An interview with Philippe Delhotal of La Montre Hermès
As a teenager, Philippe Delhotal was given a very basic steel watch by his grandfather, a customs officer who had seized the timepiece from smugglers plying the Franco-Swiss border. With watchmaking tools from his mother, who had once worked in the industry, he disassembled the watch, slightly modified the case and engraved the dial, before reassembling it. Delhotal was hooked and went on to study watchmaking in Besançon before moving on to the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris where he studied fashion.“I think I have a dual brain with a technical and an artistic side,” he reflects, “I’ve always been quite manual, but I’ve always loved to draw and design, too. This duality has many advantages. For example, when I design, there are things I won’t create, because I know it’s not feasible technically, but this too has inconveniences because then I may not explore enough of these technical boundaries. But I think the advantages outweigh the inconveniences.”
After a long career that has taken him from Vacheron Constantin to Piaget and then Jaeger-LeCoultre and Patek Philippe, Delhotal has found a home at La Montre Hermès, where, since 2009, he has headed the creative department based in Brugg, Switzerland. “When I left Patek for Hermès, I left a manufacturer to get into a much wider universe. Patek is only really in the high-end watchmaking business while Hermès has 12 métiers and so the creative approach is completely different; much richer, in my view. Of course in terms of watchmaking history and heritage, you just can’t compare the two companies, but I have access to a lot of interesting savoir faire at Hermès, such as leather, silversmithing, and crystal making.”
Which are the métiers that surprised you?
All really. Of course I knew leather as it’s used on straps, but that can’t compare with the savoir faire available at Hermès. If you look at In the Pocket, the pocket watch I designed in 2012, it has a fairly complicated leather strap using the saddle stitch technique that has to be completely handcrafted. There are three layers of leather for the longer part, the boucleteau which is attached to the watch at 6 o'clock and it is perforated so you can see the dial when you want to use it with the strap. I’ve also discovered silk, which I’d never worked with before, as well as silversmithing, another new métier for me. Crystal, I already knew because I had worked with Baccarat for Patek Philippe, but I think the expertise of the Cristalleries de Saint-Louis (owned by Hermès) has allowed me to transfer the old technique of Millefiori on a dial. Millefiori is a blown glass technique that allows you to create a flower pattern with different long rods of crystal. Usually, you see those in paperweights, and when I first talked to the craftsmen about using this on a dial they told me no way! But my experience is that craftsmen say ‘it can’t be done’, then they say ‘maybe,’ and then finally they say ‘let’s do it,’ because they always like the challenge. It did take two years to get it right!
Leather is obviously very important at Hermès, why not use it on a dial?
We’ve been considering it, but there are technical difficulties. Leather can shrink as it gets older; some glue might not be fine for the movement; so there are a few constraints that need to be mastered. That said, it has been done: Dior has put alligator recently on one of their dials. It’s something we might explore.
You’ve also worked with straw.
I was visiting the Maison Hermès’ retail space in Paris and I saw some beautiful boxes that were using straw marquetry. I thought they looked very nice but didn’t think much of it until I actually met the lady who was creating those. I asked her if she could do those on dials and she called me crazy, again! We spent over a year and a half to find the right design that would be suitable for a straw technique, because you can’t use any curves. That’s why we settled on a geometric design, and the chevron pattern that is so very Hermès.
Can you adapt all the Hermès métiers on a dial?
I’m trying; but in watchmaking we have a big constraint - the size of the dial. It’s an extremely small surface for artistic expression; if I compare it with a silk scarf that is 90cm by 90cm, I can tell much more on one of those: Hermès’ archives have more than 3,000 drawings that have been created for scarves and there is an immense creative potential to mine here. I actually worked on silk dials early on, but this is a project that has for now remained in our drawers because I wasn’t quite happy with the result. You can’t just cut out the silk of a scarf and adapt it on a dial because you won’t leave much of the colors in; whereas, if you use enamel, you can reduce the entire drawing to scale. We’ve also done straps in silk, but they’re a bit too fragile so we discontinued those.
Could you describe your creative process?
I get inspiration from everything, but it always comes from the Hermès universe. I fill my bag with ideas then I talk with Pierre Alexis Dumas in Paris (the artistic director for Hermès). For example, for the Temari I found the drawing on a scarf and I thought it would make a nice marquetry, and for the Persian horse on the tourbillon in enamel, I first saw it on a piece of tableware.
Many watch brands are now reaching out to métiers d’art to appeal to connoisseurs. What’s your view on this?
That’s true and in many cases it has helped bring back métiers that were on the verge of extinction. We started as a house of artisans in 1937 and I do believe we have a real legitimacy in that field. I had already worked with many métiers d’art when I was working with Patek Philippe and Jaeger-LeCoultre, but I think at Hermès I’m able to do things differently. We have a real differentiator: our drawings. Yes, many houses do enamel but when you see one of our enameled horses you will immediately recognize it as Hermès. It’s the colors, I think. I do believe too many people are now trying too hard to be original. In fact I fear we may have reached a saturation point, because too many métiers d’art could kill the métier d’art. It’s a risk. There is a lot now being done, and not everything is good, nor is it always of quality.
Which métier d’art would you like to explore further?
I haven’t really done anything with silversmithing. And I can tell you that for Baselworld in May we will present a watch using a new métier, but you’ll have to wait to know which one!
As first published by Blouin Lifestyle Magazine