Hermès has a watchmaking heritage that dates back to 1912 involving collaborations throughout the 1920s, '30s and '40s with the likes of Movado, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Universal and Vacheron & Constantin. The recent past has seen the brand focus mainly on fashion watches, but in 2012 one calibre has given rise to two exclusive movements - the mechanical self-winding H1837 and H1912 - the result of an exclusive project involving both La Montre Hermès and its longstanding partner, Vaucher Manufacture.
Further proof that Jean Louis Dumas was a genius was vouchsafed me the other day when I was speaking to Luc Perramond. Dumas was the man who took a dowdy dusty handbag and headscarf brand favoured by the Bon Chic Bon Genre set (what the French had instead of Sloane Rangers) and propelled it to the top of the premier league of what we have since learned to call the luxury goods business. The name of that shop was Hermès and the legendary Henri d'Origny once told me that when he started work there during the 1960s, if 20 people came through the door of the store on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in a day, they would open a bottle of champagne.
Well the last time I was in headscarf central a couple of months ago... let's just say that I have seen quieter mainline railway stations at rush hour. The almost preternatural desirability of Hermès today is largely the work of the late Jean Louis Dumas and this was achieved through a mixture of timing, daring and far-sightedness. The extent of his prescience only became truly apparent to me when Luc Perramond told me that one of the first things that Jean Louis Dumas did upon taking over the firm was to open La Montre Hermès in Switzerland in 1978.
The Dressage watch, originally created by Henri d'Origny, is characterised with its tonneau-shape, incorporating the lugs to create a fluid and curved outline.
It was a stroke of strategic genius that yielded some pretty remarkable results, with watches like the Arceau designed by Henri d'Origny in 1978 and the Cape Cod (the one with the fiddly double strap) launched in 1991 and also designed by the peerless Henri d'Origny, helping bring sales of Hermès timepieces to somewhere around the 100,000 mark - at least so I have heard. But times change and in the intervening 34 years the fashion watch business has become an altogether different place. First it is more crowded than it was. Chanel was another relatively early and successful transfer from frocks to clocks so to speak; Dior too has carved a niche thanks to the design talents of Victoire de Castellane.
More recent heavyweight arrivals have included Ralph Lauren and Zegna, who have both sought the gravitas that comes from partnering with a long-established watchmaker; Ralph taking his pick of the movements made by Richemont and putting them into cases of his own design, and Ermenegildo Zegna signing with Girard-Perregaux.
Meanwhile over at Louis Vuitton, where Hamdi Chatti is now in the horological driving seat, there is an intense programme of consolidation taking place with the acquisition of specialist movement manufacture and design capability in the form of La Fabrique du Temps, along with a low volume dial making business. The enlarged LV watch operation is to be housed in a brand spanking new factory and training centre in Meyrin near Geneva airport. Then, of course, there is the opening of a swanky new all watch and jewellery (but no luggage) LV shop on Place Vendôme.
The anniversary edition of the ladies' Arceau is set with 74 diamonds on both the bezel and strap attachments, while the classic version displays a silvered and white natural mother-of-pearl dial.
The extra mile
I dwell on the last few because they show two different ways of achieving the same sort of end. Even Jean Louis Dumas could not have predicted that fashion brands would one day be selling complications such as minute repeaters. So, while his business model of adding value to the quartz timepiece through leather, design and the general sprinkling of liberal amounts of Hermes/d'Origny fairy dust suited the needs of the 1970s and 1980s, Hermès has realised that it cannot afford to ignore the galloping horological awareness of the modern watch customer.
Which is why, had he been around to see it, Jean Louis Dumas would surely have applauded this year's launch of a redesign of the tonneau-shaped Dressage housing the first Hermès-only calibre, imparting that all important manufacture halo to the product. This is by far the most important fruit yet borne by the investment of SFr.25,000,000 by Hermès in Vaucher almost 10 years ago. Vaucher, which comes under the same Sandoz family umbrella that also shelters Michel Parmigiani's eponymous brand, has taken six years to design, build, test and put into production this new calibre.
But the way that Luc Perramond explains it, the process is the culmination of a much longer programme that long predates his arrival, via TAG Heuer and H. Stern, to run La Montre Hermès in 2009. "This was a project started by Guillaume de Sennes in 2003 when the decision was taken to take a stake in Vaucher. We realised that we did not want to be labelled as a fashion watch, we wanted to bring the watch category in at the same level and quality of craftsmanship as in silk and leather."
Indeed the first forays made by Hermès into haute horlogerie were showcased in the then newly designed Dressage, which first appeared as an 18ct piece complete with prestige pricing. It was possible that the pricing was too aggressive; not that the value wasn't there, but rather that the gap between the watch as high-end accessory and the haute horlogerie Dressage was a yawning chasm, a chasm now bridged by the new manufacture-quality Dressage which finds itself in the middle of the €5000-10,000 kill zone. Pricey enough to impart a sense of occasion and dignity to the purchase but not so high, it is hoped, for the prospective customer to consider buying, say a Patek or a Vacheron. Of course you have to be a Hermès fan to want to buy into it, but what it does offer is the legitimacy of a marque-specific movement.
The Dressage watch is equipped with the H1837 calibre, produced by Vaucher Manufacture for Hermès and adapted to incorporate various functions.
And in the creation of that movement Hermès has taken no chances and no shortcuts. "When I joined in 2009 there was a first prototype for the movement. I was not satisfied with results of the various tests that we did and I decided to improve that calibre." In particular he cites a winding stem that was, he thought, unacceptably resistant to the wearer's efforts to turn it, and also he was not satisfied with the results of the ageing tests. "The watch was heavily tested. The ageing tests after three and five years, while perfectly OK by industry standards, were not satisfactory. I don't want the Hermès customer to face any quality issues. So, as well as the winding system the second major change was to give more rigidity to the movement. We slightly increased the thickness of the mainplate and every time you increase the rigidity you improve the reliability long term.
Although he did not tell me as much, his decision to delay the launch until what sounded like fairly low grade glitches were sorted out, is evidence of the corporate culture at work in Hermès, which would rather launch the best product it can at its own pace than put something into production a couple of years early and rely on the customer for the final stage of quality testing. Besides, this time has been put to good use. The design of the Dressage has been refreshed and is a little bolder and more assertive than its early Noughties incarnation, moreover the new calibre has given Hermès the chance to reposition the Dressage. And during this time Perramond has been able to rationalise the watch offer, by having the movement designed in such a way as to be able to accommodate complications. For example, says Perramond, the calibre has been designed as a suitable host for the whimsical Temps Suspendu, developed for the brand by Jean Marc Wiederrecht.
So all in all it was worth waiting for, although there was some incentive to bring out the new Dressage in 2012, because, as Perramond explains: "It is the 100th year of watchmaking at Hermès." And to mark the anniversary concurrent with the 11.5 ligne movement there is a special 10.5 ligne version of the same base calibre that can be found in the new ladies' Arceau.
I do not think that even Hermès would describe this as a century of being a watchmaker, but the involvement of the brand in timepieces is significant in that as a marchande de nouveautés, Hermès has a history of diversification into product areas that are only tangentially, if at all, related to the saddle and harness on which it was founded. After all, had it not branched out beyond riding tack, the arrival of the horseless carriage would have closed it down.
This timepiece worn on a belt was designed to protect against the physical strains on the watch's mechanism from certain sports.
Keeping them coming
So while the Hermès customers might have come for the saddles they stayed for the other stuff. Hermès scarves, by the way, were dreamt up following the French Army custom of printing regulations and instructions on to handkerchiefs, and it always maintained a mastery and imaginative use of leather in a way that few, if any, have been able to match. For instance, in the years of the Art Deco period, when the world was all about streamlining, skyscrapers and white metal, you might have thought that a saddler would have looked old fashioned... not a bit of it, Hermès was a collaborator with such talents as Jean Michel Frank, one of the great interior designers of the century. And it is from this period that my favourite Hermès timepiece dates; the leather or exotic skin-dialled Hermès clock made using a technique called plein cuir, which builds up layer upon layer of leather into a block into which the movement is set.
The Plein Cuir clock has been revived recently as part of the brand's prestige collection of timepieces, and I put it to Perramond that that time is now right to relaunch another piece from the Hermès archive - the belt watch. In the years between the world wars there was a great novelty about timepieces that were set into everything from lighters to front door keys and among my favourites was the belt watch, which as the name suggests included a timepiece in the buckle that flipped down when the wearer needed to tell the time. Hermès lore holds the belt watch was invented by a family member who enjoyed playing golf and certainly the impact of club on ball caused by all those swings cannot have been good for the fragile balance assemblies of the early 20th century. I daresay that it can be extrapolated to make a story that is to golf what the Reverso is to that other game of stick and ball - polo - and I believe it was marketed as the watch for the sportsman, perhaps not least because the wearer needed to stay trim to enable him to see the time past his stomach.
After all, Hermès must sell many kilometres of belts each year, so I put it to Perramond that he should bring back this horological eccentricity. Having been very expansive during our conversation he suddenly pleads the Fifth Amendment, allowing me to infer that before too long Hermès will have us strapping watches around our waists as well as our wrists.
Further information: www.hermes.com