Paradise Found: Exploring Van Cleef & Arpels’ Automatons

Extraordinary mechanical creations.

In 1906, Alfred Van Cleef and Estelle Arpels, united not only in matrimony but also in an unbridled passion for the art of jewellery, laid the foundations of what would become Van Cleef & Arpels (VC&A).

As the firm grew in stature and acclaim, it became clear that the founders’ vision extended beyond the realm of high jewellery. Like other storied makers before them, such as the renowned house of Fabergè, they ventured into the worlds of objet d’art and horology, sometimes blending the two, where the measuring of time transcended the ordinary and entered the realm of the extraordinary.

The Varuna model

The objects crafted by VC&A during the early decades of the 20th century extend beyond conventional boundaries, offering a canvas for fulfilling unusual special orders.

One such emblematic example is the scale model of the Varuna, a yacht commissioned by Eugene Higgins, a New York millionaire at the turn of the last century. In enamelled gold, the vessel gracefully rests on a sea of sculpted jasper mounted on an ebony base. Its funnel is an aesthetic marvel and its bell, functional, echoing the era’s sophisticated craftsmanship.

Although the jewellery house has long since passed into the ownership of Swiss luxury group Richemont, at its heart lies the same philosophy that imagines the world as it should be — a paradise in the universal sense — one overflowing with happiness and boundless imagination. This has shaped the whimsical, elegant collections of the brand, which often serve as windows into a fantastical realm, an Art Nouveau world populated by kind, magical creatures, with fairies, butterflies, and birds being a recurring theme of the brand’s creations.

Today, as in the beginning, the art of gem-setting and enamelling plays a pivotal role in transforming timepieces into extraordinary works of art. Each gemstone, carefully and meticulously placed, tells a story, and the painstaking and precise enamelling adds layers of colour and texture, bringing each scene depicted on the clocks and automatons to vivid life.

In its infinite beauty and variety, nature finds a voice in many of the brand’s creations. The delicate unfolding of a flower’s petals, the gentle flutter of a butterfly’s wings – these moments, ephemeral and fleeting in the natural world, are captured eternally in the movements and designs of its creations. They are a tribute to life’s transient yet eternally recurring beauty, a celebration of the natural world’s ephemeral yet everlasting dance.

Perhaps more than any of its watches or jewellery, VC&A’s unique mastery is best captured by the incredible, one-of-a-kind automatons created over the past decade.

2017: Myth and Mastery – Automate Fée Ondine

The allure and mystique of ancient mythology are often expressed in the brand’s horological creations, including VC&A’s first “Extraordinary Object”, the Automate Fée Ondine that was unveiled at the 2017 Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) in Geneva.

A unique piece like all of VC&A’s automatons, the Fée Ondine automaton gave a new form to the brand’s motto “Poetry of Time”. A testament to VC&A’s dedication in pushing artistic and mechanical boundaries, the complex mechanism animated various elements and told time, instilling a dreamlike sense of wonder.

The Fée Ondine unfolds a dual spectacle with its retrograde hour display and on-demand animation. On the side of its ebony-coloured base, a ladybird in “mystery” set rubies moved along the time scale, returning to its starting point at 12 o’clock to begin its journey for the next half-day.

When activated, the automaton comes to life for about 50 seconds, revealing a fairy tale scene. The water lily leaf ripples, the water lily flower blooms, and the fairy and butterfly engage in a synchronised dance while a crystalline melody chimes. The spectacle concludes as the fairy returns to slumber, the butterfly finds shelter, and the water lily’s oscillation ceases.

Behind each extraordinary clock or automaton lies the story of artisans who breathe life into these creations, which for the Automate Fée Ondine was Francois Junod, the famed maker of automatons from Sainte-Croix in Switzerland.

These craftsmen and women, often working away from the limelight, are in many ways the true heroes of this tale. Their expertise in the art of gem-setting, their skill in the delicate process of enamelling, and their mastery of the intricate mechanics of clockwork all converge to create each unique piece. Each automaton is infused with its spirit, a blend of elegance, wonder, and painstaking attention to detail.

Adorned with a kaleidoscope of jewels and crafted with meticulous attention to detail, it became clear that such automatons were not mere timekeepers; they were keepers of stories, relics of a time when myth and reality were indistinguishable.

The fée ondine, or “fairy mermaid”, cast in white gold using the lost-wax technique, is dressed in glittering finery. Her bodice and skirt, set with a gradation of sapphires, diamond headdress, and aquamarine features, showcases meticulous craftsmanship.

Hidden inside the figurine, a miniature mechanism conceived by Mr Junod brings her to life in fluid movements. Lines of brilliant-cut diamonds illuminated the spectacle as the fairy beats her wings in an irregular rhythm.

2022: Stellar Mastery – Planétarium Automaton

The brand’s journey in the world of horology is marked by constant innovation. VC&A does not just rest on its laurels; it continually pushes the boundaries of what is possible in crafting clocks and automatons. Incorporating advanced mechanisms experimenting with new materials and techniques, VC&A ensures that each new creation is not just a nod to its illustrious past but also a step towards the future of this mechanical art.

That was the case when, in 2022, VC&A made its captivating presence felt at Geneva’s Watches & Wonders (W&W) exhibition with new Extraordinary Objects, including the Planétarium Automaton.

The inception of the Planétarium automaton can traced back to the Midnight Planétarium wristwatch of 2014. The collaboration with Dutch independent watchmaker Christiaan Van Der Klaauw, renowned for his mastery of astronomical complications, produced a remarkable wristwatch meticulously detailing the orbital paths of planets within our solar system.

After an eight-year hiatus, VC&A revisited its celestial inspiration, culminating with the Planétarium automaton, a creation on an entirely different scale.

For this ambitious project, VC&A partnered with CompliTime, a movement specialist founded by Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey. This collaboration was pivotal, particularly since Van Der Klaauw, though rich in creative vision, was not equipped for a project of this scale. CompliTime, already renowned for producing a Planetarium for Richard Mille and the Histoire de Tourbillon series for Harry Winston, brought their extensive expertise to the table.

The mechanism boasts a complex wheelwork that mirrors the genuine rotation speed of each heavenly body. Mercury completes its orbit in 88 days, Venus in 224 days, Earth in 365 days, Mars in 687 days, Jupiter in 11.86 years, and Saturn in 29.5 years. The Moon, circling Earth in 29.5 days, lends perceptible movement to the automaton, creating a mesmerising ballet of the planets.

Engaging an on-demand animation brings forth a shooting star from a discreet door, circling the dial to indicate the hours. Accompanying this celestial dance is a melody composed by Swiss musician Michel Tirabosco that plays from a small music box, enhancing the experience.

The base of the automaton reveals a multifaceted display: hours and minutes, day-night, a perpetual calendar indicating the day, month, and year, and a power reserve. Opening a door provides a glimpse into the automaton’s musical box and chimes in action.

Materials derived from traditional jewellery-making adorn this celestial masterpiece. The Sun, encircled by yellow gold, yellow sapphires, and spessartite garnets, displays a core of diamonds set on over 500 gold stems.

Each planet is uniquely represented: Mercury with moonstone, Venus with rose gold, agate, and sapphires, Earth with chrysocolla, emeralds, and Paraíba-like tourmalines, the Moon with opal, Mars with carnelian, Jupiter with chalcedony and spessartite garnets, and Saturn with jasper.

Nine aventurine glass discs, each individually set in motion by the intricate mechanism beneath, bring the dial to life, evoking the vast expanse of the night sky. Together, the automaton and its celestial partners dance to their unique tempos, weaving a captivating tableau amidst the splendour of their jewelled universe.

2022: Art and Mechanics – Fontaine aux Oiseaux

The collection of extraordinary clocks by VC&A is a journey through time and imagination. These creations invite admiration and wonder, beckoning the viewer to look closer and delve deeper into the story they tell.

An example is the Fontaine aux Oiseaux automaton, VC&A’s second Extraordinary Object presented in 2022 after the Planétarium. An exquisite creation that combines on-demand animation and a retrograde time display, offering a captivating dual spectacle.

Upon activation, the automaton comes to life for about a minute, unveiling a tender scene of enchantment.

The water in the basin begins to ripple gently, as if touched by a light breeze, while a water lily slowly blooms, and a dragonfly ascends into the air, beating its wings and whirling delicately.

The birds at the basin’s edge awaken, their melodies resonating through an assembly that includes bellows and a clicking box, imitating chirping and beak sounds.

Engaging in a courtship display, the birds move their heads, wings, and articulated legs in a remarkably realistic movement. As the scene concludes, the dragonfly returns to its hideaway, the birds resume their original positions, and the water lily gracefully closes.

The Fontaine aux Oiseaux automaton production demanded the exceptional skills of craftsmen, including automaton maker François Junod and many artisans in Switzerland and France.

Nathalie Muller Ménager was one of them. At the helm of the Joaillerie Parisienne, jewellery workshop classified as a Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant (“Living Heritage enterprise”) by the French state, she has been deeply involved in jewellery for over 30 years.

After her initial experiences, including working in a family workshop, Ms Ménager established her own workshop in 2011, focusing exclusively on fine jewellery. Her workshop, recognised for its technical innovation and excellence in French craftsmanship, contributes to the most prestigious pieces for brands in the Place Vendôme.

The collaborative effort, which also embraced lapidaries, stone setters, enamelers, and cabinet-makers, pushed the boundaries of craftsmanship. Challenges, from breaking down the movement of the birds to crafting delicate wings and wavelets, required continuous research throughout the design and finishing stages. The total work time in VC&A’s workshops was over 4,300 hours, and the overall time was more than 25,200 hours.

The male and female birds, driven by a remarkably realistic movement and adorned with coloured sapphires, diamonds, and other precious stones, showcase meticulous craftsmanship. Opening the animation, the dragonfly boasts a body made of three sections in white gold set with diamonds, while its wings feature white mother-of-pearl inlaid with fine gold threads and plique-à-jour enamel. The water body of the automaton, composed of fifty slices of ornamental stones, undulates during the animation, providing an enchanting frame.

2022: Motion and Metamorphosis – Rêveries de Berylline

VC&A concluded the 2022 edition of W&W with the Rêveries de Berylline automaton, which translates as “Daydreams of Berylline”. The creation showcased a flower that comes to life on demand, unfolding its petals to reveal a delicate hummingbird poised for flight.

The flower was crafted from rose and yellow gold and adorned with yellow sapphires, mandarin garnets, diamonds, and lacquer; the captivating movement of the hummingbird was enhanced as its wings spread realistically, beating at a natural rhythm for a brief moment. The hummingbird then gracefully returns to the centre of the corolla, which simultaneously closes its petals around the bird.

The fantastical flower adorning the automaton is a masterpiece created through a collaborative effort with Catherine Nicolas, a lacquer artisan who won the Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF) distinction, an award bestowed every four years by the French state to accomplished craftspeople.

Utilising time-honoured Asian lacquer techniques, every one of the 36 petals was meticulously cover in lacquer, displaying delicate variations in hue that are remarkably consistent from petal to petal.

2023: Nature’s Elegance in Symphony – Floraison du Nénuphar

The following year, VC&A presented two new additional automatons that took centerstage on the W&W exhibition floor. The Floraison du Nénuphar presented the spectacle of a flowering water lily, building upon the aesthetic introduced the previous year with the Rêveries de Berylline automaton.

At the heart of this extraordinary piece is the delicate mechanism that orchestrates the opening of a flower on demand, revealing an exquisite butterfly within.

The meticulous craftsmanship dedicated to the butterfly’s lifelike takeoff, with wings adorned in white gold, emeralds, diamonds, turquoise, and plique-à-jour enamel, speaks volumes about the brand’s attention to detail.

As the butterfly takes flight, its wings move naturally, momentarily captivating the beholder. The wings, crafted with plique-à-jour enamel, allow light to pass through gracefully, creating an ethereal effect.

The butterfly, with a body structured in white gold and eyes represented by two emeralds, then returns to its position at the centre of the flower while its delicate petals gently close, completing the enchanting spectacle.

The flower, crafted in yellow gold and rose gold and adorned with yellow sapphires, spessartite garnets, diamonds, and lacquer, adds a touch of nature’s brilliance to the composition. A lily pad and stem emerge, guiding the viewer’s gaze toward a lacquered rose gold flower bud.

A white-gold fairy, set with three shades of blue sapphires, graces the base of the object, where a rotating ring indicates the hours. The harmonious blend of yellow gold, white gold, and carefully selected gemstones creates a mesmerising tableau that goes beyond the traditional notions of timekeeping.

To accompany this visual symphony, crystalline music, again, specifically composed for this automaton, resonates through a finely tuned chime, enhancing the sensory experience.

2023: Jewel Tones and Natural Beauty – Éveil du Cyclamen

Similar to the Floraison du Nénuphar, the second entrancing automaton of 2023, Éveil du Cyclamen, which translates as “Awakening of the Cyclamen [flower]”, came to life on a base composed of two pieces of green aventurine and a bowl crafted from purple jade.

The meticulous construction of this masterpiece showcased a base adorned with rose gold, yellow gold, white gold, pink sapphires, diamonds, purple jade, green aventurine, lacquer and black ebony, representing a symphony of colours and textures.

The focal point of this automaton is a delicate butterfly that gracefully flutters above the creation. The exquisite craftsmanship is evident in the interplay between white gold, emeralds, diamonds, lapis lazuli, and plique-à-jour enamel that adorn the butterfly. Every detail mimics the form and shimmering appearance of a real butterfly, showcasing the expertise of VC&A in high jewellery.

The scene unfolds amidst a floral arrangement depicting a bouquet of cyclamen. Each flower is airbrush-lacquered one by one in successive layers, displaying subtle nuances of pink and purple that remain identical from one bud to another.

Adding a final touch of elegance to this masterpiece priced at CHF2.58 million, a rose flower with lacquer and diamonds overlooks the rotating ring at the piece’s base, illuminating the passage of hours in a captivating dance.

2024: Masterpieces in Motion – Apparition des Baies and Bouton d’Or

This year VC&A’s showcased its continued dedication to artistic innovation by unveiling two extraordinary automatons inspired by Poetry of Time.

The Apparition des Baies and Bouton d’Or automatons, each standing at 30 cm high and crafted in collaboration with François Junod, celebrate the brand’s universe of beauty, nature, and feminine elegance. On-demand, these creations present the spectacle of an unfurling bouquet, revealing either a graceful bird or a ballerina-like fairy.

Apparition des Baies

The artisans, including lapidaries, enamelers, engravers, and gem setters, hand-fashioned every detail before lacquer artist Catherine Nicolas applied her expertise to the finishing touches.

The traditional lacquering process involves multiple steps, from pigment mixing to lacquer application, followed by careful sanding and polishing to achieve a flawless finish and ensure the vibrancy and depth of the final artwork.

The lacquered rose-gold leaves of the Apparition des Baies automaton fold inward to reveal a hidden marvel as the bouquet unfurls. A white-gold bird adorned with diamonds and sapphires takes flight with realistic movement before finding sanctuary within the automaton as the mechanical cycle closes the leaves around it.

The base of the Apparition des Baies, resting on two dalmatian jasper structures supporting a thulite bowl, is rich in details, including a white-gold butterfly and a rotating ring adorned with golden beads and diamond hour markers. As in previous creations, a crystalline melody, specially composed, accompanies this enchanting tableau.

Inspired by VC&A’s eponymous jewellery collection, the Bouton d’Or automaton reimagines the “paillette” motif in a radiant gold bouquet. Each paillette, lacquered in a spectrum of colours, including shades of blue, purple, pink, and red, is applied by hand to delicate stems.

A central fairy, clad in a blue-lacquered rose-gold dress and adorned with diamonds, dances atop a blooming flowerbed, her plique-à-jour enamel wings beating as she clasps a briolette-cut diamond between her fingertips.

Bouton d’Or

Legacy and Future of Enchantment

As this exploration of VC&A’s extraordinary clocks and automatons concludes, one is left with a profound sense of awe. In each creation, VC&A weaves enchanting tales, capturing moments of beauty, mystery, and wonder. Through their blend of history, craftsmanship, and artistic flair, VC&A continues to captivate and inspire, crafting pieces that are not just timekeepers but treasured narratives that carry within them the essence of its maker.

Innovation is not just confined to the movements and the mechanics of the automatons. It permeates every aspect of their creation, from the initial sketch to the final assembly. The designers and artisans work hand in hand, their combined talents giving birth to timepieces that are as innovative as they are beautiful.

The brand’s dedication to craftsmanship is evident in the meticulous attention paid to every detail, no matter how small. Every gear, every jewel, every brushstroke is a testament to the skill and dedication of the artisans.

As we look to the future, it is clear that the brand’s journey into this universe is far from over; it is an ongoing story of rare creativity, passion, and excellence. VC&A’s clocks and automatons will continue to enchant, inspire, and captivate, just as they have for over a century.

They are proof that the world of VC&A is, in fact, a universe of beauty, a realm of wonder, and a testament to the enduring power of art and craftsmanship. It is a world where time is not just a measure of moments but a celebration of life itself.

In the hands of VC&A, time is not just measured; it is transcended. Time becomes a narrative, a succession of moments frozen in beauty and elegance, each telling its own enchanting tale. These extraordinary clocks and automatons are more than just masterpieces of horological art; they are symbols of a legacy that continues to redefine the boundaries of luxury, beauty, and craftsmanship.


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