Can you say auction-worthy? Van Cleef & Arpels new Lady Arpels Ballerines Musicales collection represents the type of ladies’ horology that is most likely to appreciate in value: jeweled to the hilt, extremely technical and ultra rare.
While the watch is not actually limited, just three are currently available and, due to the painstaking expertise required to create each piece, only an elite few will be able to acquire one each year. The movement alone was seven years in the making. It combines a music box disk with a mechanical carillon minute repeater function; together, they play music synchronised with an on-demand animation of ballerinas dancing through an opening on the dial. Factor in intricate gem-setting, painting and engraving—all done, of course, by hand—and you have yourself both a mechanical, visual and audible work of art.
Like many of Van Cleef’s poetic pieces, the Lady Arpels Ballerines Musicales collection recalls a bygone era when exquisitely crafted objects were the norm. The collection represents the ballet Jewels by famed American choreographer George Balanchine, co-founder of the New York City Ballet. Each watch plays a theme that corresponds to the music assigned to each of the ballet’s three acts: “Pelléas et Mélisande, Op. 80” by Gabriel Fauré (1898) for emeralds; “Capriccio for piano and orchestra” by Igor Stravinsky (1929) for rubies; and Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 3 (1875)” for diamonds.
Van Cleef & Arpels’ celebration of dance dates back to 1920s Paris, when Louis Arpels, a ballet lover, regularly took his nephew Claude to the Opéra Garnier, a short walk from the Place Vendôme boutique. The company’s first ballerina clips were created in the early 1940s, and became one of its signature designs. In the 1950s, Claude Arpels became friends with Balanchine. Their shared passion for gems inspired Balanchine’s ballet Jewels, each act of which is linked to a particular gemstone. Van Cleef worked closely with Swiss concert musician Michel Tirabosco to simplify and adapt the arrangements for the music box disks, complemented by the carillon chimes. For example, the movement of the Lady Arpels Ballerines Musicales Rubis watch performs Stravinsky’s Capriccio by playing 92 notes: 69 by the music box, and 23 by the carillon.
While the music plays, ballerinas painted in various dance poses float by on a disk that rotates through an aperture slightly bigger than that of a typical moon phase display. Here, the opening is meant to represent a stage, surrounded by sculpted, engraved and hand-painted curtains. Both the drapes and the ballerinas are coloured green on the piece representing emeralds, red for ruby and light blue on the diamond piece. The diamond pavé on the upper dial represents a chandelier lavishly cascading over the stage. Diamonds in the case’s side are also arranged so that they fall like folds of fabric over the crowns. The one positioned at 2 o’clock is topped off with a gemstone in accordance with each theme—emerald, ruby or diamond.Despite a dial packed with detailed artistic flourishes, the watch tells time discreetly at the top of the dial using a star that moves across a retrograde hours scale in an arc between 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock, with dots representing 20-minute intervals between each hour. It has a 54-hour power reserve and is manually wound.
The 18-karat gold 44.5mm case is set with 7.92 carats of diamonds. The caseback is open, revealing a bas-relief engraving of a ballerina posing in attitude position in front of the Van Cleef & Arpels 5th Avenue boutique in New York, where Claude Arpels hosted George Balanchine in 1966 for a private viewing. Each is a limited numbered piece, and although only three were made in each colour, Van Cleef intends to relaunch production sometime in the future. Each comes with a birchwood and walnut marquetry case, created in partnership with luthiers (repairers of stringed instruments) and acoustics experts, and enriched with an electronic amplifier. Price is upon request.
In a second collection just released, Van Cleef & Arpels celebrates another of its favourite motifs, the fairy, with the Montre Lady Féerie. The dial is dominated by a fairy who counts time with a magic wand that moves along a retrograde minutes scale. Jumping hours are clocked in a window at 6 o’clock. The fairy is set with sapphires and diamonds, and sits on a cloud made of mother-of-pearl. Her wings are depicted in grisaille and plique-à-jour enamel. A rounded sapphire crystal maximises the light that enters and reflects on the dial surfaces. The 33mm case is set with diamonds. It contains an automatic movement with a 36-hour power reserve, the rotor of which is engraved with a full moon and stars. Van Cleef & Arpels has created fairy-themed watches and jewelry since the 1940s, representing them as symbols of joy and hope. Pieces are numbered and limited. Price on request.
Previously published on Robb Report.