One of the real pleasures of being a part of the watch community is the opportunity to see a watch where you immediately think, "I probably won't ever see that again." Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, we're not allowed to take photos – let alone share those experiences. But thanks to Vacheron Constantin (and the owner of this watch), I get to share a brief look at a pièce unique watch that came through the brand's New York flagship recently. This is the Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers Homage to Peter Paul Rubens' La lutte pour l'étendard de la Bataille d'Anghiari.
This unique watch started back in December of 2020 when Vacheron Constantin took part in an auction with 100% of the proceeds benefiting Le Studio du Louvre, a studio space that houses the vast project of educational workshops at the Louvre. These programs are designed to make art and cultural education more accessible for everyone, from families and students to school groups, and disabled and disadvantaged visitors of all ages. Even better, all these programs are included with admission to the museum.
The winning bidder paid €280,000 for the chance to have Vacheron Constantin create a bespoke one-of-a-kind model, with a dial reproduction in miniature enamel or grisaille enamel of any piece of artwork in the Louvre collection. But it wasn't as simple an experience as flipping through a catalog for inspiration.
Instead, the bidder took a personal and private tour guided by the museum's experts in search of the perfect piece to turn into a watch dial. It was there, in the Cabinet des Dessins – a place accessible to the public by reservation only – that the bidder found the piece by Rubens that served as the basis for this watch: La lutte pour l'étendard de la Bataille d'Anghiari.
The painting itself – "The Struggle for the Standard of the Battle of Anghiari," as it would be translated in English – is a drawing by the Flemish master Rubens with a fascinating and complicated background. During Rubens' stay in Italy during the early 17th century, the painter is said to have purchased and then retouched this very sheet of art depicting the Battle of Anghiari in ink, wash, and gouache.
The original version of the "Battle" was a vast composition by Leonardo da Vinci, commissioned to create for the Great Council Chamber of the Palazzo della Signoria – which subsequently became Palazzo Vecchio – in Florence. It was regarded as one of the artist's great masterpieces – celebrating a famous victory of the armies of Pope Eugene IV and the republics of Venice and Florence over those of the Duke of Milan – but was left unfinished by Leonardo in 1506 and deteriorated very quickly. Other recent art historians suggest it was never even started. Yet da Vinci’s studies for the piece are well documented.
From my understanding of the history of the Rubens piece, the artwork could be based off a later engraving by Lorenzo Zacchia, itself either based off a cartoon done by da Vinci or the unfinished original (if it ever existed). And while there are a few pieces that serve as lasting physical reminders of the original da Vinci plan, this is maybe the most famous for being a “collaborative” effort of an idea taken to its conclusion by Rubens. Vacheron's master enameler did an amazing job capturing the depth and power of the Rubens piece and did so in a way that unfortunately doesn't come through nearly as well in photos as it does in person.
I can't imagine how hard it would be to take a portion of a painting and translate it into miniature on a dial just 3.3 cm in diameter. According to quotes from the anonymous master enameler of the Les Cabinotiers workshop, it took a delicate balance to accomplish both detail and depth. While the enameler thought that Geneva miniature painting technique would be the most appropriate way to pay tribute to the original work, he incorporated blanc de Limoges, generally used in grisaille enamel. At times the enameler used brushes with only three or four bristles or even cactus spines for fine detail.
One of the things that really captured my attention was the movement not only of the artwork, but also how the light played off the different parts of the enamel, accentuated by the dark sections, especially in the horses' mane. That's the power of blanc de Limoges: relief and movement. They tell me that it was also accentuated by a Geneva flux undercoat – a final transparent and colorless protection to the layers of vitrified enamel – that gives extra brilliance and depth.
In the end, the artist used around 20 shades of brown, grey-brown, sepia brown, and cream brown, and between each color the dial was fired at a temperature of 900°C. The first layers had to be fired very lightly, just long enough to start the enamel's vitrifying process, but not too much to alter the shade of color.
The final watch is cased in a 40mm wide by 9.42mm thick 18K pink gold case with an officer-type caseback. Inside is the Caliber 2460 SC, designed and manufactured by Vacheron, with hours, minutes, and seconds. It's a self-winding movement found mostly in the brand's Métiers d'Art watches, running at 4 Hz with about 40 hours of power reserve. I wasn't able to wear the watch (it was a stretch to be allowed to handle it, out of respect to the owner, who of course, wants the watch in perfect condition when they take delivery), but the measurements and the feel of the watch in the hand make it definitely perfectly wearable. In my opinion though, this is a display piece and a work of art more than a wearable timepiece.
While the point of the watch is certainly the dial, Vacheron has put time and thought into the movement finishing, as one would expect. The most obvious is the 22K pink gold oscillating weight featuring an engraving of the Louvre's eastern façade.
Maybe one of the coolest parts about this watch is that, while unique, it opened the door to a new partnership and experience that will be open to those with a relationship with the brand (and who can afford it). When the watch was first up for auction, they called it a "Masterpiece on Your Wrist," which is now the title of a new program being offered by the Louvre and Vacheron Constantin. And after recently weathering the intense heat and maddening crowds of summer tourism in Paris, I couldn't be more envious of not only the watches that will be made, but also the experience the new program will offer.
Through the program, customers will get a private tour of the Louvre alongside guides from the museum and master watchmakers and artisans from Vacheron Constantin, who will help in the search for the perfect inspiration for a single-piece edition of their own choosing. Like with the Homage to Peter Paul Rubens, the art the buyer picks will be re-created in enamel. And while my mind is racing to imagine the paintings I'd choose – this is, after all, probably the closest I'd get to kind of owning a Caravaggio – the price tag (I'm told featuring the magic words "on request") promises to be far out of my reach, so I'm hoping I'll get to see other watches that come out of the program for lucky customers.