Cover The dial of the Lady Arpels Ballerines Musicales watch by Van Cleef & Arpels is designed to look like a theatre stage, with curtains unveiling two ballerinas in miniature painting and a diamond-set chandelier rising above (Photo: Van Cleef & Arpels)

Van Cleef & Arpels creates a trio of musical watches that breaks conventions as well as technological barriers, as a tribute to George Balanchine’s ballet masterpiece Jewels

The earliest musical box was believed to have been made around 1770 in Switzerland. First designed to be fitted in pocket watches, the musical device slowly gained popularity and would gradually be built into wooden cases as popular household décor items.

But in recent years, horological brands have rarely ventured into the territory of musical watches, except that of minute repeaters. That is until Van Cleef & Arpels launched its Lady Arpels Ballerines Musicales collection earlier this year. As part of the brand’s Poetic Complications collection, the creations are inspired by famed choreographer and New York City Ballet co-founder George Balanchine’s masterpiece, Jewels.

The collection is a tribute to the close ties between Balanchine and Claude Arpels, the head of Van Cleef & Arpels’ American business. Legend has it (although reports vary) that Balanchine’s daily walks past the Van Cleef & Arpels boutique in New York inspired the idea for Jewels. Each act of the ballet honours a legendary composer, as well as a gemstone: Frenchman Gabriel Fauré for Emeralds, Russian Igor Stravinsky for Rubies and Russian Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky for Diamonds.

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The collection comprises three watches. Each embodies the characteristics of an act within the ballet, and sports a unique motif and combination of gemstones on the dial. The Lady Arpels Ballerine Musicale Émeraude boasts green hues, while the Lady Arpels Ballerine Musicale Rubis captivates with splashes of crimson. Lastly, the Lady Arpels Ballerine Musicale Diamant, with its shades of blue and gold, scintillates with sophistication.

And as if reproducing the theatrical performance, Van Cleef & Arpels also re-engineered the complex melodies of Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande, Op 80; Stravinsky’s Capriccio for piano and orchestra; and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 3 for the respective watches. With a depression of the button below the crown, the lower portion of the dial rotates with ballerinas prancing gracefully across as music plays from a four-gong carillon and a musical box fitted inside the watch case.

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Above Hear the watches from the Van Cleef & Arpels Lady Arpels Ballerines Musicales collection and their enchanting tunes (courtesy of Tatler Taiwan)

“It is a true technical achievement that creates an enchanting sound and sight experience,” enthuses Van Cleef & Arpels president and CEO Nicolas Bos via an email interview. “These pieces are the result of a collective teamwork and offer new perspectives that enrich the maison’s vision of watchmaking.” 

While he agrees that musical watches and the technology behind them are not new, Bos points out that there exists no creation on the market that “combines two instruments—a carillon and a music box—playing together within a wristwatch”. He sheds more light on the Lady Arpels Ballerines Musicales collection.

Can you tell us about the genesis of this project?

Nicolas Bos (NB) We really wanted to develop unique musical watches that would recreate the enchantment of ballet and the emotion of the audience in a theatre. It was a stimulating project as it was something the maison had never done to such extent. It is also completely connected to the Poetry of Time, Van Cleef & Arpels’ characteristic vision of time.

This collection has been in the works for several years. Was it technically challenging? Indeed, this project started 10 years ago. We had to find the technical means to bring our idea to life as we encountered several challenges for the development. The adaptation of the music was one of them: for this, we collaborated with [Swiss] concert musician, Michel Tirabosco, who adapted the music by Fauré, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky to just two instruments that are the carillon and the music box. It was challenging to find a good musical arrangement and to re-compose the three melodies according to the technical possibilities [that we had]. We also focused on obtaining a good sound quality, an enchanting musicality while ensuring the watches’ resistance to water.

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Are you happy with the audio quality attained in the final product?

NB Yes, the sound quality was essential for us. We chose the carillon and music box as they ensure a real musicality and a perfect pitch for the melodies. Putting these two instruments together was a big challenge as they had to be carefully tuned with respect to each other and to build a perfect harmony. They are complementary as they do not produce the same sounds: the carillon plays sustained and rather low tones, while the music box plays the short and rather high ones.

The architecture of the watch enables the sound to be amplified through the housing. The core of the watch is perfectly waterproof, while the sound is guided towards the outside through openings within the jewellery case. It was quite complex but we are very happy with the result and impressed by the quality of the sound.

Among all, which is your favourite?

NB Honestly very difficult! But I would choose the diamond version, with its subtle combination of white and blue tones, and the music of Tchaikovsky ... timeless!

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