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A Journey in Time

Audrey Simon
Audrey Simon • 9 min read
A Journey in Time
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The Emile Hermès Museum contains about 50,000 items collected by founder Emile-Maurice Hermès

Walking into the Emile Hermès Museum, I imagined how Nell Trent must have felt when she stepped into her grandfather’s shop of odds and ends
in Charles Dickens’ book The Old Curiosity Shop.

Located at the top of Hermès’ flagship store on Faubourg Saint-Honore in Paris, the museum is a well-kept secret that is opened only to a few invited media and guests. Past invitees include Andy Warhol, Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor.

Founded by Emile-Maurice Hermès, the museum is meant to be a place where designers and staff come to be inspired. Not everything here is made by Hermès; in reality, a lot of the items are things Emile gathered on his travels or that caught his attention.

On entering the museum, the first thing we noticed was how dim the place was. We were told that it was meant to protect the items as some
of them date back to more than a 100 years. At every corner, there was something to admire — a framed picture of the very first Hermès logo took pride of place over a disused fireplace.

There was also equestrian paraphernalia, a horse-drawn carriage, an old Hermès clock, pill boxes, swords, picnic baskets and travel trunks that travellers nailed to the floor when they stayed in hotels. The list seems endless, as there are about 55,000 Hermès heritage objects here.

The museum staff showed us some historical timepieces too. We admired one with a gold bracelet and were told that only 10 pieces were made. The museum managed to locate only one.

Looking around, it is no wonder that Hermès invites designers that it collaborates with to browse the museum for ideas. For example, it was during such an excursion that Ini Archibong was inspired to create the equestrian-inspired Galop d’Hermès timepiece. Creative director Hermès Horloger Philippe Delhotal, meanwhile, admits to spending many hours here to absorb the spirit of the place.

Each of these colourful glass rods will be cut into 10mm-thick pieces and assembled on the dial of an Arceau Millefiori watch

How the Arceau Millefiori is made

From here, we took a three-hour train ride to Strasbourg, where we visited the Cristallerie de Saint-Louis. What do a crystal maker and a watchmaker have in common? The link dates back to 1989, when Cristallerie de Saint-Louis became part of the Hermès Group and the mesmerising Arceau Millefiori collection, which has a dial made with crystals using a technique based on the Millefiori motif paper weights made at Cristallerie de Saint-Louis, was born. It may be a French company but the word “millefiori”, which means “a thousand flowers”, is actually Italian; Italian because this technique was first done in Italy using Murano glass.

For the Arceau Millefiori collection, Hermès marries the art of watchmaking and glassmaking

From our vantage point on the second floor of the factory, we could see a well-choreographed performance by the craftsmen. Moving from one work station to another carrying piping-hot glass, not once did they get in each other’s way.

We also learnt how the dial on the Arceau Millefiori is created. From a safe area, we observed how pieces of molten glass rods were stretched by two men — in the same way a confectioner makes taffy sweets by pulling and stretching the molten sugar. Each rod was painstakingly stretched one by one for the different colours.

The gatherer or ball maker dips a punty (metal rod or blowpipe) into the mouth of these pots, each containing a colour of crystal or enamel, and twirls the molten matter to form a homogenous bubble-free mass known as a gob. The punty is passed on from hand to hand, breath to breath (the glass is blown while still hot to shape it) and workshop to workshop, until a monochrome crystal pipe is formed, which will create the canes that, in turn, give rise to the “millefiori” motif.

Colourful crystals are set on the dial of the watch by hand

The media had a hand in trying to assemble these tiny colourful cut pipes onto a dial. Even with a dial as big as our palm to practise on, it proved to be quite a challenge.

A watch movement that is made at the Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier

Movements, cases and dials
The next stop on our amazing journey was Fleurier, Switzerland to visit the Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier (VMF), which supplies high-end mechanical movements to various watch maisons. There are about 160 people working here producing about 12,000 movements a year.

The current facility was founded in 2003, but its history can be traced to the 18th century when the Vaucher family produced their first movements in Fleurier. In 1730, David-Jean-Jacques-Henri Vaucher trained many apprentices, including the young Ferdinand Berthoud, who some years later, with John Harrison, became one of the founding fathers of chronometry and was appointed Watchmaker to the King in France.

In keeping with this philosophy, VMF continues to pass on its knowledge, training numerous apprentices and sharing its expertise as a movement manufacturer with talented watchmakers. Indeed, we saw a watchmaking class in progress for children aged 10 to 15. Their enthusiasm was palpable as they pored over their textbooks with drawings and diagrams that only a watchmaker would understand.

A watch caseback featuring the Hermès logo goes through a polishing process

We then transferred to Le Noirmont, Switzerland, where Les Ateliers d’Hermès Horloger is located, to witness first-hand how cases and dials are made. As always, Hermès describes things in a very poetic way. The company’s press release states: If the movement is the heart and soul of the watch, the dial can be said to express this inner nature.

According to Hermès, there are no less than 60 operations involved in the process of making a “simple” dial. In the workshop of a dial-making craftsman, each new model requires new technical solutions to be put in place and staff is required to be versatile and able to adapt to various situations. He or she must know
the properties and secrets of a broad range of materials including brass, gold, aluminium, carbon fibre, mother-of-pearl and, sometimes, enamel, wood and precious stones.

We were taken into a mechanical workshop where the case was transformed from a block of material to one that was polished, shaped and ready to be assembled. But not before our guide took us to what he called the torture room. It was here that he gleefully put a case on a hammer and swung it against a wall.

Only when he was satisfied were the case and dial sent to a “nameless workshop”, where artisans set the diamonds, prepared the mother- of-pearl, faceted certain parts and performed small manual operations that cannot be done elsewhere.

Metals such as steel, gold and titanium, and even rare materials such as tantalum and palladium, were used. In the hands of talented engineers, these materials were transformed by going through processes such as machining or stamping/swaging, depending on the object. For example, the latter path was taken by the case of the Cape Cod, which features a distinctive curve and rounded shapes.

These operations were interspersed with regular firings in the kiln to let down or slacken the material. This involved a number of treatments including drilling, welding or cementing, cleaning and polishing, along with final quality control and water-resistance tests. Finally, the various parts of the case were ready for the movement to be placed.

Only unblemished leather in various shades are used to make the strap for watches

Straps to complete the timepiece
From Le Noirmont, we hopped on a bus to Bienne, Switzerland where we were showed how leather watch straps are made. Hermès is known for its exquisite workmanship in leather craft. Just take a look at the fine finishing on the Hermès Birkin and Kelly bags and you will understand what we are talking about.

We saw shelves heaving with bales of leather in every colour imaginable, along with exotic skins such as alligator and ostrich. Not surprisingly, Hermès signature leather — the Barenia or Epsom grain —was present everywhere.

A single flaxen thread is put through two hand-held needles and the strap is saddle-stitched together

With Hermès’ roots as saddle maker, people would look to the company to make leather straps when wrist watches replaced pocket watches in the 1900s. It made sense then for Hermès to start a leather workshop in 2006 dedicated to making watch straps.

Looking at a leather watch strap, one would think that it is probably easy to do. Not quite. At Hermès, a leather strap goes through so many steps to be completed that we lost count. In short, the process involves pre-cutting the leather of the same width but not length; the longer section is at six o’clock.

Only the best part of the leather is taken; wrinkles, veins and scratches are discarded. The thickness of the leather is filed down and tapers at each end of the strap. A sweat-absorbing fabric known as Viledon is glued between the leather pieces.

Technical terms such as sanglon (longest part of the strap), boucleteau (shortest part of the strap) and Zermatt (lining) are all bandied about during the presentation. We were very grateful for translators at this point.

After what seemed like never-ending steps, we viewed the final process of stitching, where single flaxen thread is put through two hand-held needles and the strap is clamped between a contraption that keeps the strap in position so that the craftsmen can start to saddle stitch. Finally, the stitches are hammered down to give it a smooth even finish.

It looked easy in the hands of the ladies who were stitching, so we decided to give it a try. Our efforts were not quite up to standard and it made us appreciate their difficult job.

Our Hermès Horloger journey was an incredible one that gave us a holistic view of what it takes to make the timepiece. It showed the many steps, different locations and huge team of people involved in bringing about that beautiful piece of art for your wrist.

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