Full disclosure: a lot of the (that’s read: all of the) profound things shared here are directly taken off a conversation between Nicolas Bos and Wei Koh at SIHH.  A conversation that I was most blessed to have a front row seat to. Here’s, in essence, a recollection of that conversation from where I was seated.

Traditionally, complications are always perceived to give more precise information. Whether it be the distinction between solar time and civil time, it must provide this precise information so that one is able to use it to its fullest utility.

And at some point, it is important to consider that perhaps we have too much information. Especially in a day and age, when all of this information is, quite frankly, readily available in much more practical forms and mediums.

Therefore, it’s important to ask, in today’s horological context, what is a complication meant to do? If we see it in this light, then may be the simple answer to that question is that it’s meant to make you happy.

Maybe it’s just meant to engage you; maybe it’s meant to uplift you.

This is where, Van Cleef & Arpel’s approach to creating complications has got the right idea in place. Take for instance the Lady Arpels Papillon Automate, which was shown at SIHH this year.

Now, this watch is an automaton, but one which co-exists with its wearer and enters into a sort of companionship with the person. It’s reflective of the person’s mood, which is quite exquisite when you think about it. Because there are enough objects of art in this world that evoke emotions but very few which are reflective of a person’s emotions at a given moment in time.

The butterfly automaton of the Lady Arpels Papillon Automate synchronizes to its companion’s energy levels and in that sense, reflects the person’s mood.

Mr. Nicolas Bos, Van Cleef & Arpels’ brilliant CEO explains, “It’s all tied in to the story of our poetic complications. We’re still trying to write different chapters in that story. This story, ultimately, has deep roots in the world of automatons. This is also what has led us to the table automaton that we’re so proud to have been able to bring to SIHH this year.

We often forget what a massive part of horology automatons are. These have always been a powerful way to tell stories. To inspire and delight. These complications hardly ever have any direct correlation to telling time or to the facility of conveying time. But their main purpose has always been to inspire.”

Such was the intention in Van Cleef & Arpels’ poetic complications all along: to fill in this void that otherwise exists in modern day horology. It is an intention that the maison continues to develop today with great conviction. A conviction, which in turn has lead the maison to express this art form in a whole new scale.

Enter the Automate Fée Ondine Extraordinary Object.

Says Mr. Bos, “We were really keen to explore how we could create animations not just on a horizontal plane, as is the case with most of our poetic watches, but on the vertical plane as well. We wanted to find out what we would be capable of creating if we weren’t constrained by the dimension constrains of a wristwatch.”

But how does one go about creating such a masterpiece and on such a scale. Mr. Bos explains, “We started off with a vision for what we wanted to create; some sketches and drawings. Then we enlisted the expertise of one, François Junod — an incredibly revered maker of automatons based in Sainte-Croix in Switzerland — who helped us look at all the ideas we had on the table and come to some form of a direction in which we could begin realizing the project.

It wasn’t an easy start. There was a lot of back and forth with what could be achieved and what was simply out of the question. Take for instance that in the beginning we had a drawing where the fairy was seated on top of a tree. As magnificent as the idea may have looked on paper, it wasn’t something that could be done with the totality of what we had in mind.

You have to understand that every animation in the Automate Fée Ondine Extraordinary Object is its own mechanism. And each mechanism must at the end of the day be integrated to one another to form the complete object. Here is where the biggest challenge lies, and here is also the reason why the object has taken us the few years to create.”

The next point in the challenge was, of course, to find the right talents within and outside of Van Cleef & Arpels to help execute the project and dress it with the right ornaments and really elevate the storytelling.

“We never had a commercial purpose in creating the Automate Fée Ondine Extraordinary Object,” says Mr. Bos. “It was just a way for us to show our peers and our partners that the spirit of storytelling — the Van Cleef & Arples way — is still very much alive in us.

I’m really glad that of all the years, this would be the year that we are able to show this creation off to the world. Considering the year that 2016 was, it’s an excellent way for my craftsmen to show off what they are capable of at a very demanding level. It’s good to be able to execute such projects now and then to remind ourselves of our roots and what we are capable of when no boundaries are set.

No one knew when we would finish the Automate Fée Ondine Extraordinary Object, how much it would end up costing or much we would sell it off for. Those things were never in our mind, because we created it, first and foremost, as proof to ourselves of our capability.”

And what a wonderful message to end off on that is. The power of creative expression and its boundless possibilities when such freedom is allowed. The great thing is, while a large part of the industry possibly went into SIHH expecting a dull show, such displays of creative expression and high spirits were not difficult to spot around every corner of Palexpo.

Automate Fée Ondine Extraordinary Object

Top: engraved and enameled silver strips, white gold, pink gold, diamonds, pink sapphires
Fairy: white gold, diamonds, sapphires, milky aquamarine, plique-à-jour enamel
Water lilies: silver, enamel, yellow gold, diamonds, yellow and orange sapphires
Butterfly: white gold, diamonds, pink sapphires, Australian white opal
Ladybird: pink gold, white gold, diamonds, rubies in Traditional Mystery Set™
Base: ebony veneer
Automaton mechanism: manual-winding mechanical automaton movement with animation on demand, 5 cycles of 50-second animation are available when the mechanism is fully wound.
Watchmaking mechanism: manual-winding mechanical movement, retrograde hour, 8-day power reserve
Unique piece