Today, time is inescapable. From every corner, buzzing inside our pockets, staring emotionlessly at us from a myriad of screens, intruding from a seemingly endless array of devices — our dependence on the electronic world has caused us to be ceaselessly confronted by reminders of the fleeting nature of our existence upon this mortal coil. And so, a mechanical watch exists in an amusing dichotomy. On the one hand, its raison d’être is to provide a constant and accurate measurement for the passing of time — a noble function that reaches back to Harrison and his marine chronometers and beyond. On the other hand, considering the way we are overwhelmingly bombarded with pervasive reminders of time, a mechanical watch actually exists to escape the plodding finality of mortality. Through the beauty of its mechanism, the enchanting language of gear wheels, the inventiveness of its creators and the beauty with which it is executed, a mechanical watch allows us to step outside ourselves and for a moment, lose ourselves in the transportive magnificence of this unique merger of high performance and art known as horology.

So, in some ways, I’ve always found it funny that the majority of watch brands have been creating traditional complications intended to add some other level of empirical information to the watch. For example, a perpetual calendar that will allow you to navigate the shoals of the Gregorian calendar, a minute repeater that will transform empirical time into sound, a chronograph… well, that will give you a precise empirical measure over time during a specific event. It’s interesting that the world’s most expensive Rolex, which sold for nearly 2.5 million Swiss francs at the Phillips Geneva Watch Auction in May 2016, was one of 12 known split-second chronographs of its type created by the brand in 1942, and offered — according to the neatly packaged mythology accompanying it — only to a select group of racecar drivers from professional racing teams. And yes, the amazing movement within it allows you to calculate a lap time thanks to an additional split-second hand, but I can pretty much assure you that it was never actually used by any professional driver ever, while he was racing. Have you ever tried to read a split time off a rattrapante? Imagine doing that at speed, inside a car cockpit.

My point is, why is it that watch brands seem intent on repeating past complications in a world that doesn’t need them? Because the ability to calculate a lap time is a feature on your phone as well as any five-dollar quartz watch. So, why do we continue to be enchanted by the same old complications that have been repeated since time immemorial? Why did the aforementioned watch sell for such a staggering sum of money? That’s because traditional complications have always related to high performance and more information. But this also begs the question of whether, in the last 200 years or so, complicated watches could have expressed something else besides empirical information. It begs the question: “Can a complicated watch provoke surprise, charm you in ways you never imagined, enter into symbiosis with you, and yet also seem to live an apparently random independent life?”

That is precisely the purpose underlying what is one of the most charming watches I’ve encountered this year and it is, of course, made by Van Cleef & Arpels. Since the 2000s, Van Cleef & Arpels has been making complicated watches in a decidedly different way. Their Poetic Complication, as the name implies, is intended to evoke emotion and delight from the wearer in visually and intellectually provocative ways that transform the watch from an empirical instrument into a platform for the most delightful artistic expressionism.

Their first watch, the Lady Arpels Féerie, features a miniature gold fairy reclined on a sea of flinqué enamel. The fairy’s wand follows a retrograde track to tell the hours, while one of its wings provides a similar reading for the minutes. Van Cleef & Arpels then followed this delightful achievement with a particularly enchanting timepiece named the Lady Arpels Pont de Amoureux, a watch that traces a man and a woman’s journey to meet at the center of a bridge to kiss at midnight. The woman advances over the course of twelve hours and provides an indication for the hours, while the man advances over the course of an hour and provides the corresponding reading for minutes. Says the brand’s CEO Nicolas Bos, “We thought it was only fitting that the man should have to do more work to meet the woman.” Once they meet at the very last moment, amusingly, it is the figure of the woman that leans in to kiss the man. Says Bos with typical French aplomb, “It is the woman’s prerogative, of course, to initiate the kiss.” After which they would temporarily part ways, with their respective retrograde mechanisms sending them back to their start points, where they would begin again their dance of courtship. The Pont de Amoureux was universally lauded when it was released in 2010, and it has become both a commercial and critical hit for Van Cleef & Arpels, serving also to consolidate their unique vision of the poetic complication.

Flowers That Fly
The latest watch from Van Cleef & Arpels, however, is something quite different. It is a round, medium-sized watch with dial rendered in a dazzling array of marquetry and enamel work — a pastoral scene depicting long tapering leaves that traverse the dial is created using the plique-à-jour technique, producing a lovely translucent enamel that looks like stained glass. But it is on the bottom left side of the dial that an incredible miniature butterfly rendered in white gold with plique-à-jour wings lives. And I mean “lives” in a very literal sense of the word. Because if the Greeks were the ones to first express the concept of anima, or the idea of an object being animated with a spirit of soul, the butterfly in the Lady Arpels Papillon Automate is the highest, most evocative manifestation of anima in high luxury today.

To begin with, this butterfly flutters its wings one to four times in a row depending on the level of the power reserve, so it tells you how much energy the watch has. But there is also a mechanism that compels the butterfly to flutter its wings at random intervals. This takes place 19 times per hour when the watch is not being worn. Not only that, incredibly, the butterfly can also sense your level of energy based on how rapidly the automatic-winding mechanism in the watch’s movement is triggered, and the rate of fluttering speeds up when the watch is worn on the wrist — for example, the butterfly can flutter its wings at 100 beats within half an hour if you wear the watch when you’re actively moving your arm. Says Bos, “We like the idea that when you go to sleep and place your watch by your bedside table, your butterfly will also go to sleep and flap its wings infrequently. But if you are busy and active, then the butterfly will flap its wings more frequently, because like a pet or a companion, it exists to mirror your energy and your life patterns.”

And like a great pet, the butterfly also responds to commands. Simply depress the pusher integrated into the side of the case and the butterfly will flap its wings five times consecutively. “It is only upon command that it will flap five times,” Bos explains, “and if you hold the pusher down, the butterfly will flap in perpetuity or up to 40 minutes.” Similarly, you can create a sort of “feeding time” for the butterfly by manually winding the watch. It will continue to flap as you wind the watch until the power reserve has been reached, at which point it will stop flapping as if to amusingly indicate, “I’m full.”

I would be loath to position the Lady Arpels Papillon Automate as a women’s watch because it is so universally appealing. It is a watch that lives for the sole purpose of bringing delight to its owners and as such, is very much like a pet or a companion, living a life that is simultaneously independent yet inextricably linked with yours. More than just a timepiece, the Lady Arpels Papillon Automate is one of the most significant works of contemporary watchmaking expressionism. It is a perfect expression of happiness, delight, surprise and charm. And I can’t think of anyone, male or female, that couldn’t have a bit more of all of these qualities in their lives. By enriching and evolving their philosophy for Poetic Complications, Van Cleef & Arpels has also permanently enriched and evolved the story of watchmaking.