It is a symphony of butterflies for jeweller and watchmaker Van Cleef & Arpels at the Salon International de la haute Horlogerie (SIHH) 2017, especially in its stellar new Lady Arpels Papillon Automate. While a slew of brands presented watches that defy conventional expectations, Van Cleef & Arpels relegated time itself to the sidelines as it showcased its mechanical ingenuity. This latest Poetic Complication simply features a butterfly in motion, a feat accomplished by an outstandingly complicated mechanical calibre.

Now, Van Cleef & Arpels has leaned hard into automatons in the past (Lovers on the Bridge anyone?) but this one is just plain marvelous. In my own notes for this watch, that’s the word I used. With the help of the watchmakers at Valfleurier – the Richemont group’s top development people – the brand has used the usual tricks of the minute repeater to bring a mechanical butterfly on the dial to life. From a centrifugal force regulator to the pusher-activated motion of the butterfly, there really is a lot of chiming watch-derived mechanics. Importantly, the motion of the butterfly actually happens en passant as well as on-demand, meaning it will move automatically even when the watch is not on one’s wrist, as long as power remains in the system.

For our money, this is one of the most impressive watches of SIHH 2017, be it for gents or ladies; technically complicated or beautiful like a jewel. If you are technically inclined, just figuring out how this timepiece goes will be pure pleasure. If beauty inspires you, the dial is really a sculpture – an homage to both the natural forces that brought the diamonds to bear here and the extraordinary craftsmanship that brought the vision to life. It features miniature painting as well as every kind of enamelling you could care to name, including champlevé, paillonné, plique-à-jour and curved plique-à-jour.

It is at this point that we face a frustrating dilemma: to dive into the mechanics of the piece, revealing its secrets or allowing the magic of the moment to stand. As other observers have noted over the years, there is a sort of magic in a mechanical watch – a sort of mystery that drives collectors and the like. In other words, this is where figuring out how things work comes into play. For example, the motion of the butterfly’s wings is not just automatic and on-demand – the wings actually beat irregularly and will speed up if the mainspring is wound up fully. This randomness is entirely intentional and seems entirely counter to the regularity that timekeepers strive for. Just for a moment, we invite you to bask in the awesomeness. We will surely return to this piece in greater depth another time.

Van Cleef & Arpels Lady Arpels Papillon Automate Price and Specs

Movement: Automatic with four patents pending, with animated butterfly automaton
Case: 40mm white gold, diamonds in serti-neige style setting
Strap: Blue alligator strap with white gold pin buckle set with diamonds
Price: On Request

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