WRITER: Nadine Khalil
Much more than makers of scarves and saddlebags, the venerable House of Hermès are past masters of timepieces, as their gorgeous new offering, the Arceau Lift, attests.
When I think of Hermès – and I don’t mean the Greek god of transitions, although this would work quite well here – the first image that comes to mind is a distinctive silk scarf, colourfully printed, feminine and loosely knotted. Hermès the brand even has a knot-tying app showing the various ways you can wear their clever designs. All this is to say that for me at least, the house really isn’t about watches.
So naturally, I am intrigued when the venerable house invites me to the launch of their new watch, the Arceau Lift. Don’t misunderstand me. I may never have associated Hermès with haute horlogerie before but the first time I discovered the Arceau line, it left a strong impression.
That was at this year’s Baselworld, where the house was presenting Le Temps Suspendu, a watch from the line. It allows you to metaphorically stop time by pressing a button that freezes the hour and minute hands at 12. To the naked eye, time seems to stop. In fact, it marches on invisibly (and precisely) behind the frozen face, it’s just that you can’t see it on the dial. This complication is aimed at anyone who wants to exert their will on Time. One click and a moment or an experience can be prolonged for as long as you like, allowing you to dream a little. Click the same button again and time continues once more.
This complication, a sophisticated mechanism unique to Hermès, coordinates both running and suspended time phases via a 360-degree retrograde hour and minute mechanism. When you momentarily freeze time, the movement continues, driven by another wheel that whirls backwards. It’s a skillful trick that’s less technical marvel than philosophical exercise in imagination.
“Our technique is to develop a poetry or philosophy of time, not just a measure of time,” explains Philippe Delhotal, creative director of La Montre Hermès, at the flagship boutique in Paris. “By not showing the movement, time becomes a concept. We are trying to create a new concept in our timepieces of exception.”
We are on luxurious Rue de Faubourg Saint-Honoré, a stone’s throw from brands like Prada and Chanel. This is house’s oldest premises, dating back to 1880 and at 1,700 square metres, it’s also its largest.
Hermès began life as harness-makers. That was in the 1830s. A century later, as the horse-drawn carriage gave way to the motorcar, it had already moved from saddlery to travelling bags, silk scarves and timekeeping.
Inside the neoclassical space, there are displays of the items you would expect of Hermès; silk scarves and ties, the famous Kelly and Birkin bags, other leather goods and even tableware.
We are taken to what seems like a hidden corner of the store, behind the central showroom, where the watches are presented in an unusual adjoining ‘day’ and ‘night’ room – the latter being a sedate, conference room screened in midnight blue for consultation with clients. In the former, there is a spectacular array of display cases. Their yellow pentagonal bases bristle metal rays that project up from every point, to hit the ceiling like light beams. The watches are displayed in the middle of these caged structures.
The detailed workmanship of the various pieces is truly impressive. There’s the intricate straw marquetry of the Arceau H Cube watch, with its dial set in interwoven patterns of coloured straw while the Rocabar Quartet from the Cape Cod line is embellished with stylised, geometric enamel horses.
It’s with the Arceau Lift that Hermès has taken their penchant for the aesthetic and focus on the artisanal to a new level. It’s the brand’s first flying tourbillon watch. Hermès has been making watches since 1912 but this is the first time they’ve designed such a complicated complication. When you then learn that the first wristwatch, made in 1912 for Jaqueline Hermès, the granddaughter of founder Thierry, was a pocket watch that functioned as both bracelet and leather pouch holder so it wouldn’t slip out of her pocket, you understand why. Watches here were initially developed more as accessories.
“Developing the men’s market is a new direction for us,” Luc Perramond, CEO of La Montre Hermès explains, “which means we have to develop the technical side and reposition ourselves from being a brand at which 85 per cent of our watches were for ladies and were quartz. A third of our sales go to men and we’d like to capture a bigger share.”
“If you look at Chanel for instance, it is 120 per cent feminine. At Hermès however, men feel comfortable walking into our stores for shoes or bags. Now, with our watchmaking, we are attracting new clients who are entering the world of Hermès through our watches.”
Surveying the Arceau Lift as Delhotal takes us through the features, this seems quite believable. Forget the whirling, revolving cage that is emblematic of the flying tourbillon. What makes the Arceau Lift so special are the double ‘H’ motifs on the tourbillon carriage and on the barrel bridge. The two sets are handcrafted and so are not precisely the same. While the upper part remains fixed in place, the two H’s on the lower section covering the tourbillon carriage, spin with the movement to mesmerizing effect, marrying the haute horological with the purely decorative. Made of 170 parts and taking 80 hours of craftsmanship to assemble, the Lift is more than just a technical achievement. Those interlocked H’s represent the union of Charles-Émile Hermès (the founder’s grandson) and Julie Hollande at the beginning of the 20th century. You will find their interlocked H’s elsewhere in the store. They appear as a leitmotif on the wrought iron handrails and banisters and notably on top of the lift installed in 1923 and after which the watch is named. With its steely double H’s, the Lift retains the industrial feel of the wrought iron that was so widely used at the time. It’s an ode to Hermès’ history and a nod to its movement towards the future.
As we enter the cramped interior of the old lift to see the rest of the store, I reflect on its namesake’s whirling carriage, similarly tightly encapsulated and in motion. I think back to how Delhotal explained that his creative vision towards watchmaking is driven by the aim to create a sense of airiness and elegance, a sense of flight and an invitation to dream.
The airy poise is as evident in their knotted silk as it is in their sober, innovative watches. The Hermès logo, a Duc carriage, which is also lovingly engraved on the back of the Arceau Lift watch, seems to symbolise this vision of moving forward, however slowly.
WHAT Hermès’ new Arceau Lift watch
PRICE 170,000 USD
FACTS The mechanical hand-wound movement has a power reserve of 90 hours. It is limited to 176 pieces.
WHY Far from resting on their laurels as the world’s most valuable luxury brand, it’s wonderful to see the house advance so valiantly into the male-oriented world of horological complications.