Louis Vuitton Marks 20 Years of Watchmaking

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In watchmaking, two decades is a blink of an eye.

Vacheron Constantin was founded in 1755; Rolex has been around since 1905; and this past April, Audemars Piguet marked 50 years of the Royal Oak, considered one of its modern models.

By that measure, Louis Vuitton — a fashion brand known for its travel trunks, handbags and ready-to-wear that ventured into watchmaking only 20 years ago — is still a newcomer. But two decades is a milestone, and the brand is marking it with a limited-edition watch and a new ad campaign with plenty of star power.

The Tambour Twenty chronograph was introduced last month in a short advertising video, “Journey Beyond Time,” shot by the Oscar-winning “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle, and starring Bradley Cooper in his first appearance as a Louis Vuitton ambassador.

The watch itself, priced at $17,800 and limited to 200 pieces, is nearly identical to the 2002 Tambour model that started Vuitton’s watchmaking journey, except that it has a red-gold oscillating weight in the back. It is powered by the LV 277 automatic movement, based on Zenith’s El Primero high-frequency chronograph movement, and made in-house by the Vuitton design studio La Fabrique du Temps.

“We chose the original Tambour case for this anniversary piece because it has become a signature of the house,” said Michel Navas, a master watchmaker at La Fabrique, the movement design studio that Vuitton bought in 2011. And “the Zenith El Primero movement was selected because it is unmatched among precision chronograph calibers.”

(Both Vuitton and Zenith are among the watch brands owned by the luxury group LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.)

Vuitton does not publish financial information about its watch division, but LVMH reported a total revenue of 36.7 billion euros ($35.7 billion) in the first half of 2022, up 28 percent year-over-year, with the watches and jewelry division up 22 percent for the period.

Over the past 20 years, Vuitton has introduced 23 watch designs, and while it declines to disclose its annual output, reports have estimated it makes 20,000 pieces a year.

Several of those designs have made it a contender among serious watchmakers.

“Louis Vuitton is known for its creativity and audacity in design, and our 20 years have been well rewarded,” Jean Arnault, marketing and development director for Louis Vuitton watches, said last November when he accepted prizes for the Tambour Street Diver Skyline Blue and the Tambour Carpe Diem at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (G.P.H.G.), an annual industry awards event.

It was the Carpe Diem, an automaton wristwatch featuring a skull with a snake coiled around it, that drew particular attention. The watch had 426 components, a snake-shaped pusher at 2 o’clock that activated a 16-second process to display the time, and included a minute repeater, a retrograde minute and jumping hours. It took two years to develop, Mr. Navas said, and “required hundreds of hours by exceptional métiers d’art artisans, like the engraver Dick Steenman and the enameler Anita Porchet.”

The company considered the watch a success — “We proved to our peers just how far Louis Vuitton can go in haute horlogerie,” Mr. Navas said — but it has stopped making it in order to focus on new projects.

For some in the industry, Vuitton’s acquisition of La Fabrique, based in Meyrin, outside Geneva, has been its most significant achievement. “Louis Vuitton was not well known for its watchmaking, but the undisputed reputation of La Fabrique for excellence has put them on the map,” said Nicolas Wiederrecht, co-director of Agenhor, a watchmaking studio in Meryin. “We are neighbors and competitors, but it is a constructive competition, and we have tremendous respect for La Fabrique because they bring important creativity to watchmaking,” (Vuitton also bought the dial maker Léman Cadrans in 2012.)

And moving its watch assembly plant from La Chaux-de-Fonds, in northwestern Switzerland, to Meyrin in 2014 paved the way for the house’s Flying Tourbillon to obtain the coveted seal of quality for watches made in Geneva, known as the “Poinçon de Genève,” two years later.

Along with its mechanical watches, Vuitton has made a smartwatch, the Tambour Horizon, since 2017. Earlier this year, it introduced a third generation, the Tambour Horizon Light Up, designed to look like a traditional timepiece, but powered by the company’s proprietary software. Priced from $3,405 to $4,410, depending on the material used for the case and bracelet, it has an always-on display and colorful themes for its customizable face.

What can collectors expect in the next 20 years? “We have shown the world that we are serious horological players,” Mr. Navas said. “We will use it to make exceptional watches.”

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