Space Continuum: M.C. Escher And The Vacheron Constantin “Les Univers Infinis” Watches

The remarkable work of Dutch artist M. C. Escher has been a subject of fascination for art lovers and mathematicians alike for many decades.  (One of the most intriguing results of his work is the enormous Pulitzer Prize winning book by Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, a Pulitzer Prize winning magnum opus that interrelates Escher’s work with Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, and with J. S. Bach’s fugues, all of which are self-referential in structure.)  Escher’s work draws on a number of phenomena, including the use of stylized figures which, repeated over and over, interlock to form patterns of tessellations (or tiles) as well as the use of images which exploit the cognitive predispositions of the human nervous system to produce distinctly un-nerving effects, such as the apparently impossible infinite loop of staircases in one of his most famous images, the etching “Relativity,” of 1953.

As meditations on the nature of time and space, as well as explorations of how the human mind interacts with both, Escher’s work occupies a unique niche in the history of art and is a very special instance of how a particular vision can cross many disciplines to produce spectacular, novel and unprecedented artistic effects.  It is perhaps surprising that it has taken so long for his motifs to be incorporated into a watch.  Mechanical watches, after all, represent another unique intersection of métiers, requiring engineering and scientific knowledge, but also (at the highest level) a genuinely artistic sensibility, as well as the command of a wide range of specialized crafts.  And, like Escher’s work, at their best they are not mere instruments but also expressions of a particular vision of what time is, and how we experience its passage.

At this year’s Salon International Haute Horlogerie, Vacheron Constantin introduced three remarkably beautiful new watches to its Metiers d’Art collection.  The Metiers d’Art watches, as the name implies, are intended to be showcases for high level decorative arts and crafts which express a certain particular philosophy of time and which incorporate both unusual designs and demanding decorative arts.  The new Metiers d’Art watches are a trilogy –three sets of 20 watches each, whose dials are decorated with a motif taken from the work of M. C. Escher.  They are, aptly, collectively known as the “Les Univers Infinis” watches.

The three motifs are a pattern of doves, a pattern of fish, and a pattern of seashells and starfish, executed with a range of engraving, gemsetting, and guilloché (engine turning) techniques which produce an astonishingly absorbing range of visual effects.  The Fish watch incorporates guilloché and cloisonné enameling; the Dove watch, guilloché, champlevé enameling, and gem-setting; and the Shell watch, engraving and champlevé enameling.

A quick primer on enameling: fired enamel decoration is produced by grinding colored glass into a fine powder and then mixing it with a medium like water or oil. It is then placed into engraved hollows in a metal surface (champlevé) or into cells made by bending gold wire into the desired form (cloisonné) using a very fine sable brush.  The work is very delicate and most enamellists work through low power binocular microscopes.  The enamel is then placed in a very hot kiln in which it is fired to a temperature close to 1,000 degrees Celsius –hot enough to vaporize the medium and fuse the pigments.  Repeated firings are usually necessary and the process is perilous, as even minute temperature fluctuations or microscopic impurities can ruin the enamel, making it necessary to discard the work and start from scratch.

For that reason true fired enamel watch dials are extremely rare, ardently collected, and very valuable.  The depth of color and permanence (real fired enamel essentially lasts indefinitely) can be achieved through no other means.

Inside the Les Univers Infinis watches is another work of art: the Vacheron Constantin self-winding calibre 2460 SC, finished to the manufacture’s usual immaculate standards.  Each timepiece is one of the most astonishingly beautiful expressions of a vision of time and its relationship to space that we’ve ever seen in watchmaking.

The Dove, Fish, and Shell “Les Univers Infinis” watches are each available in a limited edition of 20 watches worldwide.  The Dove watch retails for $120,000, and the Fish and Shell watches are both $112,000.  In white gold only.

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