SINGAPORE (July 30): A couple of months ago, Aloft, the contemporary art space located on the fourth level of the Hermès boutique at Liat Towers, was transformed into an atelier with an exhibition featuring timepieces by La Montre Hermès. Artisans were flown in from the manufacture in Brügg, Switzerland for the media and invited guests to witness the incredible art of miniature painting and leather marquetry.

After viewing the amazing timepieces, we moved into a partitioned area where a long table with tools and leather swatches in all shades were arranged to look like a workstation. It was time for the journalists to try our hand at leather marquetry. Derived from the French word for “inlay work”, it was known to have started with cabinet makers in 16th century Rome and France, who glued pieces of wood or leather together to form pictures on tables or cupboards. For larger items, pieces of veneer are glued together and sliced according to the required design.

Leather marquetry is enjoying a revival now, as fashion houses, along with home furnishing designers, are using this unique technique to embellish handbags and home decor items. La Montre Hermès has joined this growing trend, but with a challenging twist to it.

Leather is used but in a very difficult and time-consuming task, in which pieces of leather are thinned, cut and glued on a watch dial that measures 41mm in diameter. An example is the Arceau Cavales timepiece, which was on display at Hermès Liat Towers recently.

The challenge for us at the special event was to recreate the design on the dial of the Arceau Cavales — a dog flanked by two horses’ heads. To make it easier, we were asked to do only the dog.

Laid out before us were minute pieces of leather, the smallest being an estimated 0.5cm, which was part of the dog’s body. I could imagine the skill needed for wielding the sharp tools to slice the pieces.

The first step is to cut the leather

The different parts are cut according to the drawing 

The leather pieces are glued closely together so that no part of the dial can be seen

Most of the artisans gathered were women, something I asked Philippe Delhotal, creation and style director of La Montre Hermès, Brügg (Switzerland), about. He said, “Historically, the watch straps are stitched by women. So, they already have the skills and passion for the job. It is true that this is not a job for the men… [What is] surprising is that we have a lot of men who make the bags.”

We had to admit these women had an amazing eye for detail as they helped us decorate a dial using the leather marquetry technique. For starters, we were given a 41mm disc, just like the Arceau Cavales.

The design of the dog looked simple enough, but putting it together was extremely tricky. In total, we had eight pieces in two colours: mine was orange and yellow. First, we had to thin out the leather to a thickness of 0.5mm and fit the pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle. Each piece had to be glued closely together without any gaps in between. It had to be done quickly enough before the glue dried up because, if it did, you had to start all over again.

After what seemed like an eternity and with a lot of help from the master craftswoman, my work was done. The final product was not as smooth as I would have liked it to be. Nonetheless, my “masterpiece” was treated with much respect and placed on a bed made of sponge and in a gift box.

It is this attention to detail that goes into every piece of watch made at La Montre Hermès, and that is perhaps one of the reasons the timepieces are doing so well. Without disclosing any figures, Delhotal said, “We are happy with what we offer and, today, the climate is much better in the watch sector. We see people buying, there is more optimism and, yes, business is better. With positive thinking, you spend more. When I am happy, I want to spend money.”

On a more serious note, Delhotal added, “There’s a story behind all the products made by Hermès, not only the watches. What we can offer to our customers are products with a lot of emotions: where you know the story of the watch and why we made it, and I think this is important.”

Delhotal noticed that customers are now more interested to know how their watches were made. They want to buy these products because they are now more informed through the internet, newspapers and other media. “The customer needs to be reassured of the product that he or she is going to buy.”

With the consistent offerings that push technical and design boundaries, La Montre Hermès will always possess a timeless allure.