Journey through time: unveiling the artistry and precision at Cartier

My appreciation of watchmaking’s history, decoration and mechanics – and Cartier’s obsession with quality – deepens on an exclusive visit to the Swiss Manufacture.

By Debbie Hathway

Watch fans often begin their journey into this wondrous world of micromastery by becoming fascinated with the timepiece’s inner workings or the artistry displayed on the dial and case. The mechanically minded can quickly get to grips with the technical intricacies of the wristwatch while the magnificence of their outer decoration happily captivates admirers like me with less enthusiasm for wheels, pinions and levers. An invitation to tread the hallowed halls of the Cartier Manufacture, where cutting-edge technology and traditional craftsmanship exist side-by-side, gave me insight into both.

The state-of-the-art Manufacture extends across more than 30 000 square metres in La Chaux-de-Fonds in the canton of Neuchâtel. According to our guide, it was purpose-built in early 2000 to accommodate the entire production (from the design and development of the engineering movement prototyping to the manufacture, decoration, assembly, and quality control of the watches), savoir-faire, and the restoration workshop on one site. (Experts at the latter can repair and restore any timepiece the firm has ever produced.)

With 175 crafts represented, the Manufacture must produce watches that strike a rare balance between pioneering technology and traditional techniques, featuring handwork for polishing cases, plates, bridges and hands which can require several hours and multiple operations to complete. The setup is simple but highly effective, promoting efficient communication between departments and agility in switching production from model to model.

The goal is the maintenance of peerless workmanship and the defining mix of innovation and inspiration, which is the hallmark of the Cartier style. According to the Manufacture, “savoir-faire is a dialogue between creativity and technique, a permanent to-and-fro between designers, watchmakers, jewellers, gem-setters, polishers and gem-cutters. For Cartier, the important part of savoir-faire is the hyphen.”

Where magic happens

“Since the 17th century, no one thing has been beautified by so many different craftsmen,” writes GH Baille in his rare book, Watches. And nowhere is this more evident than Cartier’s Maison des Métiers d’Art, established for elite artisans to preserve old techniques by sharing expertise, and developing new decoration methods.

The atelier occupies a characterful Bernese-style farmhouse, a stone’s throw from the industrial environment of the production facility. Dating back to 1872, Cartier rebuilt the interior combining historical elements such as original woodwork and stone floors with modern design features like floor-to-ceiling windows. The downstairs area retains the 19th-century feel, and there’s a chiming windup wall clock in the boardroom (where the animals used to be kept). Upstairs is a quiet, light-filled haven of peace and creativity with views over a green valley dotted with houses and buildings. This is where you’ll find about 30 métier d’artistes highly skilled in granulation, enamelling, gem-setting and marquetry. The 10 000-hour rule applies, plus four years of basic art training, to those who wish to work here.

I saw the elements of Etruscan skill of granulation used to form the panther’s head on the Rotonde de Cartier watch dial revealed at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) in 2013. The ancient skill involves heating thin gold wire to form thousands of tiny balls, calibrated with a sieve-like device and strategically placed and fused into the dial to create a feline image with a special relief effect.

At another desk, a white lab-coated artisan sits contentedly working on a panther head for a jewellery watch, a lifelike masterpiece that owes its brilliance to rare expertise in jewellery-making, hand finishing, lacquering and polishing. This was further demonstrated in a sample of the Cartier Metiers D’Art Crash Tigrée Metamorphoses launched at Watches and Wonders (previously SIHH) last year. One of the most memorable pieces at the fair, the timepiece features a cocktail of diamonds, 18k gold and stripes of champlevé enamelling. It was the first ever Crash model to be enamelled.

The most unexpected discovery was a custom-made table saw, about five feet long, used for marquetry. It is powered by the artist, who taps on a wooden pedal to carefully trim tiny pieces needed to create abstract patterns for bird and animal faces. The needle-like saw can cut the delicate dried petals of some Ecuadorian roses, for example, and shape them to resemble a parrot’s feathers for the dial of a Ballon Bleu de Cartier watch. It can also succeed in cutting thin layers of wood and straw, which an electric saw would render too hot and burn.

If you are ever fortunate enough to make the list for one of these special timepieces or order a bespoke one, it could take a couple of years before you have it on your wrist and no doubt permanently in your collection.

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