We are constantly on the lookout for the next best thing in the world of luxury, whether it’s a private clubhouse with your new flat or truffles to go on your spaghetti. For watch lovers, we may have found the pinnacle of luxury: a fully bespoke wristwatch design from the oldest watch brand in the world.
Founded in 1735, Blancpain are masters of watch trades that date back centuries. One of these glorious traditions is allowing clients to customise, to some extent, nearly any of their standard production models; having the opportunity to have miniature works of art produced exclusively for their wrist. With the widest variety of options possible with their Metiers d’Art and Minute Repeating models.
We’re not just talking about choosing from a small range of different dial colours and hand shape. From what the dial is made of to a custom engraving on the oscillating weight, no two watches that Blancpain produce with their bespoke service are ever the same.
We took a trip to their manufacture in the fairly snowy Vallèe de Joux on the Swiss-French border, to find out how they do it and exactly what goes into these intricate designs.
Custom hand engraving
Blancpain offer the ability to engrave the dial, the oscillating weight and the bridges that hold the watch movement together — with patterns, motifs or landscapes — meaning you can create a truly personal item.
A popular choice is to opt for a bespoke oscillating weight. First, you select your desired style, then give the engraver anything from a concept to a picture for carving into the weight. These artists will then incorporate your idea on to that swinging half moon of metal that powers your watch.
When we took the opportunity to speak to two engravers, we discovered that it’s not just the watches that are bespoke — the tools they use to create these mini masterpieces are also made by their own hands. In fact, one engraver still uses the very tool he made when he was only 16 years old.
If you’re looking for an even more eye-catching design, you can opt for a hand-painted enamel dial, courtesy of the artisans at the Le Brassus site. They’re more than happy to provide a full spectrum to your new timepiece.
As for the longevity of the paint, this is one instance where time is not a factor. While normal paints can age or wear on enamel over time, Blancpain have learnt over their long history that to create truly lasting designs, you need to use paints also made from enamel.
By using this method, the design is not superimposed onto your dial but rather, it becomes part of it. Not only will this keep your dial looking its best for longer but it also gives a fantastic depth to every tiny painting that is produced.
As with every other aspect of this bespoke service, this process is also completely customisable. You can take in your favourite painting from one of the old masters and have it reimagined on your watch or a photo you took on your last trip and have it emblazoned forever on your timepiece.
Now we are really getting into the niche side of watch design. Automations have been around for centuries and are a tradition that Blancpain are helping to keep alive.
On the back of some minute repeaters, you’ll find automated scenes. As you flick the switch on the side of the case, the gongs will chime the time as the automation moves in time with the gongs.
While many of these automations can be quite innocent and always very artistic, you might be unaware of a hidden, long-standing tradition — that of automations depicting erotic scenes.
If you ever get the chance to visit the workshop where these incredibly complicated and intricate designs are made, they might just show you a folder of the designs that they’ve been commissioned to make over the years. A gentleman never tells, but you’ll no doubt be both surprised and impressed by the positions and scenarios depicted and hidden on the back of these beautiful minute repeater watches carved out by these talented artists.
The practice of erotic automations, which dates back as far as the 17th century, was shut down by the Swiss church, who seized and destroyed any erotic watches they could find. In 1993, Blancpain resuscitated the craft with their Calibre 332 — the first wristwatch to combine a minute repeater and automation.
They might not be to everyone’s taste but these automations are the ultimate combination of artistry and watchmaking mastery. So the next time you meet someone with a minute repeater watch, ask to see the back and you might be in for a surprise.
There is an undeniable connection between the fine watchmaking and the area of the Valleé de Joux, with its entirely peaceful surroundings and picturesque ski slopes visible from the workbenches. You can see why a number of the best top watch brands in the world are based in this tiny, snowy corner of Switzerland. There is no sense of urgency here, only that of precision and artistry.
Want to see inside another fascinating luxury industry? Follow Gentleman’s Journal along the international truffle trail…