Last year was a busy one for the folks at Louis Vuitton. There was the new Spin Time Air Quantum, a limited edition Tambour chronograph, a very LV smartwatch, and a new watch prize. Never a brand to rest on its haute-horology laurels, the good folks at La Fabrique du Temps Louis Vuitton are going even bigger and bolder this year with the new LV Tambour Opera Automata.
Building off of the mechanical innovation and high-end craftsmanship of 2021’s bonkers and beautiful Tambour Carpe Diem the Opera Automata turns from the land of the dead to the world of Chinese Opera for inspiration. The Carpe Diem, which won the “Audacity Prize” at GPHG in 2021, is a highly complicated, engraved piece with an hourglass for a power reserve and a reminder to seize the day.
Slightly less morbid, this year’s watch is inspired by Bian Lian, the traditional dramatic art of “face-changing” seen most often in Sichuan Opera. Performers rapidly switch colorful masks, seemingly by magic, and until fairly recently the techniques were a carefully guarded secret. This year instead of a skull we have a Bian Lian mask changing expression (one of five automations) and a dragon wrapped around the mask, moving its head to reveal the jumping hour in the middle of the mask’s forehead, and its tail serves as a retrograde minute hand. The power reserve is no longer an hourglass but a bottle gourd, or Calabash, believed to ward off evil spirits. The time is only displayed by activating the automation via the dragon on the case. Similar to the Carpe Diem one of the eyes of the mask is a nod to Louis Vuitton’s flower emblem, and a four petal flower replaces the number four, an unlucky number in Chinese culture.
All this is made possible by the manual wind caliber LV 525, the same movement found in the Carpe Diem, which has 426 components. The 46.88mm Tambour case is 18k pink gold and the dial is engraved and enameled with pink gold and ruby. LV Tambour Opera Automata called in the big uns with Anita Porchet on enamel and Dick Steenman on engraving. According to the press release it took 76 hours for the engraving and 60 hours for the enameling – and having seen just a fraction of what it takes to engrave, paint, fire, and polish the smallest parts of the dial I believe them (and think they may actually be rounding down to make us feel better). There’s 100h of power reserve which is impressive but also functional since it is a manual wind watch with a beautiful if not super-specific power reserve indicator. While not a limited edition, orders for the Carpe Diem were capped at 30, so we can expect something similar here. If you have the 520,000 Euro asking price handy you better act fast.
Inow know enough to know that one really has to see a watch like this in person to appreciate it. From the pictures and the video one can be wowed by the movement and the automation it makes happen, but to really appreciate the watch you have to see how alive it actually is. Like the Carpe Diem before this is not a watch meant to appeal to a broad audience, or even impress the more conservative fans of haute horology automatons, but for those who have had enough of flowers and peacocks, this watch still offers delight, but with a twist.
I am far from an expert in Sichuan Opera or mask changing but I do think there is something of a parallel between that art and watchmaking. There is a shared magic, where technique is hidden away, passed down between generations and information has only now become more open and available to those who seek it. But also, sometimes it is nice to just sit back and enjoy the spectacle – would this watch be any less beautiful to look at without a drop of watch knowledge? I would say no.
Louis Vuitton has been waging an uphill battle to be seen as a serious watchmaker, and in this watch, all the parts are there. And while I can applaud them for skill and innovation (of which there is plenty, outside and inside the LV Tambour Opera Automata watch) I am most impressed that it has not sacrificed gumption in an attempt to earn respect. I feel like it took the idea of “Audacity” and refined it – threading the needle between shocking to shock and dialing back to please a greater audience.