In honour of the Chinese Year of the Dragon, Piaget has created a unique collection of 20 models that calls on the skills of artisans from the fields of watchmaking, enamelling, engraving and gem-setting. QP meets the mythical Dragon and Phoenix.
News of a Piaget Dragon watch unveiled in front of Beijing's gilded and glittering elite might justifiably be thought to lack much element of surprise. The Chinese and wider Asian audience for such watches is growing and deep-pocketed, 2012 is the Year of the Dragon in the Chinese horoscope and to not take advantage of such a conjunction would have been almost unimaginably obstinate, specially as Piaget's particular mix of talents leads so naturally in that direction.
The Piaget Protocole XXL comes in a limited edition of three pieces.
This is probably why Philippe Léopold-Metzger was so quick to underscore the thought and detailed planning that went into the Dragon and Phoenix collection when he spoke to QP just prior to the launch gala in Beijing.
Metzger's first point was that the Dragon and Phoenix is setting the template for future projects in a way that Piaget has not done before, bringing horological, jewellery and craft strands together in one theme. (There is usually very little conscious attempt to link jewellery and watch collections together at Piaget, the design and development work being done by different teams and specialists.) This will not be an annual collection, but will probably alternate with the projects they create for the Paris Biennale. If this approach is to have a future value to Piaget, it clearly needs to be more thought out than an opportunistic appropriation of lucky symbols, all the more so since there will be any number of 'lucky dragon' watches appearing on the market in 2012.
East meets West
Metzger was also clear that while the theme is Chinese and openly aimed at the Chinese market, the design and execution has to be Piaget, there being no point in, or demand for, "Chinese watches by Piaget". And speaking with some of the product development team after the event, it was clear they would have had little interest in such work anyway. The approach Piaget has taken is to take the iconography and symbolism of the dragon and the phoenix and re-imagine them through European eyes. And not just in a few unique pieces, but in a 24-piece collection that ranges from the surprisingly simple to the full fireworks of a diamond cuff in the form of a phoenix.
The miniature for the limited edition Altiplano Tourbillon was made using the grisaille technique of monochrome or near-monochrome painting.
The first step was to make sure that the iconography was correctly understood. The traditional conventions surrounding the dragon's presentation are precise and deeply ingrained, so that any false note in the designs would have been disastrous. Incredibly, Nike nearly ran an advertising campaign featuring LeBron James slaying a dragon, the campaign being dropped under pressure from the Chinese government fearing serious public disorder.
Piaget's designers sought advice from across the region, there being a multitude of dragon myths and traditions to try and encompass - several of them mutually incompatible. Rules as to, for example, the number of scales and the proportion of the yin and yang aspects, also had to be surprisingly exact. Piaget's dragon is essentially that of the long of the imperial tradition whose consort is the fenghuang, the Chinese phoenix.
The unique Piaget Polo Tourbillon Relatif in white gold with grey grand feu enamelling and featuring the Piaget 608P hand-wound movement.
The Piaget take
Having mastered the detail, Piaget's designers have created a very definitely European take on the dragon and the phoenix, partly through a very monochrome palette and partly as a result of the techniques used such as champlevé enamel and engraving. The European flavour really comes out through the line-drawing designs executed on silvered dials, there's a minimalism (if you can say such a thing about a diamond set watch) that seemed almost bizarrely extreme in the context of the Beijing launch event. And if restraint is not the most obvious quality to ascribe to the rest of the collection, it is the vital ingredient in a project like this, it being the brake that keeps this in Piaget style rather than just name.
Most striking though is the very unrestrained Protocole XXL with its sculpted dragon weaving across the face and bezel of the watch. Although its mix of techniques and textures is almost deliriously over the top, the execution and style of the design keep it, almost miraculously, from descending into kitsch (at least in our opinion). If nothing else, the watches invite comparison with Piaget's golden era of the 1960 and 1970s and, so far, the XXL and the Emperador tourbillons with their figure-of-eight dragons stand up well.
If a certain restraint in design is important, the other factor that makes the whole Dragon and Phoenix collection worth showing to the world is the sheer quality of execution from engraving to gem-setting. The star-turn here is the enamelling work by Anita Porchet, one of the very few acknowledged master makers of enamel dials, a technique made infinitely more difficult than is otherwise the case by the precise tolerances watchmaking requires. As a typical watch dial might need 40 firings at temperatures of over 800°C, without accumulating any measurable deformation, the need for skill and experience is self-explanatory and that is only part of the task, as predicting how colours and shades will change during a firing is very definitely an art rather than a science.
Interestingly, the Chinese reaction, both at the event and in conversation later, was highly favourable. There seems to be no hesitation at all about European luxury houses appropriating such definitively Chinese iconography, the only surprise being that anyone should raise that as a question. Everyone I spoke to thought that the collection would find buyers quickly - the more precious items selling the fastest. Given this ready acceptance of Piaget's project in the market, the only remaining question is how will this look in the company's legacy? Our guess is pretty good.
Further information: www.piaget.com