Here's where you'll find leather marquetry and high watchmaking combined in one elegant package
Skin on skin
If you're familiar with the Hermès design philosophy, you'll know that the maison values quality and traditional handcraftsmanship above all. This is one of the reasons why everything that comes out of its workshops, or ateliers as Hermès calls them, embodies perfection in ways we would never have thought possible. Far more than the sum of its parts, an Hermès handcrafted object balances form with function while allowing the maison's creativity to constantly shine through.
Leather-crafting is a skill mastered at Hermès since its earliest days. From saddles and harnesses, the maison quickly moved on to riding bags and other accessories. Before long, its unrivalled artistry and acuity with all forms of leather led the maison to dominate the industry with such landmark creations as the Haut à Courroies bag, the Kelly bag and of course the bag-to-end-all-bags, the Birkin. Lately however, Hermès has taken its leatherworking expertise onto a different track, one that is much more artistically focused than anything it's ever done before: Leather marquetry.
Taking miniature fragments of leather all precision-cut by laser machines and mixing them up to form a tapestry of patterns and colour, the Hermes artisan combines two of the maison's most beloved crafts in one beautiful objet d'art: Leatherworking and watchmaking. But this time, leather has been used as the embellish – as one would with precious wood, metal or – rather than the raw material with which to build a final product. Two watches, the Arceau Cavales and the Slim d'Hermès Les Zebres de Tanzanie, showcase this extraordinary technique within the minute confines of a 41mm white gold timepiece.
Working with Hermès's favourite theme, horses, the artisan plays with calfskin tesserae in colours like Hermès Red, Malta Blue and Graphite. Each fragment is not only extremely tiny but paper-thin as well, measuring just around 0.5mm in thickness. Picking them up one by one with a set of specialty tweezers, she carefully applies glue on the back, letting it air for a few seconds, before placing it onto the dial. It is a delicate operation requiring extremely steady hands, just like the assembly of tiny watch components in a mechanical movement.
Powered by the Hermès Calibre H1837, these six-piece limited editions watches demonstrate a unique watchmaking approach where tradition meets creativity. Says creative director of Hermès, Philippe Delhotal, "Our goal is not to keep finding new techniques to introduce. Rather, it is to bring something different and unique to our customers. For example, all the big brands today do enamel, but we differentiate ourselves with creativity, colour, patterns, and so on. We bring a unique brand of simplicity to our products."
In the Slim d'Hermès Les Zebres de Tanzanie, Hermès juxtaposes leather marquetry with traditional champlevé and miniature enamel in a refreshing combination that's never-before seen with any other brand. On this, Delhotal adds, "We don't have a patent on leather marquetry but it's such an obvious signature of Hermès that if other watch brands want to attempt it, we'll bid them good luck, for what interest would they have in using leather? It's not their environment at all, it's not in their DNA."
Continuing on from where the Arceau Cavales left off, Hermès hit upon yet another way of showcasing its expertise with leatherworking: Mosaic. An ancient craft, mosaic art is composed of hundreds or thousands of individual pieces forming a whole. Often mosaic artists use stone, glass, shell or any other material but at Chez Hermès, mosaic is done using leather. Specifically, the Arceau Robe du Soir uses 2,200 tiny leather squares to form a profile of a horse. Featuring a dressage horse against an electric blue backdrop, this picture comes from the 2018 Hermès Robe du Soir silk scarf designed by Florence Manlik.
It took the Hermès artisan a full year and a half to devise the processes required to produce this piece. To begin, she needs to cut out - by hand of course — no fewer than 3,500 tesserae from carefully selected full grain calfskin. Of these, she selects the most perfectly cut before trimming and buffing the pieces individually, and then proceeds to assemble the picture. The process is fairly similar to that which is used in leather marquetry but with added challenge simply because the pieces are so small. Moreover, the artisan has to keep the flow of the squares neat yet organic for the best results.
A 12-piece limited and numbered edition, the Arceau Robe du Soir is made in rose gold and paired with a vivid blue Swift calfskin strap. Inside, the Hermès-manufactured Calibre H1837 which you can see through the sapphire case back provides power of up to 50 hours.
How astounding is it that Hermès has managed to find such creative ways to play around with leather? Delhotal explains that this is a perfect showcase of how Hermès uses traditional arts in a contemporary manner. He says, "We're not stuck in the old age. We make very contemporary products... You can always show contemporary designs using traditional methods."