Louis Vuitton has been around since 1854, but the company’s watchmaking division didn’t get its start until exactly two decades ago, when the inaugural Louis Vuitton Tambour Twenty collection was launched in 2002. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the company’s “official” start in the watchmaking arena, as well as of its most recognizable case design, Louis Vuitton has just announced the Tambour Twenty Limited Edition.
The new release comes in a 200-piece limited run with a sunburst brown-dialed chronograph inside the quintessential Tambour case shape and powered by a Louis Vuitton-branded variant of Zenith’s El Primero.
Since today’s release is all about highlighting the Tambour case, let’s talk a bit about it. The Tambour case has always been on the elaborate and baroque side of the aesthetic equation. Its complex architecture is inspired by the shape of a drum (tambour is the French word for drum), with a consistent rounded shape that tapers down from the bezel to the caseback.
I have to say, I’m half-convinced that one of the primary reasons Louis Vuitton extended into watchmaking to begin with is because the company name has 12 letters, which can then easily be used as hour markers. On the Tambour Twenty, the Louis Vuitton Tambour Twenty name is spelled out at the very top of the smooth, wide expanse that is the caseband; and yes, each letter is positioned to line up with the hour markers on the dial. Louis Vuitton’s enthusiasm for branding is typically built around its famous monogram logo, which was first developed in 1896 by Louis Vuitton’s only son, Georges.
Thanks to its stout size, the Tambour case profile has typically been a hotbed for Louis Vuitton’s experiments with complications. There’s the famous Spin Time system that Michel Navas, the legendary watchmaker behind the design, says was originally developed without external input, but it was only after he and his watchmaking partner Enrico Barbasini had finished the construction of the first prototype that they jointly realized it would be the perfect fit for Louis Vuitton’s signature case shape.
“The [Spin Time] movement is quite thick; it’s a three-dimensional construction, with the wheels and the cubes,” Navas told me when I spoke with him earlier this year. “The prototype just went with the Tambour shape. That’s why we contacted Louis Vuitton to suggest it at the time. And they loved it.”
That was the start of the relationship between Navas, Barbasini, and Louis Vuitton. After adopting the Spin Time mechanism in the Tambour collection in 2009, Louis Vuitton eventually purchased the duo’s high-concept movement manufacturer, La Fabrique du Temps, in 2011, which now forms the beating heart of the Louis Vuitton High Watchmaking division. Since the La Fabrique du Temps acquisition, Louis Vuitton’s prowess in mechanical watchmaking has been supercharged, with minute repeaters, tourbillons (so many tourbillons), split-seconds chronographs, and even award-winning, high-concept jacquemart mechanisms that force you to ponder life, all joining the Tambour collection.
The new Louis Vuitton Tambour Twenty release is a bit more straightforward, featuring Zenith’s classic high-beat integrated automatic chronograph movement under the LV 277 trade name and fixed up with a 22-carat pink gold rotor featuring – what else? – the Louis Vuitton “LV” monogram. Speaking of the monogram, the Tambour Twenty is delivered inside a miniature leather-wrapped Louis Vuitton trunk that we were able to photograph the watch with for this story.
One of the most invigorating experiences I’ve had all year was visiting La Fabrique du Temps, Louis Vuitton’s high-end movement manufacturer, located on the outskirts of Geneva and led by the dynamic duo of Michel Navas and Enrico Barbasini. What I tried to make clear in that my story based on that visit is that Navas and Barbasini are serious giants of watchmaking, with a lengthy history and a wide sphere of influence among their peers. Their work today is almost entirely focused on developing the Louis Vuitton watchmaking name to equal standing in the world of luxury goods, alongside Louis Vuitton’s other core product families, such as leather goods, luggage, ready-to-wear, and fragrances. The Tambour case design is what attracted Navas and Barbasini to Louis Vuitton in the late 2000s, and it’s somewhat remarkable how malleable a platform it is for varying degrees of complication. I think the best way to understand the Louis Vuitton Tambour Twenty Limited Edition, then, is to consider it a look at where Louis Vuitton started – in the early 2000s, Louis Vuitton watchmaking was primarily an établisseur, relying on supplied movements from manufacturers such as ETA and corporate sibling Zenith.
With its sunburst brown dial, highlighter-yellow accents, and twisted lug support system, the Louis Vuitton Tambour Twenty Limited Edition is a throwback to the earliest era of Louis Vuitton watchmaking. Yet it also hammers home the significance of the Tambour case design. No matter how Louis Vuitton has evolved its horological approach, the Tambour remains.