Louis Vuitton’s light-up wristwatch, an unlikely crossover of cutting-edge and haute horlogerie, explained by the man who created it.
The phrase “haute horlogerie” conjures many images, but mostly some sense of dusty, old-world luxury. Or maybe notions of black ties, genteel chalets and tradition. But it is less likely to conjure the playful patterns of trunk-maker and haute couture icon Louis Vuitton, and especially the watches it makes.
That’s something watchmaker Michel Navas recognizes.
“Louis Vuitton is renowned for many things, for its trunks, for its bags, for haute couture, for ready-to-wear, for its perfume. But not always for watchmaking,” he says.
No detail is too small—a wax model of a Tambour in the development process.
Navas would know. Alongside his collaborator Enrico Barbasini, Navas runs La Fabrique du Temps, a high horology skunk works brought entirely in-house by Louis Vuitton in 2011. As part of Louis Vuitton, La Fabrique du Temp is dedicated to changing those stale notions of haute horlogerie by producing complicated, avant-garde wristwatches for the French maison.
It was a savvy move from Louis Vuitton to fold La Fabrique du Temps into its watchmaking efforts. Navas is a rock star in the rarified air of high horology, a surefire hit-maker. He was educated in the craft of watchmaking by his father from the age of 10, when his passion rooted and took hold. Navas attended a prestigious watchmaking school, and his talent soon placed him among haute horlogerie’s elite.
Enrico Barbasini of La Fabrique du Temps Louis Vuitton.
In his early career, Navas sharpened his craft at Audemars Piguet. And he wasn’t there to clean the floors. Less than a decade later, Navas was placed in charge of tourbillon wristwatches at Gerald Genta. Seven years after that, Navas began work at Patek Philippe, where he was placed in charge of minute repeaters for the company under the direct supervision of CEO Thierry Stern.
Master artisans working in Louis Vuitton’s Haute Horlogerie atelier located outside of Geneva
Navas provided fresh ideas for innovation at Patek, but the company, with its vast catalog and roots in tradition, simply didn’t have space for them all, he says. So in 2007, Barbasini and Navas struck out on their own and formed La Fabrique du Temps. In those early days, La Fabrique du Temps had 10 or 12 clients, mostly big players in the Swiss watch industry, Navas says. In 2008, Navas and Barbasini met with Louis Vuitton and proposed their novel Spin Time complication would be a perfect fit for the 42.5 mm Tambour case, which held appropriate dimensions to house the imaginative mechanism.
Since then, Louis Vuitton and La Fabrique have been a dream fit.
“We are very free compared to where we came from. We always think about what is missing [in high horology], what our clients need on their wrist. We are very free because we can dare. We can add some daring watches, some daring systems, which they cannot do in other companies,” Navas says.
The Tambour Spin Time Air Quantum.
These daring watches still include the Tambour Spin Time, which houses its namesake complication wherein hours are displayed on one of 12 rotating markers on the watch’s dial. It’s a foundational and imaginative complication from La Fabrique du Temps, one that has been iterated in increasingly whimsical ways since the complication debuted nearly 15 years ago.
For 2022, another version of the Tambour Spin Time is called the Air Quantum. This riff on the form includes 12 hour markers made of silica that are beveled and polished. Within each hour marker is an LED light that’s activated by a push of the crown. The LEDs are powered by small batteries hidden within the case, and the electronics that allow the brilliant display are wedged neatly into the Tambour’s titanium and DLC-coated confines.
Three-dimensional modeling illustrates the modernity of research and design
Those classic dimensions were important to preserve, Navas says, and led to this integration of cutting-edge electronics within complicated watchmaking, rather than leveraging a larger but purely electromechanical power source.
“We thought about that, but we wanted to respect the size of the watch. It was very difficult to have an electric mechanical system,” Navas says. “It’s a totally normal Spin Time. But if you want to read the watch at night, you simply press the crown and light it up.”
A watchmaker carefully inspects the LV 77 caliber, the movement that powers the Louis Vuitton Escale Spin Time.
“It’s a silent minute repeater,” Navas says with a laugh.
That laugh and the playfulness of the Spin Time Air Quantum may underserve the serious commitment to classical watchmaking that underpins every complicated Louis Vuitton watch, and the work that La Fabrique du Temps does behind the scenes.
From their gorgeous headquarters in Meyrin, Switzerland, La Fabrique du Temps and its 96 employees (17 watchmakers, 10 dial-makers, a pair of designers, six engineers and others in supporting roles) offer a rare dedication to the purity and craft of watchmaking, producing just a few hundred watches per year.
The reception area features a selection of Louis Vuitton Objets Nomades designs.
“The most important thing for me in my professional life is to surround myself with these skills, this savoir-fair, this metier, to give rise to different watchmaking, but always with the utmost respect for high watchmaking,” Navas says.
He describes a collaboration that enables new ground to be broken in the world of haute horlogerie, where La Fabrique du Temp’s staff and their colleagues at Louis Vuitton share ideas over lunch and coffee, forming a “think tank” to pursue fresh ideas in watchmaking. It all falls under the Louis Vuitton banner.
A private client salon of La Fabrique du Temps Louis Vuitton.
“They leave us free to our imagination,” Navas says of Louis Vuitton. “I am one of the watchmakers. I’m an artisan. I work with my designers and we work with Paris. For my part, I develop the movements in a classical manner. The challenge is to bring some poetry in this world.”
Whether your own notion of haute horlogerie includes a light-up wristwatch with the looks of a spacecraft and a heart full of ambition, that’s a matter of personal taste. But one thing is undeniable: La Fabrique du Temps and its decidedly old-school dedication to craft are more than worthy of your praise and enthusiasm. So are Louis Vuitton wristwatches. Instead of producing the expected, LV has freed La Fabrique du Temps to chase its dreams. The world of haute horlogerie is far better for that infusion of imagination.
“Together we mix these two worlds,” Navas says. “Inside the watch you have all the technology and tradition, and outside you have all the modern touches of Louis Vuitton. I think it’s a very nice marriage.”
Pressing the pusher in the crown illuminates the hour cubes, accomplished by tiny LEDs positioned directly on the top face of each cube. The LEDs project a minuscule beam of light into each cube, lighting it up from the inside.