Time travel with Louis Vuitton

There’s an interesting disparity between the knowledge that La Fabrique du Temps, the fine watchmaking division of Louis Vuitton, is just 15 years old and the fact that the watches that it produces in increasing sophistication and artistry year on year look and feel as if they belong to a manufacture of a markedly more august extent. In a way, they do. Although the first ever Louis Vuitton watch – the Tambour – was only put on sale in 2002, the heritage of the company goes right back to 1854, when its eponymous founder, seizing on the completely new arena of individual travel, created a business selling upscale luggage, leather goods and other travel-related ephemera to customers for whom the options of getting from A to B had suddenly become much more interesting. As personal travel grew, so did Louis Vuitton.

Hamdi Chatti, head of watches at Louis Vuitton.

Its output today is formidable – in 2016 its revenues were approximately $10 billion and it is the world’s biggest luxury brand by quite some margin, operating in over 50 countries worldwide – but it retains a cohesive identity thanks to a fierce safeguarding of its aesthetic codes. The brand’s heritage informs every aspect of its output, including of course, its relatively new watch division, where a team comprising the watch industry’s most talented designers, craftspeople and artisans has been assembled. Their goal is to drive innovation, independent thinking and invention, spearheading exciting and experimental watch technology under the aegis of the maison. The watch division is called Fabrique du Temps and is based in Meyrin, Geneva. Inaugurated in 2014, that building consolidates the ateliers, various watchmaking entities and experts hired and contracted to work on the first watches since 2002. La Fabrique du Temps itself was set up in 2007 as a watchmaking workshop to work with Louis Vuitton and which the company fully acquired in 2011.  Hamdi Chatti, the company’s Vice-President of watches and jewellery, came on board in 2010 to oversee this new chapter in Louis Vuitton watchmaking. Via stints at Piaget, Harry Winston and Montblanc, Chatti has helped to pave the way for Louis Vuitton to stand shoulder to shoulder with watch manufactures whose heritage in watchmaking matches LV’s own expertise in making trunks for the world’s first jet-setters.

Looking back on the stratospheric rise of Louis Vuitton’s fine watchmaking division, La Fabrique du Temps it seems scarcely believable that watches such as the recently launched Tambour Moon Tourbillon Volant are the fruits of less than two decades of watchmaking. How has it been possible?
The main reason is that we are a company that does things in a different way! We stand for quality and innovation and always take care of clients directly. No other organisation sells our products and this way of thinking make developing categories new such as watches very different. We listen to clients, our network and the stores first of all, and then we innovate – a blend between heritage and contemporary design.

Tambour Moon Tourbillon Poinçon de Genève.

The Tambour Moon Tourbillon Volant is the first diamond-encrusted watch to receive the Poinçon de Genève and the Tambour Moon Flying Tourbillon has also received this distinction. It must have been incredible to work on such a project.
The team has made a great a job! The pieces are a true demonstration of craftsmanship and the aesthetics are as remarkable as its mechanism. I had asked the team if there was something, a great innovation that we could work towards and they said the Geneva Seal was the hardest to obtain. And I said ‘ok, do it, go for the Geneva Seal but make sure it’s something new.’ They managed to have diamonds on the movement which is a great achievement in itself, and there is that blend of tradition, heritage and amazing innovation, which to me perfectly expresses everything that Louis Vuitton stands for.

The Fabrique du Temps credentials have been established, but what was it like in the beginning, working on convincing the watch industry that a major fashion player could enter the conversation?
Honestly, we don’t really work in this way – our aim was to convince our clients first, to make sure our colleagues were happy about what we were doing and to make sure we were doing a good job. That includes everyone from the watchmakers to the retail team. Today, most of team is Geneva and the ones based in Paris spend a minimum of one day a week in Geneva – that’s not negotiable.

 In a little under seven full years you’ve overseen the successful entry of Louis Vuitton into fine watchmaking – who are some of the great talents of modern horology who have joined you on that journey and was it difficult to convince them to come on board?
The founders of La Fabrique, Enrico Barbazini and Michel Navas, are our two key watchmakers. Between then they’ve designed for Patek Philippe, Franck Muller, worked with Gerard Genta…  When I told them about what I wanted to do, I said ‘Look, if you want to use your great knowledge, your savoir faire and heritage to foster a new way of doing things, this is our goal. We are going to be much more contemporary, we can go as crazy as you like.’ They were not expecting to hear that. That was one of the ways I convinced them, and since they have come on board it’s become usual to hire excellent watchmakers. Enrico and Michel oversee the high complications. They weren’t expecting the connected watch, but today Enrico still wears the very first one we made.

You’ve been instrumental in defining what it is that Louis Vuitton watches stand for and how the heritage is interwoven in a convincing way. What for you, defines a Louis Vuitton product?
Let me give you an example. One of the most significant ways we worked was to design the Flying Tourbillon watch at the same time as the Tambour Horizon watch, the company’s first connected watch. The team asked how they could possibly work on a Geneva Seal with diamonds on the movement at the same time design connected watches. But for me that is exactly what Louis Vuitton stands for. We work in different directions. What we do makes sense for the client, who can understand why something has been designed, whatever they are wearing. One of our best clients told me he wears beautiful shoes, sometimes a tuxedo… and a mechanical watch. But on the weekends he puts on sneakers and a connected watch that is functional, that he can do sports in. He likes the idea that whatever he is doing, he has a Louis Vuitton watch on his wrist.

Customisation and personalisation, as well as limited-edition pieces is a popular area in the Middle East especially. What can watch clients enjoy at LV that addresses this particular segment?
We don’t do limited editions, but personalisation has always been at the core of what we do. When we launched our minute repeater with a hand-painted face, we offered customers the chance to paint their own crest or initials on the watch. That idea is very linked to our heritage and whether you are based in Dubai, or Sharjah or wherever, you can have a crest or initials or your own colours. We can even personalise the Geneva Seal movement; where on the flying tourbillon there is the ‘V’ you can have your own initials instead, which is unique in the industry and no one else does that.

With the smartwatch recently unveiled, this is a new direction not just for Louis Vuitton but for fine watchmaking generally. Will traditional watchmaking techniques be fused with the digital and connected world?
Kids don’t wear watches anymore, so we need to reintroduce millennials to this beautiful craft. One way is to talk their language and their language is digital. If they wear the Tambour Horizon, they will fall in love with watches. I love watches and will continue to wear beloved complications and collect, and I want to make sure that in 50 years time we are still wearing mechanical watches.