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Extraordinary Van Cleef & Arpels
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Extraordinary Van Cleef & Arpels

Tuesday, 17 January 2017
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Marie Le Berre
Freelance writer and journalist

“How does time turn the corners on square clocks ?”


Spread the word of watchmaking and introduce as many people as possible to an all too little-known sector.

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4 min read

Van Cleef & Arpels brought wonder to the opening day of SIHH 2017 with its Automate Fée Ondine, impressive in both size and beauty.

The overwhelming sentiment, once the amazement has subsided, is that such a creation was destined to exist. As Van Cleef & Arpels President and CEO Nicolas Bos explains, “this piece fits perfectly with the philosophy we uphold. We have a fascination for mechanics and we are attentive to everything that exists in horology, not because we want to rival the purely horological performance others master to perfection, but to tell our own story, something we have been doing with our Poetic Complications for close to ten years now. We set out to make magic from mechanics, hence automata, and in particular masterworks of the Enlightenment, were a natural source of inspiration. Furthermore, objects that are designed to sit on a table are part of our history. Van Cleef & Arpels produced several such pieces in the 1920s and 1930s, including a number of clocks.”

This piece fits perfectly with the philosophy we uphold at Van Cleef & Arpels.
Nicolas Bos, CEO
The Fée Ondine awakens

The idea – to harness the power of large mechanics and tell a far more elaborate story than those made possible by the Poetic Complication watches – came shortly after the latter were launched. It was then allowed to mature, taking shape over some five years at Van Cleef & Arpels and in the mind of François Junod, the master crafter of contemporary automata. A further three years would be devoted to the actual making. Even so, the subject was clear from the start. “We wanted there to be a fairy, a flower and a butterfly,” says Nicolas Bos. Fairies, together with ballerinas, are the two main figurative symbols of the jewellery brand. They first appeared in the 1940s, with Ondine fairies gracing both jewellery and watches. As for flowers and butterflies, they are part of the Enchanted Nature theme with its infinite poetic interpretations.

SIHH Van Cleef and Arpels Automate Fee Ondine
Unique piece. Manual-winding automaton movement with animation on demand, with 5 cycles of 50 seconds when the mechanism is fully wound. Clock with retrograde hours and eight-day power reserve.

When the Automate Fée Ondine is still, the fairy is seen slumbering on a water lily leaf. When set in motion, she awakens, lifts her head and gently moves her wings. At the same time, the leaf ripples and the largest of the two blossoms opens to reveal a butterfly that rises from its centre as though poised to take flight. These movements continue in reverse order until, 50 seconds later, the original tableau is restored. The entire scene is played out with remarkable fluidity. Adding to the magic of this automaton is a clock that displays retrograde hours by means of a delightful ladybird moving back and forth across its base.

The idea to harness the power of large mechanics to tell an elaborate story began ten years ago.
The power of ingenuity

While the mechanisms are relatively simple and based on established principles, interpreting them in such a fresh way required considerable ingenuity on the part of François Junod and his team, so as to give life to such a representative figure of Van Cleef & Arpels and contribute to what truly is an Extraordinary Object; an unprecedented project that required innovative solutions, particularly the undulating movement of the water lily leaf.

SIHH Van Cleef and Arpels Automate Fee Ondine
Creating the Automate Fée Ondine called for the excellence of the most expert craftsmen in their respective fields.

Further choices had to be made with respect to the materials, gemstones and decorative techniques, which had to take into account the expanse of the surfaces to be decorated and the weight of the separate elements in relation to the movement they would perform. Van Cleef & Arpels called on some fifteen craftsmen to complete the skills already mastered inside its four walls, such as the enamellist entrusted with the decoration of the lily leaf and blossoms, or the cabinet-maker who produced the ebony veneer for the base of this exceptional piece.

SIHH Van Cleef and Arpels Automate Fee Ondine
Exceptionally thin, the petals of the water lily flowers therefore had to be entirely shaped by hand before being enameled

Particularly noteworthy is the original treatment of the fairy’s face. Traditionally, Van Cleef & Arpels’ fairies do not have distinguishable features. Instead, they are generally rose-cut diamonds that give a delightfully abstract rendering of a face. In this instance, the stone-cutters spent a long time studying and researching techniques to achieve a similar effect on the milky aquamarine, a stone with presence that is also sufficiently light, that was chosen for the heroine of this Automate Fée Ondine.

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