Lady Arpels Pont des Amoureux watch

PARIS — The order was for a kiss. They had their setting — a bridge in Paris, with extra curve, Venice-style. But how should the lovebirds move toward each other?

According to a manager from a Van Cleef & Arpels watch production site in Switzerland, house teams puzzled a while over this part of the story — it would be told with automatons on a watch. He had been shuttled to the French capital for a splashy launch event with journalists. Clients, too, had been wined and dined in the same space, but on separate occasions.

The emphasis was timepieces. The Place Vendôme jeweler, which belongs to Compagnie Financière Richemont, is best known for high jewelry built around chunky, colored stones or its airy Alhambra sautoirs dotted with four-leafed shapes in mother-of-pearl. But here, with white cutouts of building facades as a backdrop, watches were the focus; guests and their jewelry house hosts had dressed up, and no celebrities were on hand.

“It allows our teams to solidify our message around our watchmaking activity,” said Nicolas Bos, chief executive officer of Van Cleef & Arpels, of the global launch event from the center of a paper-white street scene that glowed with pastel lighting.

“We wanted to bring all this together and share it,” he said, gesturing toward the rows of faux store-windows displaying watches.

There were also pieces from the house’s historical collections, including a brass alarm clock from the Seventies, a wooden one from the Thirties and sparkling, gold bird earrings from the Fifties.

Last year, the house quit the annual luxury watch fair in Geneva — formerly known as SIHH — where it sat alongside the Richemont stable of watch brands like Cartier and Jaeger-LeCoultre, as well as Hermès and Kering labels Girard-Perregaux and Ulysse Nardin.

Van Cleef executives had judged the appointment-packed event less than ideal for presenting intricate pieces like jewel-encrusted secret watches and struck out on their own, like a number of other players in the industry opting to invest in more intimate events. Besides, not having a wholesale network, the house’s executives didn’t need to use the fair for meetings with retail clients.

So instead of tapping into the flow of visitors flocking to see various watch brands in vast exhibit halls, Van Cleef flew its guests to Paris from all over the world by the dozens. There, they were treated to a boat tour on the Seine River — where they got an eyeful of the city’s romance-inspiring bridges — then served hors d’oeuvres and Champagne while they took in watches displayed in a building of the Republican Guard stables.

“We are seeking to express our notion of time,” said Bos, who was flanked by a fake street lamp in the center of the space. Rooms were organized around themes — nature-inspired pieces, including the flowery, purple Lady Arpels Poème Violette watch, were shown in a garden setting; zodiac-themed watches were lined up in a starry-night scene and the ‘Charms Romance Parisienne Rencontre’ pieces, with sapphires, diamonds and a dangling charm on one side, were lodged in a bar running along a screen projecting animated images of winged fairies.

Romance was the central motif.

“It was a year we worked on love stories on the whole — we had a high jewelry collection inspired by Romeo and Juliet, so we wanted to do a collection on romantic love stories,” he said. Elaborate, gem-covered secret watches thus carried themes linked to legendary couples — the Tristan and Iseult piece was covered with a 5.59 carat pink sapphire, while the face of the Philemon and Baucis piece featured emeralds, including two pear-shaped ones. 

The ‘Pont des Amoureux’ series featured the kissing couple of automatons — the house’s watchmaking team decided to have the pair mark a pause in their movement toward each other before the embrace. 

“The idea was to use mechanical movement not only for traditional watchmaking — measuring time, for precision, for performance…but to use animation from the mechanical world to give life to the stories of the house,” said Bos. The automaton movement is set in motion by pushing a button — on demand for today’s generations who are after instant gratification.

He likened it to animating a still life, bringing a new dimension to house classics and drawing on Van Cleef’s history with animatons, which dates back to a Chinese magician from 1927 that had arms that moved. 

The series runs through the seasons, and includes day and night versions — with the moon and stars or a stylized, pastel city scene.

Completing the full-immersion watch launch event — with many an Instagram-ready moment — was a dinner in a cavernous space ringed by a stage, meant to evoke the inside of a watch. There, guests consumed caviar and lobster, while an accordion player strolled past. In a live rendition of the automaton story line, a dancing couple tangoed on a bridge rising over the tables, as if they had jumped out of the watches and into real life.

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