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Libre by name, libre by nature – Cartier's designers whip up jeweled watches in weird and wonderful permutations for an annual limited-edition collection called Cartier Libre.

When Cartier reinvents a small selection of jeweled classic watches each year, imaginations are given free reign to rethink timepiece design.


For connoisseurs and debutantes alike, a Cartier watch is the sine qua non of timekeeping luxury. Once a year, Cartier prepares a special treat for its clients: taking three or four models and re-imagining them in striking, market-defying ways, it produces a comparatively minuscule collection called Cartier Libre.

Born in 2002, Cartier Libre was Cartier's response to annual requests from clients for "something a bit special," according to Cyrille Vigneron, Managing Director of Cartier France. That something has seen watches look like they were being pulled this way and that, swelling into bubbles, stretched to points like this season's Calisson or twisted into a pear-shape diamond-filled loop as in the Baignoire Crash.

The classic Tank, reborn as the Tank Crash, in 18-carat yellow, rose or white gold, is the undisputed star of the season. As if it's been smashed head on, with a trompe l'oeil displaced case, the watch is set with expertly-graded diamonds and requires three dials. Vigneron admits a particular weakness for the rose gold model, which he deems the most beautiful.

The company's watch-making workshops are in Switzerland, but for the design team based in Paris the brief is to be as creative as possible. Libre by name, libre by nature, there are technically no limits to price or materials, but since these are, at heart, functional watches, their basic time-telling ability is not overshadowed by the streams of baguette diamonds that more ostentatiously ornate models might be decorated with. As Vigneron notes, "They are not the most expensive, but for sure they are the most creative."

Owing to the intricacy of their manufacture and the uniqueness of their design, Cartier Libre watches are necessarily limited in number, and to date no special bespoke versions have been requested. The biggest run was a reincarnation of the Himalaya watch with around 50 models produced for global distribution; whereas this season's Calisson stretches to about 10. "Depending on the model, the complexity of making it, and whether we think there's a number of clients that would be interested, it can be from one to fifty," Vigneron says. A limited life of one year can be extended to two if the watch proves to be a roaring success. In the past the Hypnose model sold out instantly. In such cases, even displaying a watch in a store display case can be an impossibility.

With such prized, hard-to-secure timepieces that experience short or non-existent shelf-lives, the collector route is an obvious one. From the watches' first unveiling at SIHH (Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie) in Geneva each spring to private exhibition and one-on-one introductions to good clients, the enthusiastic and focused collector is better poised than most to snap up the choicest pieces.

Collectors like models with a story, such as the French client who fell in love with the rare 1940s Cartier London-produced Tank Américaine worn by Ralph Lauren in his advertising, and ended up obsessively trawling the world's watch auctions before finally securing one of his own. When he worked in Japan, Vigneron encountered one man with a collection some 650 odd watches, but he says that usually committed collectors are more likely to have in the region of 60 models.

When it comes to collectors of Cartier Libre watches, Vigneron points out the reciprocity between Cartier's watch and jewelry sectors. "The jeweled-watch client will also like jewelry," but conversely, "you can have some complicated-movement clients who only like watches and they care about neither jewelry watches nor jewelry in general."

The specifics of watch collectors' motivations are many and varied. "You have some watch lovers who like mechanics, they like functions that go beyond the necessary. In luxury, with obsessions like that you usually have two different strains – one would be design, one would be function," Vigneron notes. "Of course, when you're talking about this level of luxury the function is by nature unnecessary. It's like driving a Ferrari in Paris. I mean, you don't need that function. You don't need to go that fast, it's the pleasure you feel about it, knowing it's there."

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