was actually the second instalment of the design’s revival. Earlier this year, Louis Vuitton presented the Escale Métiers d’Art “Cabinet Of Wonders”, also time-only but with exceptionally elaborate dials decorated in a variety of artisanal crafts – all executed in-house at La Fabrique du Temps (LFT), the brand’s Geneva manufacture.

The “cabinet” is a trio of watches with dials featuring Asian motifs inspired by a collection of tsuba, or Japanese sword guards, owned by Gaston-Louis Vuitton, the grandson of Louis Vuitton. Ranging from enamelling to marquetry to hammering, the dial decoration is intricate and three-dimensional.

From left: Koi’s Garden, Dragon’s Cloud, and Snake’s Jungle

Initial thoughts

Like the Voyager Flying Tourbillon Plique-à-Jour, the Cabinet of Wonders is a tangible realisation of LFT’s swift buildup of an in-house métiers d’art workshop that encompasses enamelling, engraving, and guilloche.

The métiers d’art workshop is just one facet of Louis Vuitton’s ambitious, wide-ranging development of its watchmaking division, a project that is still a work in progress but advancing at a pace rapid enough that it will go far quickly.

The dials are lavish, complex, and finely executed. Although they are each decorated with a variety of techniques, the different textures, colours, and styles complement each other perfectly. The quality of the work is comparable to that of Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier, which is an achievement since the two jewellers have been doing such watches for longer.

The individual dial designs, however, are subjective and I prefer the koi and dragon dials over the snake (which looks large, like it just ate).

Snake’s Jungle decorated with enamel, engraving, multi-material marquetry, and a jade inlay on the GLV emblem

The parts of the dial that are not done in house are the work of an all-star cast of artisans that include engraver Eddy Jaquet and enameller Vanessa Lecci, who have also worked with Voutilainen and Parmigiani. This reflects Louis Vuitton’s no-expense-spared approach in developing these watches (which unfortunately also translates into a substantial price tag).

Dragon’s Cloud with the “GLV” monogram of Gaston-Louis Vuitton at nine o’clock

Although the focal point of the watches are the dials, the Escale case is noteworthy. I like the case design and own earlier versions of the model, which are identical in terms of the case in both style and size. The case wears just right with its  dimensions of 40 mm wide and a bit over 12 mm high.

The Escale case is cleverly detailed and elegant on the wrist. On the front it appears ordinary with little to distinguish it, but in profile the lugs with faux rivets give it an appealing degree of detail. The “cabinet” trio are further enhanced by the relief decoration on the case sides and enamelled crown.

Koi’s Garden…

And its decorated case sides…

The decoration on the case flanks and crown reflect the fact that fashion houses like Louis Vuitton (and also its rivals like Chanel), have an eye for detail that is comprehensive, more so than most watch brands. Each model in the “cabinet” has a movement, case, and even buckle that’s decorated in relief to match the dial.

And matching buckle…

Along with movement bridges to match

The attention to detail in the design is further illustrated by the calfskin straps that wrapped in the same manner as katana handles that are covered in stingray skin and wrapped in fabric. Although the straps are thick due to the wrapping, they are unexpectedly supple.

That said, I find the aesthetics of the wrapping too fussy, especially with the decorated dials, and would prefer a plainer strap (which a Louis Vuitton representative kindly offered for free if I bought one).

In terms of intrinsic features, the only weakness in my opinion is the LFT023 movement supplied by Le Cercle des Horlogers, which is good but not quite great. However, I get the impression that the LFT023 is merely an interim solution put in place until LFT develops an in-house time-only calibre.

Each model in the “cabinet” is priced at €240,000 before taxes – a big number but comparable to equivalent watches from the likes of Van Cleef & Arpels for instance. While not quite affordable, the pricing is fair.

Trunk inspired

Originally created for the Escale Worldtime a decade ago, the Escale case is Louis Vuitton’s take on a dress watch. It’s elegant and also distinctively Louis Vuitton.

The Escale is relatively thin, though some versions have a largish diameter, which gives it a slim profile. With vertical sides and a narrow, domed bezel, the Escale is also mostly traditional in terms of design, except for the lugs.

The defining features of the Escale are only evident in profile. Both the lugs and crown are inspired by elements of Louis Vuitton’s signature trunks.

The lugs are modelled on the brass corners secured by rivets, while the octagonal crown is shaped like a rivet. Although Louis Vuitton is usually associated with obvious design, the Escale case incorporates these details in an appealing, discreet manner.

The design of the lugs also allow for contrasting finishing between the case middle and lugs. On the basic Escale models this means a brushed case and polished lugs, but here on the Cabinet trio the case middle has a relief motif. Each model has a different case decoration that echoes the respective dials.

The case decoration is continued on the movement, which again is specific to each model. The dragon watch, for example, has a geometric motif of stylised clouds that is also found on the solid gold micro-rotor.

The koi model, on the other hand, has a ripples-on-the-water pattern to match the theme of the dial. This pattern, as well as those in the other models, is executed in relief on the bridges and rotor. The recessed sections of the bridges are frosted, while the raised lines are brushed.

The result is an attractive movement that appears customised, a unique point of appeal since movements are rarely reworked extensively when produced on a small scale (each model is limited to just 20 pieces).

Additional customisation to match the dial would have taken this to another level, like continuing the enamelling or stone inlays on the rotor. Regrettably that would take the price to another level as well, making it unrealistic.

Mechanically, the LFT023 movement is identical to that in the Tambour. It’s a thin movement with a 50 hour power reserve and 4 Hz balance. Repeating a point I made in earlier stories about the LFT023, it is good enough in many ways, but not quite excellent, especially in the finer details. But as I also noted in the past, I expect the LFT023 will eventually be replaced by a superior, in-house calibre.

Artisanal decor

While case and movement are patterned to match each motif, they are merely accompaniments to the dial. Each of the dial designs is inspired by a tsuba, the hand guard for a Japanese sword like a katana.

Gaston-Louis Vuitton (1883-1970), who led the Louis Vuitton from 1907 till his death, was a great collector of all sorts of things, including some 800 tsuba. Some of these tsuba inspired the dials, which are conveniently the same shape.

Even though the dial decoration is vivid, none of the dials are overtly branded. Louis Vuitton is mostly associated with obvious logos, but the dials are free of branding. Instead they bear Gaston-Louis Vuitton’s personal “GLV” monogram that will be unfamiliar to the uninitiated.

Notably, the “GLV” monogram on each of the dials is inlaid with semiprecious stone, namely nephrite, carnelian, and onyx for the snake, dragon, and koi dials respectively.

The “GLV” emblem is inlaid with onyx

However, the emblems from Louis Vuitton monogram canvas are scattered throughout the dials in subtle ways, ranging from mother-of-pearl bubbles in the water of Koi’s Garden to the scales of the dragon and snake.

Artisanal crafts

The techniques employed to create the dials are numerous. Depicting a snake against bamboo, Snake’s Garden has a dial decorated with a novel combination of techniques.

The dial base is panelled in marquetry of several materials, which is the work of Rose Saneuil, who work is also found in Piaget watches amongst others. Tiny pieces of wood, straw, and even parchment form the bamboo forest behind the snake, which is engraved by Eddy Jaquet and then enamelled by Vanessa Lecci.

The matte surface of the materials forming the marquetry base contrast perfectly with the glossy, vivid colours of the enamelled sections in the foreground.

More symmetrical and distinctly more East Asian in style is Koi’s Garden. Featuring a pair of koi as is tradition, this has a white gold dial base engraved in-house at LFT. The pebbles are set with brilliant-cut diamonds, while the bubbles are mother-of-pearl, smoky quartz, and rock crystal.

The twin carp are solid gold, engraved by hand, and then painted to create a graduated dark blue finish.

Dragon’s Cloud has a solid gold dial base that’s first hand hammered and then inlaid with wires of yellow and rose gold to form the clouds and whiskers of the dragon. This is the work of independent artisan Fanny Queloz, while the rest of the dial is done in-house at LFT.

The dragon’s eye is a ruby cabochon

The dragon is hand engraved and enamelled with several techniques including paillonné, with the stars in the scales being tiny pieces of gold foil, or paillons.

Key specs and price

Louis Vuitton Escale “Cabinet Of Wonders”
Ref. W3WG11 (Koi’s Garden)
Ref. W3WG21 (Snake’s Jungle)
Ref. W3PG41 (Dragon’s Cloud)

Diameter: 40 mm
Height: 12.4 mm
Material: 18k gold
Crystal: Sapphire
Water resistance: 50 m

Movement: LFT023
Functions: Hours and minutes
Frequency: 28,800 beats per hour (4 Hz)
Winding: Automatic
Power reserve: 50 hours

Strap: Leather with gold pin buckle

Limited edition: 20 pieces each 
 At Louis Vuitton boutiques
Price: €240,000 excluding taxes

For more, visit Louisvuitton.com.


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