When word came through that Louis Vuitton would be showing its watch range at this year's Baselworld, it seemed obvious that the luxury goods giant was in the mood to up its horological game. QP spoke to Hamdi Chatti, the brand's watches and jewellery Vice President, about LV's ambitious plans for the near future.
Louis Vuitton turned over a staggering €20 billion last year, with the bulk of its profits coming from the watches and jewellery division. Of course, we don't know how much of that was accounted for by watches and how much by jewellery, but it's safe to say that the former makes a very significant contribution - and now that contribution looks set to rise dramatically.
It was a definite sign that something was afoot when Louis Vuitton announced that it would be taking part in this year's Baselworld show, something it had never done before. But, in typical LV style, it did not exhibit its wares on a conventional stand among the madding crowds in Hall 1, but rather on a large and luxurious riverboat moored outside Basel's most prestigious hotel, Les Trois Rois.
As reported so eloquently by stylist Tom Stubbs in QP49, instead of having to battle through throngs of show-goers in order to catch a glimpse of what was new, those fortunate enough to be invited aboard to view Vuitton's latest horological offerings simply had to collect a flute of champagne (LVMH-owned Ruinart) and stroll between the vitrines of watches displayed in the boat's saloon, with the spring sunlight pouring in through the windows and a gentle breeze blowing off the deck.
The dial of the Automatic Tambour Chronograph 'Fly Back' features two auxiliary counters inspired by aeronautic instruments.
Louis Vuitton entered the watch game back in 2002 with the first Tambour - a delectable, round-cased design that has since become available in numerous guises ranging from quartz-powered, three-handers to mechanical chronographs, regatta timers, dive watches and bespoke tourbillons. Other models have arrived, too, such as the cushion-cased Speedy and the square Emprise.
Last November, however, an interesting 'complicated' Tambour appeared in the form of the Spin Time, a watch that eschews conventional hands in favour of a dozen 'staffs' which turn a series of cubes each possessing a neutral side and a numbered side. Each cube is turned a quarter of a rotation, four times per day so that the numbered side is revealed twice in every 24 hours - at the appropriate moment to provide a digital time read-out.
True, its £26,700 launch price meant it was only a fraction of the cost of a Tambour Tourbillon - but the fact that it was so different, so innovative and so complex sent out a clear message: Louis Vuitton watches was upping the ante.
But we should have guessed that new things were afoot in late 2009, when industry veteran Hamdi Chatti - ex Harry Winston, ex Montblanc - was brought on board to sharpen-up LV's approach to watchmaking. What we saw on the boat at Basel were the first results of his influence - the star of the show was the openwork Tambour minute repeater with two time zones and a handwound movement, while two stunning new 'everyday' watches took the form of the aviation-inspired flyback Chronograph Volez and the Chronographe Voyagez, an automatic chrono with an automotive bent. Both were presented under the banner 'Capsule Voyage' to demonstrate their relevance to Vuitton's roots in luggage making and the art of refined travel.
The design and finish bore all the hallmarks of a brand that is extremely serious about watches - and one that also wants others to recognise its commitment.
Available in rose gold or steel, the dial of the Automatic Tambour Chronograph 'Tachometre' is designed to resemble a sports car dashboard, with three auxiliary counters aligned between 9 o'clock and 3 o'clock.
"When I arrived at Louis Vuitton I decided it was important for us to re-focus on men's watches and also to be very specific about every watch we make having a link to the LV universe - one needs a story," says Chatti.
"I also decided that we should significantly reduce both the number of quartz-powered models and lower production levels, enabling us to concentrate on really top quality mechanical pieces - and that should include high complications. In 2010 it was the Spin Time, now it is the minute repeater. The aim is to create one really special new design each year."
When I spoke to him at Basel, Chatti was happy to admit that pieces such as the minute repeater were not entirely the work of his watchmaking team at La Chaux-de-Fonds and that they had benefited from the help of a 'secret partner'.
Fast forward to summer 2011, and that partner was revealed as Geneva's independent, high complication, horological design house La Fabrique du Temps - which has now been acquired by Vuitton to further progress its watchmaking strategy. The deal was actually done on the boat during SIHH.
"Buying La Fabrique du Temps is a very important step towards establishing our watch business in a very confident way," Chatti told me shortly after July's announcement that the acquisition had taken place.
The Automatic Tambour Chronograph 'Fly Back' (left) and the Tambour Spin Time from 2010.
"Our intention is to maintain FDT's operation in Geneva, which is only 70 minutes from our manufacture at La Chaux de Fonds and enlarge the facilities to enable the production of more and more components. Fabrique du Temps is currently delivering to many other brands and we are committed to fulfilling all of the present requests. We are not sure, however, whether or not we will open up the business to new clients and, while we are not obliged to work with other LVMH watch brands, it is certainly possible that it could happen," added Chatti.
"Every maison within the LVMH group is fully independent. There is no global manufacturing strategy." For the time being, we can reveal that LV's watch boffins are currently working on an extremely special new version of the Tambour Regatta watch that will make its debut next year, marking the brand's role as the official timekeeper of the America's Cup World Series - the latest chapter in its history of yachting which goes right back to the inauguration of the Louis Vuitton Cup in 1983.
But sailing, of course, is only one method of travel with which LV is associated… we wait with interest to see what horological pairings it creates for all the others.
Further information: www.louisvuitton.com