For now many years, Van Cleef & Arpels has been occupying a special segment in the watchmaking world thanks to its “Poetic Complications” collection. The watches within this collection express the encounter between the delicate and mischievous universe of Van Cleef & Arpels and the extreme technicality of high-level movements. Staging some of the favourite themes of the Maison from the Place Vendôme, they offer much more than just an alternate reading of time through retrograde displays, astronomic or unconventional complications. These watches convey a completely different relation with the passing time, where the hour indicators are no more than a pretext to experience graceful and magic moments.
What makes the “Poetic Complications” all the more remarkable is that their technical dimension – in itself highly creative, innovative and resulting from the work of prestigious watchmakers – ultimately gives way to the emotion generated by the dial. By following a fairy or a ballerina with your eyes, by observing the journey of a bird or a butterfly, you inevitably forget about the hundreds of interconnected pieces within the case, however crucial they might be to bring these animations to life.
The Lady Arpels Ronde des Papillons is one of these rare watches where everything just seems so natural and smooth despite the underlying complexity of the mechanism. Van Cleef & Arpels reinterprets several of its favourite themes by combining on one same dial a lucky swallow, fragile butterflies and light, fluffy clouds. All these elements are harmoniously positioned around the dial and create an aerial scenery that indicates time. The swallow is devoted to indicating the hours with its left wing on a graduated scale from 0 to 12. In the context of the “Poetic Complications” collection, we can say this is a relatively normal display of time since it is done through a retrograde system, whereby the swallow automatically flies back to zero at the end of the eleventh hour.
It would however be wrong to consider the Lady Arpels Ronde des Papillons as a mere reinterpretation of a previously used display mechanism. Indeed, the major difference resides in the behaviour of the butterflies whose mission is to indicate the minutes. It is extremely rare to see a dial where the minutes’ display has been separated in three distinct parts. And it is even more rare when one realizes that these parts do not all have the same duration: after an initial 30 minutes segment come two successive 15 minutes segments. This somewhat strange distribution only follows one objective: to glorify the butterflies’ movements.
If you take a close look at the minute graduation, you will notice that the 5 minutes intervals do not all have the same length. This is precisely one of the specific elements that make this watch so original: the butterflies do not fly at a constant speed! The trick lies in the usage of an elliptic wheel, which, as it rotates, accelerates and slows down their travelling speed.
You might be wondering what the purpose of this really is. After all, how on earth could you notice the difference in speed if the butterfly requires one complete hour to cover the entire distance on the graduated minute scale? Van Cleef & Arpels obviously thought about this detail by enabling the user to launch the butterfly dance “on demand” by simply pressing the push piece on the left side of the case. The butterflies suddenly take off, one after the other, and finally end up hiding behind the clouds once their round dance gracefully accomplished. A visually captivating spectacle that enables us to witness a wonderful 10 second-long ballet. This being a mechanical animation, the movement is very slightly jerky…which actually confers an additional and absolutely charming sense of fragility. Last but not least, the Lady Arpels Ronde des Papillons is an intelligent mechanism as the butterflies ultimately fly back to their initial positions, which indicate time integrating the duration of the actual animation.
The movement that equips this watch has enough power to operate the module of retrograde jumping hours (the swallow), the variable speed minute indicators (the butterflies) as well as the “on demand” animation so exclusive to Van Cleef & Arpels. With a case diameter of 38mm, the movement remains of reasonable size yet its power reserve remains below 40 hours, which is quite normal considering the restricted available space. The automatic base calibre is produced by ValFleurier and animates the entire complex display mechanism. The downside of such a movement structure is to be found in the relative thickness of the case with a height of just over 13mm. However, these proportions also account for the staggering depth effects offered by the dial and its fluffy clouds positioned on different levels.
The case back and oscillating rotor also deserve a special mention for their original aesthetics, which remind us of what is happening on the dial side of the watch. All the main actors are present again: the swallow on the bezel, the clouds on the glass and of course the three butterflies on the oscillating rotor. The butterflies’ round dance therefore offers its mesmerizing spectacle on both sides of the watch!
The Lady Arpels Ronde des Papillons wouldn’t distil such a magical dimension if the quality of its execution did not match its mechanical prowess. But Van Cleef & Arpels demonstrates once again its decorative mastery through the enlightened combination of several artistic crafts. My preferred elements are undoubtedly the mother-of-pearl dial and clouds. They depict a subtle and bright sky, full of transparency and light reflections. The butterflies and the swallow are in white gold and their miniature painting decoration provides sufficient contrast with the dial to ensure a very good readability of the time…and a perfect enjoyment of the animation! Approximately one hundred diamonds are delicately set around the bezel and bring an additional touch of glitter as they beautifully integrate around the animated dial.
By the end of the 2016 edition of the SIHH, there was no doubt about it: the Lady Arpels Ronde des Papillons was on the all-round podium of my preferred SIHH watches, all men and ladies watches included. The reason for my choice is actually quite simple: beyond the quality of its execution and its mechanical prowess, this watch is above all playful and interactive. Through the enchanting butterfly ballet, it enables its fortunate owner to play with time. Isn’t that the nicest of all privileges?
– François-Xavier Overstake, Equation du Temps