The Universe: Hermès Horloger

“The entire system of things gets represented in every particle.” Thus wrote American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. In keeping with this insight, it can’t hurt to pay attention to the details – in order to understand an entire universe. A visit to Hermès Horloger in Biel/Bienne.
Text Wiebke Brauer
Photo Steffen Jahn

“My goal is simple,” Stephen Hawking once said. “It is the complete understanding of the universe. I want to understand why the universe is made as it is and why it actually exists.” That sounds quite ambitious. But we could start with a brief exploration of space and time. In Biel/Bienne, a town in the Swiss canton of Bern on the northeastern shores of Lake Biel. In a plain white building, hidden behind a hedge, there is a high-ceilinged room full of pillars and columns. In between, people sit at work benches transforming leather into delicate works of art. Hushed voices reverberate throughout, a grinding noise can be heard in the background, the echo of laughter, a punching machine beating its rhythmic heart. Two floors up, dials, clockworks and cases are combined to create a precious accessory, a technical marvel that you wear on your wrist and contemplate from time to time to see how many seconds, minutes or hours have passed.

The first thing you see upon entering the building is a life-size wooden horse in the atrium and walls covered in fine leather. Passing through a few doors and corridors you come upon the large room where the watch bands are made. In an adjoining room are high shelves where the leather is stored – the same goat, calf, buffalo, ostrich and alligator skins that are also used to manufacture the bags and saddles. Some skins are deep black or cognac brown, others yellow or turquoise, some are dull, others shiny, silky smooth or delicately embossed. Every millimeter of these fine pieces has been meticulously scrutinized by Isabell Rivière, the head of the department. A slender woman in black, her wrist is adorned by numerous narrow bracelets, in between a delicate stirrup watch of the house and the typical Hermès silver bracelet composed of large anchor chain links. Isabell Rivière is from Lyon, has a keen eye, and knows more about the leather than the animal that wore it – and probably just about everything about the thirteen people who work here. “Hermès is in my blood,” she says, smiling in a very French way. Charming, no question, but precise. “We do not go the easy way,” she adds.

What she means by that becomes quite clear as soon as she starts talking about the leather. The numbers are one thing: a calf skin can yield sixty to seventy armbands, an alligator seven to eight. The quality control is another: minor blemishes such as creases, cracks or tears are a big deal, though perfection doesn’t have to mean unnatural – Hermès is not about strict standards, but about a game within a set of rules. And quality is one of them. On the one hand, as far as the material is concerned. On the other, there’s the centuries-old craftsmanship. The building and the leather factory may seem modern at first glance, but the history behind it all is enormous. It all goes back to 1912 – to a little girl in a photo and a watch she is wearing. The girl is Jacqueline Hermès, the wristwatch is a custom job that allows the great-granddaughter of the founder to ride her horse. Sixteen years later, the first Hermès timepieces were sold at the shop at Rue du Faubourg 24 in Paris featuring movements from the largest Swiss manufacturers. In 1978, Hermès Horloger settled in Biel/Bienne. In 2006, the company opened a leather strap workshop and since then has been the only watch manufacturer to make its own bracelets.

It all goes back to 1912 – to a little girl wearing a watch. Her name: Jacqueline Hermès.

One to two hours of work go into making a bracelet. That doesn’t sound like a lot until you’ve watched the process once. In a first step, two pieces of leather are “paired”. This means selecting the longer strap, which will be attached to six o’clock after completion, as well as the shorter strap and cutting them into shape. Holes are pre-punched, a lining material is inserted and glued, then the thickness of the leather is reduced by splitting and sharpening until the edges are ultra-thin. At the very end, the bracelet is finished with saddle-stitching. Although “at the end” doesn’t seem quite fitting, especially as the effort seems endless.

Aline has been with Hermès for thirteen years. Because it’s “real”, as she explains, beaming, and she can touch the result of her work. All of a sudden it becomes clear what Laurent Dordet, CEO of La Montre Hermès, meant when he said that there has been a steady stream of people knocking on the door for the past four years because they all really want to work here. “Word has spread that people here have a smile on their face while working.” A baby photo hangs over Aline’s desk. In front of it there is a small block of wood, sponges, a glass of water, paint, glue, a cup of fine tools, pens, compass, spatula and a hammer. Many tools have their own name because each tool has its own special traces of wear and everyone tackles all the little nuances differently. It is very personal work. Aline goes through thirty-seven individual steps for a single bracelet – smoothing the leather edges, which is called chamfering, as well as heating, polishing, grinding, dyeing and measuring. Asked which quality is the most important for her job, there is no quick answer. “Patience,” Aline says after a moment. With a steady hand, she pulls the linen threads through the leather with two needles and a moment later picks up a rounded hammer to flatten out the hem with circular strokes. “The material is alive,” says Aline, smiling. Finally, she tells the story of a person who caressed the edge of the bracelet over their cheek because the leather feels as soft as a child’s skin.

Hermès is the only company that puts so much effort into the bracelets. It takes six stitches just to stitch together the small keeper loops for the straps. This is not possible by machine; only a human hand is capable of such precision. On the inside, as Aline points out, there is a small “H”. Additionally, each bracelet features a letter for the year of manufacture, a geometric symbol as a distinction for the most precious leather and the Hermès logo. Worn directly on the skin, not visible when from the outside. How fitting that you don’t pronounce the letter “H” in French. The myth of this brand does not need to be spoken aloud – but you can feel it very closely.

The myth of this brand does not need to be spoken aloud – but you can feel it very closely.

“When I joined Hermès,” says designer Philippe Delhotal a little later, “I traded a brand for a universe.” He remembers the first time he came into contact with this universe. “I was thirteen. And I was in Paris for the first time with my parents. We were passing through the Rue du Faubourg.” They stopped in front of the legendary shop in Saint-Honoré. “I was fascinated by how the objects were presented in the shop window,” says Delhotal. Apparently, the fascination has not subsided. Not because of the external image of the brand, but because the French instinct for play remains unbroken in the very serious watch business. “There are so many possibilities, colors, shapes and energies here,” says Delhotal. He is visibly excited when he talks about the Arceau L’Heure de la Lune. The watch is available in two versions. We see both versions in a leather-covered box – one with an aventurine dial and one with a meteorite dial.

On the dial of the watch there are two disks showing the time and the date and simultaneously indicating the lunar phases for the southern and northern hemispheres – that’s a unique feature. “The fact that the moving time and date displays rotate like satellites around the moons without any connection of the hands in the middle is a mechanical development that took two to three years to complete,” CEO Dordet once said about the watch.

The moons are made of mother-of-pearl inlays that are embedded in the dial. The northern hemisphere moon shows the natural lunar surface, while the southern hemisphere view is graced by a discreet galloping Pegasus. The winged horse is a reminder of the origin of the brand, the creative director explains. “When you look at the moon, you always try to see something, maybe a nose or a pair of eyes. And at Hermès? Of course, we see a horse,” says Philippe Delhotal.

Watches are clearly not a long-winded matter at Hermès. Long-lasting, sure. Because Hermès can look back on over a century of collaboration with the watchmaking industry. Because working on a single bracelet requires a keen eye, tremendous know-how, a steady hand and a great deal of patience. What did the Roman philosopher Seneca say so beautifully? “Per aspera ad astra.” The road to the stars is not an easy one. But the result is that much more beguiling.

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