Van Cleef & Arpels has a trademark on the term “poetic complications” which is almost superfluous given the jewellery house’s ability to invent timepieces that proffer a heady cocktail of charm and ground-breaking horology. The latest to emerge from Van Cleef is no different, save in the strength of the blend and how the watch was produced.
The Lady Arpels Papillon Automate is, firstly, the most charming watch that happens to have a butterfly automaton nestling in the dial. The very Van Cleef & Arpels palette is, naturally enough, expressed in enamels and beautifully matched coloured gem-stones, and every so often the butterfly’s enamel wings flutter a few times.
Look a little closer and the 3D aspect of the design becomes apparent with the flowers, leaves and stems being realised in a tight but nevertheless surprisingly deep composition under the crystal. When the butterfly’s wings are closed you can just see them from the side of the watch.
Look closer again and you can see the extreme attention to detail that characterises everything the house does. There’s a range of carefully deployed setting techniques, and graduations of colour that are so subtle as to be barely visible.
The wings taper in thickness away from the butterfly body, while the little moon reflection under the time hands has a curious stippled texture. The more you apply your loupe to the watch, the more you are rewarded with detail rendered in tiny fractions of a millimetre.
That would be enough to make this an exceptional timepiece. Except that the surface of the Papillon conceals some very clever thinking, incredible expertise in both jewellery and horology and an insight into the future of the maison itself.
To stay with the jewellery aspect for a moment longer, there is champlevé, plique-à-jour and paillonné enamel techniques, mother-of-pearl (which Van Cleef does like almost no-one else) and setting techniques that are as much engineering and distribution theory as artisanal excellence, as stones are set within separations measured in the hundredths of a millimetre. And it’s that combination of engineering and artistry that makes the Papillon exceptional.
Incredibly, the watch has mechanical system that’s entirely new in horology, an event that barely ever happens. The butterfly’s wings flutter what appears to be a random sequence. There’s an irregular wheel that causes the flutter mechanism to activate at gaps of three to ten minutes while the number of flutters depends on how wound up the barrel spring is.
What gives the approximation of random action is that the speed at which the control wheel turns is linked to the winding rotor through a differential gear – the more active the wearer is, the faster the wheel turns and the more the butterfly wings flutter.
A Van Cleef & Arpels Timepiece offers more than art, beauty, or history. It represents the very Poetry of Time™. And that’s what makes Van Cleef & Arpels unlike any other maison – who else would hide such horological fireworks so completely? (Fw: James Gurney)