The Beguiling Aquatic Glass Art Of The Hermès Arceau Grands Fonds
by Martin Green
Some brands have the perfect canvas upon which to “paint” extraordinary watches. Such is the case for Hermès whose then artistic director Henri d’Origny designed the Arceau watch in 1978.
The Arceau’s design – its upper lugs were inspired by stirrups – serves as a tip of the hat to Hermès’ beginnings making horse harnesses in Paris’s Grands Boulevards quarter.
It is the unusual use of two types of lugs – stirrups on the top and quasi-integrated on the bottom – that give the Arceau models such a distinct look that doesn’t overpower the overall design. Combined with the round 41 mm case and thin bezel, the design enables the brand to use the case as a canvas for unusual watches. Which leads us to the new Arceau Grands Fonds métiers d’art timepiece.
Hermès Arceau Grands Fonds: an imaginative melting pot of colors and textures
The Arceau Grands Fonds takes its inspiration from a scarf designed in 1992 by Annie Faivre, a French artist who has designed scarves for Hermès since 1979.
This particular scarf named Grands Fonds, which Faivre designed in 1992, depicted a variety of aquatic animals from which Hermès selected one to feature on this watch. The way that it comes to life on the dial is unique: within a microcosm of colored glass.
Crafting one dial requires a considerable amount of expertise, a steady hand, and about a month’s worth of time. The first step is selecting the right colors of glass, which are then melted at more than 700 °C, a temperature that allows for precisely the right thickness to make the appropriate glass strands for the design. The strands are then filed to the right height to create tiny tiles.
After this, the mosaic puzzle begins.
The colored glass rods are set in a putty base made of lime and linseed oil mixed with marble powder. This requires a lot of patience as they not only have to be set in such a way to represent the original design, but also taking care that the surface remains perfectly flat. Only then and after drying for one month can it serve as the dial for this watch.
This process is so labor intensive and requiring a rare set of skills and experience that Hermès is only making six of these watches, each of which can well be said to be a unique work of art.
Hermès Arceau Grands Fonds: artistic front, matching movement
Such exquisitely artistic watches are often powered by quartz movements as the dial is really the main focus. Fortunately, however, Hermès chose differently, opting to power the Arceau Grands Fonds with the brand’s own Caliber H1837. This movement was developed with Vaucher, the Swiss movement manufacture of which Hermès owns 25 percent.
With a height of 3.7 mm, this automatic movement is pleasantly slender yet simultaneously robust. Hermès could have gone thinner, as this is most certainly within Vaucher’s capabilities to do so, but as it powers watches that are actually meant to be worn, being more robust was probably higher on the wish list. It features a full-size rotor and offers a power reserve of 50 hours.
Caliber H1837 is engraved with the brand’s signature H, which is repeated all over the bridges and on the rotor. Some might find this too much of a good thing, but I am quite taken by its looks. It reminds me of what Cartier did in the 1990s to their Girard-Perregaux-powered Pashas, adding intertwined Cs.
The Hermès way of life
There is no denying that the Arceau Grands Fonds is a rare and precious beauty. Its glass dial is a work of art, framed by a case made of white gold.
And, as is nearly everything with Hermès, the Arceau Grands Fonds is also a functional object going beyond being well made and beautiful. As the movement testifies, Hermès wants you to enjoy this watch on the wrist, where it belongs.
That’s the real power behind the French brand: it is undeniably luxurious yet that is somewhat of an added value instead of a core leitmotif.
Let’s hope that the six owners of the half-dozen Arceau Grands Fonds models agree with me: that would give us just that little bit more of a chance of encountering this stunning watch in the wild.
Quick Facts Hermès Arceau Grands Fonds
Case: white gold, 41 mm
Dial: glass mosaic
Functions: hours, minutes
Movement: automatic Hermès Caliber H1837 with 50-hour power reserve 4 Hz/28,800 vph frequency
Limitation: 6 pieces
Price: $100,200 / €88,000 / 100,000 CHF / £79,000