With Louis Vuitton approaching its 20th anniversary in watchmaking, we take a journey through time with Michel Navas the iconic Tambour.
It is historical irony that some of the watchmaking industry’s greatest achievements were born in Paris, not Geneva. In 17th century Paris, Place Dauphine was home to the workshops of Ferdinand Berthoud, Jean-Antoine Lépine, and a young Abraham Louis Breguet. Each man shaped watchmaking destiny in their own way.
Echoing his respected French peers, Louis Vuitton, born on August 4, 1821, in Anchay, a small hamlet in eastern France’s mountainous Jura region, he too made the industry in his image. Hence, it is historical symmetry that today, La Fabrique du Temps Louis Vuitton, sits only an hour twenty minutes by car away from its namesake’s birthplace.
I was tempted by the prospect of a return to the birthplace of watchmaking as it once was but Michel Navas was adamant, “Louis Vuitton is a French maison, but our watchmaking division is based in Geneva, the centre of Swiss watchmaking. If you want to make the best watches, you will have to be based there to work with the watchmakers and materials. We have weekly meetings with our team in Paris, so you have the high traditions of Switzerland and the modern French touch of Louis Vuitton. Truly the best item you can have on the wrist.”
Though Louis Vuitton has firmly established artisanal bonafides for trunks, travel accessories, and fashion, the brand’s watchmaking ascent is nascent, having only released its first timepiece in 2002. Watchmaking is similar in that it is also a realm that trades on provenance and legacy; Since it did not have a dedicated facility at the time and watchmaking is an industry which trades on decades if not centuries of legacy, it would take an act of time travel to build horological legitimacy.
Since defying the laws of physics is the study of science rather than horology, Louis Vuitton’s ambitions had to be supported by another means – acquiring the know-how and wisdom of already respected watchmakers like La Fabrique du Temps. Conceived by Michel Navas and his partner Enrico Barbasini, La Fabrique du Temps was already a celebrated independent watchmaker and its subsequent acquisition in 2011 supercharged the pair with a mandate (and financial war chest) to pursue ambitions for high watchmaking couched in what can be considered a contradiction of terms: the best traditions of fine watchmaking combined with new innovations and uncommon designs – in short, the DNA of Louis Vuitton with its own revolutionary approach to trunks.
Louis Vuitton High Watchmaking has been defined by two key milestones: the introduction of the drum-like Tambour, a case shape heretofore unseen in the industry and the application of cutting-edge technology to elevate the time-telling experience of traditional haute horlogerie. Curious as to the methodology, I quizzed Navas whether he thinks of a movement and then designs a case for it; or whether he designs a case and then considers how a movement would fit.
“It begins with an idea. We meet the marketing team in Paris every week, together with our designers, to discuss these ideas. Once decided, we think about which type of case is best suited for the complication or maybe, developing an entirely new case for it. The idea comes first, before coming to a decision with all involved,” explains Navas before continuing, “Of course, Enrico and I, will decide on the movement and how we can go ahead with the movement. The designers will focus on the case ‒ it could be the iconic Tambour, maybe Voyager, the Escale or a completely new case. I think it goes hand in hand, thereʼs no one right answer, it really depends, it should be decided together.”
When Louis Vuitton burst onto the watchmaking scene in 2002, the Tambour case crafted from a single block of metal, generated a buzz in the market for its unique case design. Tambour, means drum in French and since its introduction, the round case shape tapering inward slightly from its base to the top, has been instantly recognisable as a Louis Vuitton creation.
It’s Own Beat: The Many Guises Of The Tambour
In just two decades of watchmaking, the House has proven its deep passion for watchmaking to be equal to its panache for trunks. In 2009, it made quite a name for itself within the industry with the Tambour Spin Time by reinventing how time is displayed, with rotating cubes instead of clock hands and indexes.
According to Navas, “The Spin Time is iconic in terms of movement and displaying time. It is the most successful because of its way to display time using cubes, which is very unique. It’s patented by Louis Vuitton. We launched this idea in a Tambour, a design born before the Spin Time movement which is also our most iconic case.” Not content to rest on its laurels, Louis Vuitton has continued to ideate with its signature case: the 2016 Tambour Slim with a Tourbillon, appeared sleek and discrete on the wrist, an apparent departure from its usual strong, masculine lines.
With 2017ʼs Tambour Moon, the Tambour kept its unmistakable round case while reversing its casebandʼs curve. Then, in 2020, the Tambour Curve quite literally pushed the envelope, with its titanium and Carbostratum case with surprisingly elongated convex curve, and a phenomenal flying tourbillon calibre, stamped with the prestigious Geneva Seal (Poinçon de Genève) ‒ a perfect match between high complication movement and bold creativity.
Over the years, the Tambour’s timeless aesthetic has combined with all kinds of watches, from the more classic types to the most complex movements, culminating with 2021ʼs Tambour Carpe Diem – an automaton equipped minute repeater timepiece which received the Audacity Prize at the Grand Prix dʼHorlogerie de Genève.
The minute-repeating jacquemart memento mori was a major milestone (how many fashion brands with high watchmaking ambitions can claim such accomplishment?), it’s not hard to imagine the immensity of the Tambourʼs potential, a sentiment that Navas also shared; “The Tambour Carpe Diem was so successful. This was one of the launches where people realised how far we can go in terms of high-watchmaking. With Louis Vuitton and La Fabrique Du Temps, we are the absolute dream team to achieve this level of complications. We have all the skills, materials and savoir faire within La Fabrique Du Temps. We have dial makers, engineers, watchmakers, designers… altogether we rise to these incredibly high complications.
We are a human-skilled company focused on craftsmanship, and it’s truly the best company to make these kind of complications. Where I came from previously, very famous companies, I couldn’t do these kind of exercises that I do at Louis Vuitton. That’s why I love to surround myself with my colleagues and craftsmen to materialise these watches.”
That same year, the brand’s latest attempt at a utilitarian daily “beater” – the Tambour Street won the Diver’s Watch Prize. Keeping in mind that the Tambour Street Diver had been the most unique take on a very well-developed genre, it certainly risky given that the market was used to diver’s watches looking a certain way.
We asked Navas what gave him the confidence and he responded, “I felt that a watch like the Tambour Street Diver was missing from our collection. Itʼs very elegant yet sporty, in our iconic Tambour shape. We used new materials and gave more visibility to the hours. I think this model fits perfectly to our collection.”
Spinning The Industry Around
This year, the Tambour Spin Time Air Quantum is the latest symbol of the brand’s unique approach to haute horlogerie, it audaciously reimagines the fundamental tenets of fine watchmaking by adding a layer of micro-electronics to a highly complicated movement to form a single unit that captures time and emits light. By re-imagining the familiar jumping hour complication and converting the conventional display of the hours into a three-dimensional dance within a Tambour case.
Navas has indeed subverted expectations of time display and once more this time with hour cubes illuminating on demand, adding a fourth dimension to the signature complication. Located just below each cube is a Maltese cross gear. Also known as a Geneva drive after its city of origin ‒ it was reputedly devised by Geneva watchmakers in the 17th century – the Maltese cross gear is the classical solution for periodic motion in a watch movement.
Specifically, the cubes of the Spin Time each make a quarter revolution twice a day, a task that requires delicate, individual adjustment of each cube’s mechanism by a watchmaker to ensure a crisp, timely jump. But the Spin Time display is three-dimensional, so the Maltese cross gears are positioned at a right angle to the movement ‒ a unique twist to a centuries-old invention.
The Spin Time Air Quantum, a new take on the brand’s distinctive complication ‒ showcases a hidden LED ring lighting up the 12 cubes of the jumping hours. “The original “Spin Time” was a concept inspired by old-school airport flipboards that announced cities, departures, arrivals and gates with boards of flipping text and numerals,” said Navas, “I endeavoured to think about another way to display time, not with hands but something flipping,” continued the Maisonʼs head watchmaker.
Following in the same vein, the artful combination of the two seemingly disparate fields joins microelectronics with mechanical engineering resulting in a “unique and disruptive complicated hybrid watch that combines the best of the mechanical and electronic worlds at the service of both legibility and design”.
Having seen a flying Tourbillon complication alongside the Spin Time mechanism, I wondered if there were opportunities for other types of high complications and Navas answered, “It’s quite difficult because the Spin Time takes room within the movement. It was a challenging feat but we added the central flying tourbillon where the hands are placed. We used the Spin Time cubes to display the hours, the little hands for minutes and the central flying tourbillon for seconds. It’s difficult to have another complication within because of the space. We are in progress with a new Spin Time watch which will display something else on the hours but I’m quite proud of how we executed the cubes with fused silica.”
Though competitors have attempted lighting “complications” in a mechanical wristwatch, the Spin Time Air Quantum’s solution is brighter and more enduring. Not to mention, separated from the mechanical calibre itself which make the changing of batteries an easy matter in the boutique. This means that the watch is not away from its owner for extended periods.
“We are very, very close to our clients and attentive to what they want, miss and need on their wrists. This is incredibly important. La Fabrique Du Temps Louis Vuitton is a tiny and human-skilled company, so we can really take care of our clients. This is something you cannot find elsewhere,” says Navas. When we last spoke in 2020, Navas and I defined collectors who give undue importance to provenance and “legitimacy” rather than pay attention to the actual calibre and finishing as “not real connoisseurs”.
Two years on, the limited supply situation have encouraged consumers to explore what Louis Vuitton’s singular and often iconoclastic approach to watchmaking. “We are very new in the watch industry. We are 20 years young but becoming more and more credible since our last meeting together. We have developed so many in-house movements. We are real watchmakers but it takes time. In the fashion world, the growth is rapid and fast as we have several fashion shows in a year. But in the high-watchmaking world, it takes a few years to create a timepiece,” explains Navas.
Every object dʼart produced is sold from a brand boutique, and its timepieces are no exception. As a result, Louis Vuitton’s horological creations crop up only rarely in the conversations of purists. Their high horology timepieces are sold only at private VIP events organised by the brand, bequeathing an unbelievable exclusivity both in terms of production numbers and how the Tambour is almost a “collector’s secret”. They may be “out of sight” leading to their timepieces being “out of minds” but nevertheless they deserve our full attention.
Photos Joel Low + Louis Vuitton; Styling Daryll Alexius Yeo