"Now get you to my lady's chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come." – Hamlet
"Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him well ... " – although I bet this is not the kind of skull Shakespeare had in mind. This is a real piece of horological exotica – a watch with a very high relief sculpture of a skull on the dial, with a snake whose tail is a retrograde seconds indication, and with a lever on the side which, when operated, sets off the minute repeater, and also makes the snake spring into action. The tail moves forward to point to the minutes past the hour. The jaws of the skull open to reveal the words "carpe diem." And a lattice falls into place around the flower, changing it into another form of Louis Vuitton's signature flower emblem. There is a lot going on here and quite a lot to unpack – in standard horological lingo, this is a minute repeater and time-on-demand wristwatch with jacquemart (a term sometimes rendered as "striking jack" in English), and with a jumping hour display.
It is justly said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and if that is true (and it often is), a video is certainly worth – well, maybe not a thousand pictures, but this is really a watch that demands to be seen doing its thing.
Right at the outset, it's worth mentioning that this is, in design, intention, and execution, most certainly not an attempt to produce a demure, daily-driver, slides-under-the-cuff kind of watch. However, despite its floridly baroque execution, it is actually part of a pretty long lineage, at least from a horological design standpoint. It's part of a larger class of artworks and objects collectively known as memento mori – reminders of death, which were and are intended to send a philosophical message.
In literature, there are innumerable examples ("To The Virgins, To Make Much Of Time," anybody?), and although the sentiment predates him, "carpe diem" originates in the Odes of the Roman poet Horace. The expression is usually translated "seize the day," although the actual sense in Latin, I've read, is closer to "pluck the day like a ripe fruit," more or less. One of the most common symbols used in visual art and design as a memento mori is a skeleton, or a skull, grinning for all eternity as if laughing at the realization that the universe is a joke by the general at the expense of the particular.
In watchmaking, this has historically often taken the shape of watches cased in miniature skulls. There are a number of examples, but one of the most well-known is in the Collection of the Worshipful Company Of Clockmakers, which is housed in the London Science Museum (and which is something anyone genuinely interested in watchmaking and horology ought to see. It includes everything from the first watch to be fitted with a co-axial escapement, to an early atomic bomb fuse, believe it or not). The watch is elaborately engraved, and though its origin is obscure (possibly French, possibly early 19th century) the message sure comes through loud and clear.
Quite a few modern manufacturers have tried their hands at the genre, but in general, the skulls in skull watches are as inert as you would expect a skull to be – purely decorative. This is certainly not your run-of-the-mill skull watch (if there is such a thing).
Animated figures on chiming timepieces have a pretty long history as well. Striking jacks originated in Medieval tower clocks, as human figures which would appear on the hour and strike the time, by hammering a bell or gong. In watches and wristwatches, they usually serve a more purely decorative function, but often, they still take the shape of a figure striking a bell or gong, although not necessarily (there are even so-called erotic jacquemarts, and I won't spoil the pleasure of the hunt by linking out to them; although I will warn you – if you've never seen one – that a lot of the time, they're about as erotic as a road accident. "Mechanical" is not always a virtue). Minute repeaters are a well-known complication, of course, albeit as hard to do really well these days as ever, but combining a display of time-on-demand and chime-on-demand is rather unusual. There are not a ton of real firsts in horology, but I can't think of another example off the top of my head.
The level of craft deployed here is very high. The body of the snake is enameled by Anita Porchet, who is probably the single most famous practitioner of the art in Switzerland – Porchet, if you haven't heard of her before, was one of an extremely small group of artisans which helped keep the art of enameling and miniature painting in enamel alive in the post-Quartz Crisis era. Translucent enameling on a three-dimensional surface is quite a bit more difficult than on a flat one (and it's not like it's easy on a flat surface, either). The engraving is by Geneva-based artisan Dick Steenman, about whom The New York Times wrote not long ago. I would give a lot to be able to see this watch in person; between the enameling and the engraving, it is almost certain to be a real shot to the jaw, visually speaking.
The movement is quite obviously not just something that Louis Vuitton picked up off the shelf. It was created at Louis Vuitton La Fabrique du Temps, a well-known and highly respected complications specialist which Louis Vuitton acquired in 2012. Purely from an engineering standpoint, it's quite an undertaking. When you activate the watch, all those moving elements have to work in perfect synchrony – the entire dance of the snake and chiming of the gongs runs exactly sixteen seconds – and they require a lot of energy as well. It's not entirely clear from the press release, but I'd imagine that there is a separate mainspring for the train that moves the snake around, and certainly, there is one for the minute repeater (minute repeaters and sonneries are always driven by a separate mainspring, which is wound up when you activate the slide or pusher in the case). The movement is based on a repeating base originally developed at Fabrique du Temps and which the always astute SJX notes was used by Laurent Ferrier, in the Galet Minute Repeater.
As someone who, as a child, used to lie awake at night trying to imagine what it is like to not exist (which is about as possible as trying to not think of pink elephants when asked not to, and as much of a waste of time), I have always had mixed feelings about memento mori. Aside from the fact that I've never needed anything to remind me that I'm going to expire in the fullness of time, I think pretty much every watch is a bit of a memento mori – in fact, to me, that's part of the fascination; it's a feature, not a bug. Still, it can be salutary sometimes to be reminded that, whether you like it or not, this mortal coil's gonna get shuffled off sooner or later, and that it behooves us all to make the most of the time we are given.
I don't think anyone reads him anymore, but there's a remark from Carlos Castañeda which has stuck with me over many years. He writes that his alleged teacher, the Yaqui shaman Don Juan Matus, explained to him that death is always on your left, at arm's length – and that if you are upset about anything, you should turn to it and ask it if it really matters. He said Death will say to you, "No, it doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is that I haven't touched you yet." Now, I don't know that anyone needs a half-million-dollar (more or less) ultra-complicated beast of a watch to remind them that To The Same Fate We All Tend, but the flip side to what they call todesangst in German is a recognition that the reality of death may also give us extra relish for life. That is what Horace, whose carpe diem is spoken silently by this watch, actually had in mind. A crazy, fun, crazy-fun watch. Now, if it's all the same to y'all, I'm going to go fill a flagon with something intoxicating and hum a bar or two of Gaudeamus Igitur. After all, skull rhymes with skoal.
The Louis Vuitton Tambour Carpe Diem Minute Repeater: case, 18k pink gold, with pink-gold hand-carved pusher piece set with two rubies. 46.8mm x 14.42mm; water resistance, 30 meters.
Movement, caliber LV 525, hand-wound, developed and assembled by La Fabrique du Temps Louis Vuitton; jacquemart mechanism with four animations. Jumping hour, retrograde minute "tail," power-reserve indicator. 426 components, 100-hour power reserve, running at 21,600 vph in 48 jewels.
Enameling (dial, snake, and teeth) by Anita Porchet; engraving by Dick Steenman.
Price, $459,000. Find out more about watchmaking at Louis Vuitton right here.