Galloping into the future: Hermès Horloger
Hermès is one of ‘those brands’ inside the world of watchmaking.
It’s often compared to other legendary sartorial marquis’; brands whose horological ambitions go above and beyond fall/winter collections, but remain firmly glued in the ‘fashion watch’ category.
Think of the likes of Chanel, Gucci and Calvin Klein. All momentous names in fashion who have dipped their respective toes into the watchmaking waters (but not jumped fully into the pond).
Yes, they make pretty watches that trade on their respective brand names; but underneath the meticulously crafted steel case there’s little more than a quartz movement and the idle dream to one day be taken seriously.
But that’s not Hermès – not at all. Whereas Gucci began making watches in 1997 and Chanel in 1987, Hermès was tinkering with watchmaking back in 1912. Arguably, it has been making watches for longer than some of the biggest companies in the industry – including the likes of Panerai and Rolex. So why is it so overlooked? Perhaps that’s down to its success outside the world of watches.
Thierry Hermès founded the company back in 1837, as a workshop that made leather harnesses for transport at the time: horses. It became a favourite of noblemen, and in the early 20th century opened its first boutique at 24 Rue Du Faubourg Saint-Honore Paris (where it remains to this day as the company’s headquarters).
The brand started making bags around the 1900s, and a rather fetching golf jacket for the then Prince of Wales in 1918 (which kicked off the brand’s outerwear production). It hit major success with products that are now in the history books of fashion, such as the Kelly Bag (so named after Grace Kelly), and its famous coloured silk scarves.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Except, it’s not. Because if you look closely, between the company’s iconic carriage-with-horse logo and signature orange boxes is an awful lot of watchmaking that the French brand is trying to reclaim.
“It’s true,” says Philippe Delhotal, the creative director of Hermès watch division. “When you say the word Hermès, you don’t necessarily think of watchmaking”. But that’s not for lack of heritage.
Hermès first foray into watches happened, predictably enough, due to the brand’s affinity for leather. A photo taken from 1912 shows Emile Hermès (Thierry’s son) four daughters, including Jaqueline who is wearing a pocket watch on her wrist secured by a custom-made leather strap made by the company’s saddlers.
When Hermès opened its flagship store in Paris, it did so with watches in the window bearing its own logo. While the aesthetics were handled by the French brand, these watches housed mechanisms from many different Swiss brands.
Over the next fifty years, Hermès would sell some of the rarest watches in the world from its boutique, including wares from watchmaking royalty such as Jaeger-LeCoultre, Universal Geneve, Movado and Etrier. It even worked with Rolex, to produce a special edition that recently fetched more than US$519,000 on the auction block.
These custom-Hermès watches proved so successful in fact that it decided to create its very own watch division in Bienne, Switzerland (which is also home to Rolex and Longines). It was called Hermès Horloger, and its first job was to create idyllic timepieces that brand could call it's own.
Over the next few years, Hermès Horloger began producing timepieces that looked almost as iconic as the brand’s leather goods. The Arceau was its first success, inspired by the shape of a stirrup. It was quickly followed by the Clipper, the Cape Cod and the H-Hour; all watches that looked visually appealing but boasted a generic imported watch movement.
That changed in 2003 when Hermès unveiled the Dressage collection complete with a Manufacture Vaucher Fleurier movement (a highly-respected movement maker). A few years later, it purchased a large stake in Vaucher, and then picked-up specialised dial-maker Nateber from La Chaux-de-Fonds.
Hermès final move was transferring its exotic leather strap-making workshops from Paris to its headquarters, effectively bringing every major part of the watchmaking process under a single roof.
“Working under one roof has big advantages,” admits Delhotal. “Previously, we would work with these suppliers, and even if you have a good relationship, it takes time to send designs and prototypes between factories. That’s no longer the case. For example, the other day I was thinking about what a prototype would look like with a certain colour hands. Usually, that would take a month or two months. Now, that can be done very quickly.”
Today, Hermès produces a selection of timepieces that have impressed both those inside and out of the watch industry. The Arceau L’Heure De La Lune is one of the most technically impressive moon phase watches ever built (and it helps that it looks absolutely stunning, too). Last year’s Carre H collection proved that Hermès can do modern watches just as well as its classic ranges, and it even embraced the watch industry’s big bad wolf Apple, by producing straps for its premium smartwatch.
Hermès then has all the characteristics of some of the biggest and most established names in watchmaking. It has a rich heritage that goes beyond simply selling leather goods. It creates its very own in-house movements and goes above and beyond re-calibrating off-the-shelf mechanisms. And it has such dedicated to craft – that of dial and case-making – that it produces for the likes of Omega and Parmigiani Fleurier.
So why isn’t it better known in the hallowed halls of watchmaking? “I think it’s different for men and women’s watches,” says Delhotal. “Previously, we only had one or two watches that were specifically for men. But that’s changing.”
Hermès is quickly building out its men’s line into a complete range. Last year saw the Carre H, a larger more colourful version of the Maison's four-sided timepiece originally produced in 2010. The Arceau range continues to stay relevant; the 78-model with a ‘very large mode’ is absolutely retro-tastic, and the Slim D’Hermes is ever being tinkered with, this year it boasts a fetching black colour scheme and titanium body.
It seems more of the same is definitely on the cards for Hermès Horloger, and the brand has teased some big things ahead of next year’s annual watch extravaganza of SIHH. But one thing that won’t change is the watchmaker’s methods. We want to present another point of view when it comes to watchmaking,” says Delhotal, “but ultimately, everything we do is for the beauty of the object.
That’s the most important thing.”