Watches: Cartier d'Art Collection 2014

By Thierry Ané on March 21, 2014

Since its origins, fine watchmaking has always been about more than just technical prowess and the quest for ultimate precision. Early on, watchmakers did their best to make their clocks and pocket watches as beautiful as they were innovative. And the aesthetic effort was not limited to the outside: the movement too was the centre of attention, a perfect playground to showcase the watchmaker’s expertise and refinement.

Although ever-present in the history of wristwatches, the decorative arts took up a new dimension in recent years, mainly at the instigation of Vacheron Constantin and their sensational “Les Masques” collection initiated in 2007 (with Alaska, China, Congo and Indonesia that year).

Suddenly, decorative techniques were no longer used to cast a favourable light on the movement, they became an end per se, a new direction for Haute Horology. The watch ceased to be perceived as mere instrument of time measurement to take on the enviable status of work-of-art!

Which brand would not long for the prestige such timepieces could bring in terms of image? Very understandably, many have tried (or still do) to build legitimacy in this field with creations of questionable taste. Jumping on the bandwagon is not enough though, one has to master age-old and sometimes almost extinct decorative techniques and be able to use them with a unique sense of inspiration.

In my humble opinion, only two brands reign supreme over this exciting watchmaking niche: Vacheron Constantin (“Métiers d’Art” collection) and Cartier (“Cartier d’Art” collection). Gem-setting, enamelling, engraving, guilloché, maki-e lacquer, reproductions, miniature painting as well as all sorts of marquetry and mosaic techniques have been used to create spectacular dials and place the brand in the limelight.

Every year at the SIHH each brand with its very own artistic sense and unbridled imagination mesmerises us with precious and unforgettable creations. Although they remain beyond reach for most watch aficionados, their existence makes the watch world culturally richer.

I have already presented some of Vacheron Constantin’s introductions and I will surely discuss the remaining “Métiers d’Art” models. But today, I would like to draw your attention to Cartier’s 2014 vintage of the “Cartier d’Art” collection.

It has been an extremely productive year for Cartier with stunning models for men and women alike. Creatively, they relied on some on the decorative techniques they introduced over the years but also show their constant search to push the artistic boundaries by introducing some new skills that I will comment on below. What I also really appreciate is their ability to create pieces that combine the best of both worlds: the amazing movements developed by Carole Forestier-Kasapi and her team and the battery of decorative techniques at the brand’s disposal… Absolutely outstanding!

Ballon Bleu Flying Tourbillon 46mm Hawk Engraved Mother-of-Pearl

Introduced in 2009, the Ballon Bleu Flying Tourbillon is an amazing piece of fine watchmaking that bears the prestigious Hallmark of Geneva. The brand changed nothing to the superb in-house 9452 MC calibre or to the beautifully curved 46 mm pink gold Ballon Bleu case. They just used the uncluttered dial to express their creativity.

In this instance, the watch has been adorned with an incredibly detailed Hawk. The majestic bird of prey is engraved directly onto mother-of-pearl. The details of the bird’s plumage are created by variations in thickness and the hawk is brought to life by the gleam of gold leaves that Cartier combined with mother-of-pearl for the first time on this masterpiece.

If the light of this sensational plumage is not enough for you, a jewellery version with a bezel set with baguette-cut diamonds is also available.

Rotonde Mysterious Double Tourbillon Bengal Tiger Stone Mosaic

To my knowledge, Cartier is the only brand that has used stone mosaic in watchmaking. When you think at the microscopic size of the pieces of stones necessary to form a motif and the difficulty inherent to stone cutting, you will easily understand why.

Despite these technical challenges, Cartier first resorted to this method in 2011 to create the Rotonde Turtle Mosaic as well as in 2012 for the Santos-Dumont XL Horse Mosaic. Composed of more than 500 tiny tiles of many different types of gemstones, these dials are absolutely breathtaking.

Impressive as these creations may have been artistically, they remained simple on a horological viewpoint since both models were time-only watches. This year, Cartier upped the ante by using the already hypnotic Rotonde Mysterious Double Tourbillon as the “base” for this decorative piece (can we decently speak of a “base” for such a refined piece of horology animated by the in-house 9454 MC calibre with Geneva Seal?).

The Rotonde Mysterious Double Tourbillon Bengal Tiger Stone Mosaic is in my opinion the most beautiful “Cartier d’Art” model of the year. The body of the Bengal tiger is absolutely amazing. Based on a delicate white gold structure, it is covered with white cachalong tiles on a background of lapis lazuli and blue agate.

Here again, if you need the light of sparkling diamonds to better see the impressive work on the dial, a Bengal Tiger Diamonds as well as a Bengal Tiger Pavé are also available. For me though, and despite my love for diamonds, here I think that they are a distraction: all I want to focus on is the dial.

Rotonde Mysterious Hours Panther Grisaille Enamel Diamonds

Cartier lists the next piece as part of the female models but I really can’t see why. It is a “Cartier d’Art” version of the Rotonde Mysterious Hours introduced last year. The Rotonde Mysterious Hours Panther Grisaille Enamel retains the same movement and the Rotonde 42 mm case, albeit in yellow gold with a ring of brilliant-cut diamonds on the bezel. Does this make it more feminine? I would not mind wearing this watch, but that is just me….

For this model, the brand explores another new artisanal technique: grisaille gold paste enamelling. Gold paste is fired several times then carefully poured directly into black enamel, giving the panther a unique sheen. This is a very poetic piece and the “mystery” is not necessarily where we think it is. The sapphire of the mysterious hours looks like a moon at which the feline is staring.

Ballon Bleu Floral-Marquetry Parrot Diamonds

I have already extensively discussed the [post Ballon Bleu Floral-Marquetry Parrot] in a previous standalone article that I encourage you to browse at least for the pictures it contains. They will show you how this floral marquetry (a new metier d’art introduced this year by Cartier) is actually done.

Floral petals are carefully cut and assembled on a thin wooden box to form the plumage of the parrot. Needless to say, the technique is extremely delicate (as the raw material it uses) but the result is absolutely unique. To provide some contrast, the beak of the Floral-Marquetry Parrot is engraved in onyx and the eye is symbolised by an emerald.

Ronde Louis Cartier XL Toucan Plique-à-Jour Enamel Diamonds

Last but definitely not least, the Ronde Louis Cartier XL Toucan Plique-à-Jour Enamel is created using the same technique as the Rotonde Polar Bear Paillonné Enamel model that the brand unveiled in 2011.

Although plique-à-jour enamelling dates back to the 14th century, it is now very rare and would be a dying art if not supported by brands like Cartier. To produce this elegant dial, the artisan assembles enamel plates of different thickness on a delicate gold framework. Their colours vary in opacity and when the light shines on the three superimposed plates, the motif (here a toucan) comes to life.