March 14, 2023
by Ariel Adams
Louis Vuitton’s La Fabrique du Temps Swiss watchmaking facility just debuted its latest ultra-high-end timepieces for 2023, and the star of the show is the Louis Vuitton Tambour Opera Automata. This product is a new variation on the automata concept introduced with the in-house made caliber LV 525 manually wound movement, first featured in the Louis Vuitton Tambour Carpe Diem watch in 2022. The LV 525 movement builds on years of study and experience collected by the founders of La Fabrique du Temps, who see themselves as taking mechanical “dial animations” to a new level and who want to dominate the market in this area. Simultaneous with the debut of the Tambour Opera watch, Louis Vuitton also announced a set of pocket watches with even more advanced dial animations and a minute repeater complication (time isn’t even indicated on the dial side), which VIP Louis Vuitton clients can order for between one and three million dollars. The goal is to dazzle and impress the world’s most important luxury goods clients, and this is a big part of the “Louis Vuitton way.”
The Louis Vuitton Tambour Opera Automata is best understood by looking at three main areas of the watch including 1) the theme, 2) the artisanship, and 3) the complications. These layers of interest help create the rich stories necessary to articulate the value behind a half-million-dollar-plus mechanical timepiece. Unlike the skull and memento mori tone of the Carpe Diem watch that came before it, the Opera uses the same dial animations but applies them in a very different thematic way. This time, Louis Vuitton was inspired by a traditional opera style known as Bian Lian which only exists in the Sichuan region of China. “Bian Lian” translates into “face change” and is typified by actors who wear very special masks and have mastered techniques to quickly change or manipulate the masks so that they change colors, shapes, or expressions.
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A typical prop in Bian Lian performances is decorative traditional folding fans that create temporary face barriers behind which the actors do their near-instant costume changes. Not only is it crucial to the storytelling of Sichuan’s traditional art form for the masks to change, but doing so with slick precision and invisible technique is part of the performative value. I’ve never seen one of these operas in person, but the costumes are so distinctive that many people have no doubt encountered this part of theater culture visually, from time to time. The interpretation of a Sichuan opera mask for the face on the Tambour Opera Automata dial turns out to be gorgeous in design with its vivid red, white, and black colors. When the watch movement is activated via the large pusher on the right side of the case, the mask’s eyes and mouth change (along with the indicator on its forehead) which is meant to mimic the performance of the opera actors, and personify the “bian lian” part of the theme. The animation is very cool to see in action. The product name, however, is a bit strange because Louis Vuitton opted for such an almost generic name for the watch. What if the brand wanted to make future automata timepieces inspired by other operas? Isn’t “Tambour Opera Automata” a bit too open-ended in what it could refer to? I’m not an expert on Chinese operatic culture, but I think a more specific name could have helped give this amazing watch a bit more personality. If you are feeling cheeky, you can always refer to it by its reference number, the Louis Vuitton Q1EN2Y.
In an almost predictable way, this timepiece inspired by Chinese culture also prominently features dragons — one is used as the shape for the animation activator pusher, as well as in extremely high detail on the dial — in gold, of course. The Asiatic dragon character is well done in terms of how it is incorporated into the functional composition. Holding a ruby in its tail, the dragon appears to be indicting the retrograde minutes with the tail tip. This is a stunning display that uses a three-dimensional motif of a red-color fan as the minutes scale. At the other end, the dragon’s head moves aside to reveal the window where the jumping hour is indicated. Again, this animation only happens when you activate the pusher. Otherwise, the dial does not constantly display the time.
The final dial element is the power reserve indicator, which is placed to the left of the mask. On the Tambour Carpe Diem watch, it is shaped like an hourglass, but here it is shaped like a bottle gourd (calabash) fruit. These have been used for thousands of years as small bottles, including in Sichuan culture, but I am not familiar enough with their symbolism to fully explain how it fits in with the opera theme. It does look pretty cool, however, as a power reserve indicator, and this may also be the first-ever bottle gourd engraved out of gold on a watch dial. The movement, visible through the rear of the watch, has a polished plate that echoes the shape of the mask. What I really like about the Tambour Opera Automata watch is that while it no doubt has special meaning for those who have nostalgia for Bian Lian operas, the overall composition, colors, and artisanship are things anyone can appreciate.
Speaking of artisanship, the Opera Automata dial relies on two specialists in the decoration field. In fact, Louis Vuitton has committed to doing so many watches with engraved and painted dials that it has started to build an in-house team to produce enamel and engravings on an ongoing basis. That doesn’t mean Louis Vuitton will never rely on third-party talent, but more that it is actually training new talent so that these important skills are available for years to come. For the Tambour Opera Automata, Louis Vuitton relied upon the engraving work of Dick Steenman for the calabash and dragon on the dial, and painted elements (mask, dial, and fan) were created by Anita Porchet. Louis Vuitton encouraged her to put her initials on the dial (not all of her clients want that). Both the world of Mr. Steenman and Ms. Porchet is stunning. What is more impressive is that this watch is not part of a limited edition. Granted, Louis Vuitton will not produce many Tambour Opera Automata items, but there is no specific limit on their numbers. That means craftspeople like Steenman and Porchet must be able to reproduce their exact work over and over again when necessary.
The other magic is all done by the watchmakers at La Fabrique du Temps near Geneva. The caliber LV 525 movement is all hand-decorated and is comprised of 426 parts. It operates at 3Hz and has a power reserve of 100 hours when fully wound, though this might fall if you use the dial animation a lot. Then again, part of the fun of this watch is to wind the crown and admire the small jeweled “fan-style” cabochon in the crown. I asked Louis Vuitton how this movement was doing now that it was in the wild and people were playing with it a lot. The brand seems genuinely happy with the level of durability and robustness the system has. If a complication like this is not engineered properly, then expensive fixes are only a matter of routine. I don’t want to pretend that servicing a watch like the Tambour Opera Automata is inexpensive, but thanks to the professionalism of a place like Fabrique du Temps, the system would not be released if it were prone to breaking. Unfortunately, not all brands have historically shared this attitude.
On the wrist, the Tambour Opera Automata is authentically wearable and comfortable, but it isn’t small. The size of the movement necessitates a large diameter, but Louis Vuitton also has smaller automata watches (and more will also be released, though not as complicated as the LV 525). The Tambour Opera Automata is 46.8mm-wide in polished 18k pink gold, with a case thickness of 14.4mm and 30 meters of water resistance. Over the dial is an AR-coated sapphire crystal, and attached to the case is a black alligator strap on a matching 18k pink gold folding deployant clasp.
In my opinion, watching the mask’s animation sequence on the Opera Automata watch is more novel and interesting than the spooky skull on the Tambour Carpe Diem. Louis Vuitton had such a sure seller with the skull-themed Carpe Diem, but the Opera is artistically a more interesting composition and certainly feels more unexpected. Louis Vuitton will, of course, always be mainstream in how it appeals to fans, but I think that delving deeper into our collective culture and finding beauty in even esoteric or niche areas of studied expression is exactly what people value in high-end watchmaking and something that Louis Vuitton appears to excel at. I find this watch to be as beautiful as it is unaffordable and it is a real masterpiece. Louis Vuitton will continue to push forward in both art and animated watch dials, and the hobby only benefits as a result. Price (around $20,000 more than for last year’s version) for the reference Q1EN2Y Louis Vuitton Tambour Opera Automata watch is $460,000 USD. Learn more at the Louis Vuitton website here.