The greater Swiss luxury watch industry looks back at two decades of outstanding growth in Asia, driven, above all else, by Chinese customers who discovered en masse the beauty of fine watchmaking. High-end watch brands naturally felt motivated to create special pieces inspired by and dedicated to what until recently had been their number one market and many of these creations have helped make the world of watches that much more colorful and interesting. Case in point is the Chopard L.U.C XP Urushi Spirit of Shi Chen watch.

As befits an L.U.C watch — the moniker reserved for the higher-end and more refined Chopard timepieces — the Chopard L.U.C XP Urushi Spirit of Shi Chen measures just 8.28 millimeters thick, a decidedly slender profile to match the 40mm diameter. Frankly, if this was a thick and unrefined watch, even if still clad in all gold, it would be difficult not to see it as a failed and lazy attempt to allure a specific type of foreign customer. But since Chopard is operating a proper manufacture in Fleurier, Switzerland, it could build this L.U.C XP as a serious dress watch with a bespoke movement.

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Chopard refers to the L.U.C XP Urushi Spirit of Shí Chen as “a talisman timepiece, an allegory of beliefs related to the Chinese zodiac and luck.” Shí Chen is the traditional Chinese timekeeping system in which the animals of the zodiac parade slowly by on an Urushi lacquer disc. When we say “slowly” we mean that it takes exactly two hours for each of the animals to pass under the small triangular marker at the 12 o’clock position. The day begins at 11pm with the hour of the Rat that passes by 1am and ends with the hour of the Pig, while noon (i.e. the period between 11am and 1pm) is in the middle of the hour of the Horse.

The animals are beautifully presented in highly refined relief — what else could they be when the disc that carries them has to meet the stringent requirements in terms of weight and especially thickness so that it can freely move sandwiched between the top of the movement and the bottom of the dial itself. The disc is locked in sync with the international time display (when the hour hand moves, the disc also does), which is understandable given the fact that it is a tribute to a highly traditional way of indicating the time. That said, if one could modulate the Shí Chen disc independently like a GMT, it could potentially be the rarest and most unique secondary time display ever used on a wristwatch.

The design element likely to grab one’s attention first however is not the arched Shí Chen time display but rather the star of prosperity. Set into the center of the dial, it is “a golden, embossed emblem of the god Lu Ying, who is one of the three deities – together with Fu Xing and Shou Xing – respectively dedicated to prosperity, happiness, and longevity, symbolically summing up the characteristics of a full life.” An omnipresent sign in Chinese culture where auspices, symbols, and representations playing on the nature of ideograms are essential, the star of prosperity also refers to fame and influence. A neat little detail that might not become clear at first or even second sight is that the star and the frame of the Shí Chen display are all integrated: It’s one large, beautifully proportioned and crafted appliqué.

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As its name implies, the dial of the Chopard L.U.C XP Urushi Spirit of Shi Chen is in urushi lacquer produced in the century-old workshops of Yamada Heiando by master lacquer specialist Minori Koizumi. Kudos to Chopard for going all the way to Japan to consign one of the greats in this field to create the 88 dials for this limited edition. The dials are produced using the maki-e technique where gold flakes are sprinkled between layers of lacquer. The gold flakes, especially the larger constellations of them, are visible at almost all times but it is under direct sunlight where the multiple applications of lacquer and the tiniest of gold particles truly come to life. Given how slim this dial needs to be, it provides plenty of entertainment — although, on a personal note, I’d still be partial to an elaborate guilloché dial when it comes to depth and fascination.

The Chopard L.U.C XP Urushi Spirit of Shi Chen measures 40mm wide and just 8.28mm thick, which is as it should be for an elegant dress watch. The case is crafted from 18k ethical rose gold and sports polished lugs and brushed profiles (vertically and not horizontally brushed, which is common on Chopard L.U.C watches but relatively rare otherwise), including in between the lugs. The underside edges of the lugs are beveled and polished with an anglage as beautiful as we only tend to see on movement parts — a small detail that is clearly important to the brand. The bezel is slightly domed and polished. While the crown is neatly polished and displays the framed L.U.C logo, it is the only exterior component that could use a bit of extra refinement and development.

The L.U.C 96-29-L movement is a modified version of the micro-rotor in-house movement that kickstarted Chopard’s journey as a proper manufacture. It is easy to see from the overall style and architecture of the movement as well as from its smaller details such as the execution and coloring of the texts, movement decorations, and overarching refinement, that Chopard wanted to elbow out a space for itself at the table of the big ones — Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, and the like — when they launched their manufacture and this caliber.

It is not only pretty but technically impressive, too — its specs could be considered that if it were a movement launched today, as opposed to getting on 30 years ago. Even in this modified form with the additional hour disc, the L.U.C 96-29-L measures a mere 3.97mm thick. Its 34.20mm diameter is considerably larger than the run-of-the-mill base movements by ETA and others. We have seen any number of major brands launch in-house movements simply to replace those, but Chopard’s 96 caliber plays in a different league.

It is powered by two stacked barrels based on the Chopard Twin Technology to offer 65 hours of power reserve despite the thin design and the modern and fast 4Hz frequency. The only issue with the movement may very well be limited to this one unit that I received, but it has to be said that the operation of the micro-rotor and its gears that wind the two mainsprings is too easy to hear. Micro-rotor self-winding systems have extremely limited space and yet are tasked with winding not a measly 38-40-hour power bank but, in this case, two mainsprings with enough torque to drive this movement for almost three days — so, to be fair, there is performance to be found behind the sound. Having received the gift (more often curse) of excellent hearing, I do wish however that it was quieter. Chopard’s Quattro Technology works with two stacks of two barrels to offer eight days of power reserve and is hand-wound only — I guess one looking for perfect silence in operation can pick an L.U.C Quattro and not worry about the noise.

Overall, the Chopard L.U.C XP Urushi Spirit of Shi Chen is an admirable, elaborate execution of an extremely limited edition. It is all the more worthy of attention because, beyond its thematic design, it is a great dress watch, too. It’s impressively thin and yet is defined by beautiful details from the large golden appliqué and Yamada Heiando-crafted urushi dial to the polished bevel on the bottom. The 96-series movement will continue to stand the test of time — it could be launched today and it would still turn heads with its solid 22k micro-rotor, twin barrel technology, extended power reserve, thinness, and old-school detailing. The Chopard L.U.C XP Urushi Spirit of Shi Chen watch is priced at $42,800. You can learn more at the brand’s website.

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