The Persian Empire of Darius the Great, the golden age of Ancient Egypt, the Hellenistic period of Ancient Greece and the rise to power of Augustus, the first Roman emperor, are the historical anchor points of Vacheron Constantin’s new Métiers d’Art watch series. As part of the partnership with the Louvre initiated in 2019 and following intense collaboration with its curators and historians, the Maison has developed a series of four timepieces based on the museum’s ancient collections. True symbols of each era, these artistic masterpieces are at the centre of an exceptional watchmaking show staged by skilled craft makers.
Vacheron Constantin‘s Métiers d’Art collection is a unique opportunity to travel through time and space thanks to the talents of its master artisans. It is an opportunity to discover – or revisit – certain historical chapters or artistic and cultural symbols of our civilisations. From this perspective, the partnership initiated with the Louvre in 2019 offers an exceptional field of inspiration. In close collaboration with the museum’s teams, Vacheron Constantin’s designers and developers therefore undertook to create a new series of Métiers d’Art watches directly inspired by emblematic masterpieces of the Louvre.
Expressed across four eras, the main theme originated in the museum’s incredible collection of antiquities: the Persian Empire under Darius the Great; the Egypt of the pharaohs from the time of the Middle Kingdom; the Hellenistic period in Greece; and the birth of the Roman Empire with the advent of Augustus. Each of these great civilisations is thus represented by a major artistic work drawn from some of the Louvre’s masterpieces. The craft project involved a real challenge for craft makers that required reproducing their expressive strength on a less than 40 mm-diameter dial featuring ornamentation inspired by the decorative arts of the corresponding period, embellished with written elements. The choice of techniques, the rare talents required to implement them, as well as the original composition of these timepieces converge to offer a fascinating watchmaking spectacle, commensurate with these great moments in history.
A true cultural partnership
By joining forces with the Louvre in 2019, Vacheron Constantin initiated a veritable artistic and cultural partnership, in perfect keeping with its commitment to the celebration of beauty. This alliance echoes the respective heritages of the two institutions and the importance they attach to history, culture and heritage. Vacheron Constantin, founded in 1755, and the Louvre, which opened its doors to the public some 40 years later, in 1793, share a concern for archiving, conservation and restoration, with the promise of perpetuating the related arts and crafts. This shared attachment to the splendours of the past and the transmission of knowledge has already paved the way for several joint initiatives by the two partners. Vacheron Constantin has supported the restoration of the clock named La Création du Monde, a masterpiece of 18th century precision horology presented to King Louis XV in 1754. The Maison also participated in a recent on-line Louvre auction by offering a single-piece edition Les Cabinotiers, whose dial was to reproduce in enamel an artwork kept in the museum and selected by its buyer. Another achievement was the discovery of the art workshops of the two institutions through a series of videos illustrating a parallel between the work of their respective master artisans.
This collaboration has been further intensified with these new additions to the Vacheron Constantin Métiers d’Art collection. From the selection of themes to the choice of representative works, from iconographic research to historical documentation and proposals for contextual texts, Vacheron Constantin’s designers and creators have been able to count on the close collaboration of the Louvre’s teams in defining the craft techniques to be used to pay due homage to the masterpieces. These exchanges are part of the logic of sharing that unites the two institutions, in terms of best practices not only with regard to conservation, archiving and restoration, but also those of their craft makers. Since 2019, the cordial relations between Vacheron Constantin and the Louvre, experienced behind the scenes by both partners, have given rise to exceptional projects.
Four civilisations in the spotlight
Antiquity is to our modern world what the first astronomical observations are to clockmaking: a scientific and cultural foundation that has forged its destiny. These ancient civilisations – to which we owe the invention of writing, the birth of democracy, philosophical thought, monumental architecture and incomparable artistic achievements – will always remain essential references. Our languages originate from them; our customs are influenced by them; and our political organisations as well as our vision of the world are inspired by them.
In agreement with the teams at the Louvre – a museum that is a reference in the field of works from ancient civilisations – the choice of this period was quickly made from both cultural and artistic standpoints. The selection was based on four main themes covering as many great periods and ancient civilisations and four major works representing them. Thanks to the richness and originality of the themes and the exceptional quality of execution, these watches resulting from the collaboration between Vacheron Constantin and the Louvre all feature narrative content magnificently conveying the splendour of fine craftsmanship.
Grand sphinx de Tanis – the Ancient Egyptian Empire (2035-1680 BC)
The Great Sphinx of Tanis, capital of the kings of the 21st and 22nd dynasties, is 1.83 metres high and 4.80 metres long. It is one of the largest sphinxes preserved outside Egypt. It arrived in the Louvre in 1826, as part of the collection of the British consul Henry Salt. A royal symbol, the sphinx is a hybrid comprising the body of a recumbent lion and a human head wearing the Nemes – the royal headdress par excellence – as well as the beard worn only by sovereigns. All the power of the pharaoh that is expressed through this fabulous animal. Long attributed to the Old Kingdom (2700-2195 BC approx.), it is now more generally linked to the Middle Kingdom (approx. 2035-1680 BC), considered by the Egyptians themselves as the golden age of Egypt. It was probably carved for King Amenemhet II, whose cartouche it bears. Other kings appropriated it by affixing their cartouches: Apophis, Merenptah and Chechonq I.
Lion de Darius – the Persian Empire of the Achaemenids (559 – 330 BC)
The Frieze of Lions, a glazed brick decoration, was located in the first courtyard of the palace of Darius the Great in Susa, the capital of the Persian Achaemenid Empire in southwestern Iran. After freeing themselves from the control of the Medes and conquering Lydia, Babylon and Egypt, the Achaemenids formed one of the greatest empires to have ever existed in antiquity. With a territory stretching from present-day Pakistan to the shores of the Black Sea, and from the steppes of central Asia to Egypt and Libya, it united the oldest civilisations in the Middle East. Darius the Great is remembered for his confrontation with the Greek cities who succeeded in stopping his armies on the Plain of Marathon.
Victoire de Samothrace – Hellenistic Greece of the Antigonid dynasty (277 – 168 BC)
This statue of Victory, a winged goddess resting on the prow of a warship, was discovered in 1863 on the island of Samothrace in the northern Aegean Sea. Excavated from a sanctuary dedicated to the Great Gods, who were widely worshiped throughout the Greek world, it depicts an offering linked to a naval victory. Following the death of Alexander in 323 BC, his generals shared his legacy, giving rise to three great empires, including that of the Antigonid dynasty in Macedonia. During this Hellenistic period, which ended with the Roman conquest of Egypt in 31 BC, naval battles followed one another for the domination of the eastern part of the Mediterranean. One of them was majestically commemorated in the sanctuary of this small Greek island.
Buste d’ Auguste – The Roman Empire of the Julio-Claudians (27 BC – 68 AD)
This bust of Octavian Augustus, the adopted son of Caesar, represents him crowned with an oak wreath, a distinction awarded him by a Senate decision in 27 BC, when he became the principate or first citizen of Rome. In actual fact, following his conquest of Egypt, where he defeated Mark Antony, an ally of Cleopatra, he ended a long period of civil wars marking the end of the Republic and becomes master of Rome. He is now considered the first Roman emperor and lays the foundations of a political organization that would last another four centuries. The Julio-Claudian dynasty, of which he was the first “prince”, ended with the suicide of Nero in 68 AD.
A calibre dedicated to artistry
To power these Métiers d’Art Tribute to great civilisations watches, Vacheron Constantin has chosen its self-winding Manufacture Calibre 2460 G4/2, which features four discs indicating the hours, minutes, days and dates. The apertures for reading the time and calendar indications, symmetrically positioned around the dial periphery, thus leave a vast field of expression for the artisans. No hands disturb the view of these miniature masterpieces. On the back of the movement, beating at a rate of 4 Hz (28,800 vibrations per hour) and comprising 237 components, the oscillating weight has also received special attention. It features a depiction – based on an 18th century lithograph – of the east facade of the Louvre and its magnificent colonnade inspired by the work of Louis Le Vau and Claude Perrault, based on an 18th century etching. The matrix of the design was hand-sculpted and then used to stamp the twenty oscillating weights composing the series.
A clever composition
As the artistic composition of these watches includes the representation of symbolic works in the form of sculpted appliques, as well as various written and ornamental elements, Vacheron Constantin has devised a system of nesting several constituent parts. The movement is topped by the dial surrounded by a frieze. These two distinct and concentric components provide scope to express the talents of the master artisans. The dial ornamentation is inspired by works in the Louvre collections representing the decorative arts of different periods: Roman mosaics; a painted Egyptian coffin; painted or bas-relief sculpted Greek ceramics and vases; and a frieze of Babylonian-inspired bricks with coloured glazes. A sapphire crystal bearing a sculpted gold applique depicting one of the four major works of ancient period sculpture is then placed on the dial. This same slightly smoked crystal is also engraved using metallisation with texts in cuneiform, hieroglyphic, ancient Greek and Latin script, depending on the model. They respectively feature an extract of the founding charter of the Palace of Darius; a transcription of the cartouche of the pharaoh Menenptah engraved on the sphinx of Tanis; a dedication to the Great Gods of Samothrace discovered in the Temple of Samothrace; as well as an invocation to the emperor Augustus engraved on a Roman stele found in Algeria. Once these various elements have been placed on top of the movement, the case can then be sealed with the outer crystal.
The dial and its frieze are thus composed of several “decorative” elements taken from various works of the same period as the one depicted in the applique. To create these splendid backgrounds, Vacheron Constantin has opted for different techniques implemented by various craft makers.
Champlevé enamel and grisaille enamel
Enamelling is a decorative technique in which coloured glass or enamel pigments are finely ground and mixed with water or oil and applied to a metal surface. This paste is then fired at a high temperature to form a resistant surface that becomes one with its base. Champlevé enamel consists of creating cavities in which the enamels are applied. The successive layers are fired in a kiln. Grisaille enamel is a technique that appeared in the 16th century and consists of applying white enamel touches to an underlying dark enamel dial coating. Each layer of enamel is also fired at over 800° C.
Rarely used in watchmaking, stone marquetry consists of forming patterns using fragments of coloured stones calibrated according to requirements. This operation is all the more delicate as each stone is different, with some being veined and therefore more fragile. These fragments are assembled and glued one by one without any binder between the stones. This construction leaves tiny spaces between the components, giving relief and depth to the composition.
This extremely rare technique in watchmaking refers to mosaic work in which the tiny elements of hard stones forming the decoration are very finely assembled and glued in such a way as to render the joints that seal them practically invisible. The size of the stones – tiny squares measuring just 0.55 millimetres each – makes this type of ornamentation particularly delicate, not only in the composition of the motifs but also in the way it is set with a binder.
The art of hand engraving consists of creating decorations in hollow, in relief or in the form of a model out of the metal. The pounced ornament technique used here for the carved gold sconces is called ramolayage. It consists of removing the material to model the relief. Irreversible, this operation requires a perfectly assured gesture. The master engraver first draws the main volumes with a drypoint. Then he sculpts the mass and makes a particularly delicate rounding whose contours are accentuated by patina. This trompe l’oeil technique is particularly suitable for creating the illusion of depth of field. Some friezes are made in intaglio or engraving by digging the material.
Métiers d’Art Tribute to great civilisations – Grand sphinx de Tanis
Sphinx is the Greek word used to refer to Egyptian statues of lions with human heads. A correlation has been made in the past with the Egyptian term shesep-ânkh. This term is in fact used to designate a statue in general, in other words a “living image”, to use the Egyptian concept. Royal symbols, sphinxes are often aligned on either side of the processional routes leading to the temples. On this monumental Grand sphinx de Tanis model, the work of cutting the stone with polished surfaces is admirable in its precision. For the engraver of the carved gold applique representing the head of the sphinx, one of the difficulties – in addition to that of modelling the faces – lay in rendering the large false beard within such a small space. The master artisan had to work in relief using the pounced ornament technique, despite the thinness of the plate, before accentuating the depth effect by patinating the material with a blowtorch and then by hand.
The main dial is made of enamel whose deep colour, a mixture of blue and black enamels, is obtained after six firings in the kiln.
The decorative dial elements are inspired by the necklace depicted on the cartonnage coffin of Nakht-khonsou-irou. During the 22nd dynasty, the mummy of the deceased was placed in wrappings or a coffin in cartonnage, a material composed of several layers of glued, stuccoed and painted cloth.
These wrappings and coffins show the image of the deceased in his shroud adorned with numerous protective, brightly coloured motifs. He is protected for eternity by the great funerary god Osiris and various other deities. The chest is always covered by a large necklace composed of geometric and floral motifs. The necklace is trimmed with petals that are reproduced in champlevé enamel sprinkled with inclusions to give the outer frieze an aged appearance. Under this necklace, a winged hawk with a ram’s head appears and the plumage of its wings is picked up on the dial – again in champlevé enamel. The last cultural component is the sapphire crystal bearing the gold applique and engraved by metallisation with hieroglyphic inscriptions from a cartouche of the sphynx of Tanis. This one indicates the name of the pharaoh Merenptah (1213 – 1203 B.C.), son and successor of Ramses II under the heading: “The king of Upper and Lower Egypt Ba-en-Ra-mery-Amon. The son of Ra Merenptah who is satisfied with the Ma’at, endowed with eternal life”. This Métiers d’Art Tribute to great civilisations – Grand sphinx de Tanis watch expresses all the majesty of the Egypt of the pharaohs.
Métiers d’Art Tribute to great civilisations – Lion de Darius
The frieze of lions is one of the few decorative elements of the Palace of Darius in Susa that was found on-site, in the first courtyard that welcomed visitors. This animal decoration was an important part of the iconography of Persian palaces, but also, before them, of Assyrian and Babylonian palaces. The lion symbol – representing both a royal animal and a divine attribute – were frequently found in these pleasure gardens and hunting reserves intended for the Persian monarchs and for the Assyrian sovereigns before them.
The prominent frieze of lions was thus a declaration of royal power, embodied by the king of animals. Made of siliceous glazed bricks that are bound with lime mortar, this decoration mingling realism and powerful stylisation is exemplary of masterpieces of Achaemenid Persian art. For the engraver of the applique depicting one of the lions, the challenge was to achieve an accurate rendering that matched the advanced stylisation of the muscles and fur of the noble creature’s mane that can be seen on the original.
As the lions are part of a frieze, the watch face in the background had to represent this decoration of glazed bricks affixed to a wall. To achieve this, the artisans opted for stone marquetry; and to accentuate the realistic look, they chose stone fragments with veins, which are by definition more fragile than those without. Given the large amount of waste in the cutting of the stones, three successive orders had to be made to finally obtain the 69 components of this marquetry, different in appearance and size. Compared to the model, the much brighter colour of the stones reproduces the appearance of the frieze as it was originally intended to be, before the shades faded. Given these colour constraints, combined with the technical difficulties of the mosaic, the relatively limited choice of stones was turquoise and yellow mochaite jasper. The frieze surrounding the dial was inspired by the decoration of another well-known work from the Palace of Darius: the Frieze of Archers. This ornamentation, consisting of a juxtaposition of triangles, is made of engraved metal and champlevé enamel with “ageing” inclusions. The writing elements engraved by metallisation on the sapphire crystal are taken from a tablet inscribed in Old Persian. This text in cuneiform script is one of the first written by Darius upon his arrival in power. It is a foundation charter for his palace. This Métiers d’Art Tribute to great civilisations – Lion de Darius watch revives its full splendour.
Métiers d’Art Tribute to great civilisations – Victoire de Samothrace
This Victoire de Samothrace, Niké in Greek, is a peerless masterpiece of Hellenistic sculpture, due to the virtuosity of its white Parian marble carving and the ingenuity of its construction, which depicts a goddess standing on the bow of a ship. The name of the sculptor is not known, but the technique is reminiscent of the figures in the Gigantomachy frieze adorning the Great Altar of Zeus in Pergamon (180-160 BC). These two works are the best illustrations of a movement of sculptures typical of the second century BC. The work must be seen in the context of the offerings made at the sanctuary on Samothrace. Whether humble or splendid, these offerings were made in considerable numbers during this period of struggles for the eastern Mediterranean in order to thank the benevolent gods in honour of a naval victory or a rescue at sea. This victory is most often associated with the battles of Side and Myonnesus on the coasts of Asia Minor in 190 and 189 BC. These two battles saw the kingdom of Pergamon, allied with the Rhodians and the Romans, triumph over its traditional enemies, the kingdoms of Antioch and Macedonia. The drapery of the statue, ruffled by the wind with a large flow of fabric falling in deep folds between the legs, represented a major difficulty for the engraver in charge of reproducing all its subtleties.
The centre of the main dial is enamelled in brown, a colour that is very difficult to achieve and required a mixture of rare enamels that are indeed no longer produced as well as six firings in the kiln. The periphery features grisaille enamelling depicting the decorative friezes taken from two Greek vases. These ceramic objects bearing red-painted geometrical figures feature various ornaments with foliage or geometric motifs, which are picked up on the dial. The latter is also surrounded by a gold frieze adorned using the line engraving technique, inspired by that of the Vase of Pergamon, a first century BC masterpiece of marble sculpted in bas-relief. The ancient Greek script engraved by metallisation on the sapphire crystal bearing the applied Victory is taken from a second AD votive stele discovered in Samothrace. This work is a list of Athenian initiates to the mysteries of the Great Gods of the island under the guidance of a certain Socrates – a name evoking the ageless glory of Greece masterfully celebrated by this Métiers d’Art Tribute to great civilisations – Victoire de Samothrace watch.
Métiers d’Art Tribute to great civilisations – Buste d’Auguste
Shown wearing the oak headdress, Augustus appears older in this marble bust than in other crowned effigies, often linked to the date when he was honoured by the Senate with the civic crown in 27 BC. Whereas Augustus was 36 in this year marking the start of the Roman Empire, the portrait is that of a man in his fifties. As is often the case with this type of depiction, the principate’s hair falls in heavy locks over his forehead. We see an emaciated sovereign, as he was at the dawn of his old age. His features are nonetheless the subject of an idealisation conveyed on the coins made in the workshops of Rome and distributed throughout the Empire. The breastplated bust indicates that the emperor is represented as a warlord, in order to emphasise that his authority originated exclusively from the will – albeit fictitious – of the citizens. The carved gold applique reproducing this Buste d’Auguste offers a striking sight in which the drape of the cape accompanying the breast plate, secured by a fibula, echoes the curling locks held by the oak crown.
The centre of the dial is enamelled in blue-green, while its periphery is adorned with stone micro-mosaic. This is the famous fourth-century mosaic discovered in Lod, Israel, that served as the inspiration for the ornamentation motifs found on the dial periphery. The difficulty for the master lay in the fact that any error in the positioning and gluing of the tiny hard stone fragments would have required re-enamelling the Grand Feu dial used as a base. Meticulous care was required when adjusting the stones so as to follow the contours of the motifs and their colours. No less than seven different types of stones – 660 in all – were used to compose this micro-mosaic: quartzite, cacholong, dumortierite, mochaite, red jasper, grossular, red aventurine. For the outer frieze in white gold, featuring line engraving and patinated by firing in the kiln, another mosaic served as inspiration: the one depicting animals playing musical instruments, also from the fourth century and discovered in Sousse, a port city in eastern Tunisia. The Latin script engraved on the sapphire crystal bearing the bust of Augustus are drawn from a dedication addressed to the Genius (divine protector) of the city of Rusicada (Skikda in Algeria). The text commemorates its installation by a local dignitary who opens his invocation with a tribute to the emperor. The very one that endows this Métiers d’Art Tribute to great civilisations – Buste d’Auguste watch with its unmistakable aura of immortality.