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Watches: Number Theory

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It is tempting to write off Franck Muller’s latest jewelry collection as wretched excess for a certified watch maniac. Who but an overly ardent collector would be attracted to jewelry festooned with numerals or set with tonneau-shaped diamonds? But such a narrow assessment overlooks the broader appeal of Franck Muller’s design skills. Muller’s personal interpretation of Belle Epoque watch aesthetics 10 years ago was perfectly timed for the reemergence of the fine mechanical watch. Now the jewelry as well as his latest watches—the other focus of a renewed creative push—display the same flamboyant, yet traditional, styling that will likely be the brand’s most enduring legacy.

The connection between Muller’s jewelry and watches is obvious, but that does not necessarily pigeonhole the jewelry. The signature numerals, the guiding motif behind the Talisman and Remember collections, have been well received in the Far East, where numerology is the order of the day. The numbers have also caught on in America, where the symbolism is more open to personal interpretation. “The numbers seem to intrigue women of all types,” says Tim David, who manages the Franck Muller boutique in Aspen, Colo. “[A number five pendant] may be bought to commemorate everything from a fifth anniversary to a fifth grandchild.”

Creating jewelry was not one of Muller’s driving ambitions, but after encouragement and cajoling from friends and associates, he designed a few prototypes and launched his first collection, Talisman, in 2001. Like the early jewelry designs, his new proprietary diamond, the 73-facet Curvex Cut, draws on a signature element of Muller’s watches—the tonneau silhouette of the cases.

A numeric theme may seem esoteric to some, but Muller overcomes the limitation with pieces exhibiting detail and balance that beg attention. The Inseparable ring, for example, with its romantically matched heart-shaped diamonds, is a standout, demonstrating that Muller’s design ability stretches beyond the confines of watches.

But watches, too, are receiving their share of attention at Watchland, Muller’s ranchlike spread on the shores of Lake Leman outside of Geneva. His latest complications are some of his most impressive and imaginative. The two Revolution tourbillons, for instance, take the venerable complication to new levels of showmanship. Building on last year’s Revolution, with a tourbillon cage that rises above the dial at the push of a button, this year’s Revolution 2 has an escapement cage that rotates both horizontally and vertically, creating a three-dimensional motion inside the watch that remains true to the original idea of the tourbillon.

For the new Crazy Hours model, Muller rearranged the number sequence on the dial and designed a mechanism that moves the hour hand to the next appropriate numeral, wherever it may be. It requires a close scrutiny of the dial to read the time, but that might just be the point. “We sell a lot of superfine watches in our store,” says Rob Shay of Gotthelf’s in Vail, Colo., “but nothing has a look as exciting as what Franck Muller has created. Crazy Hours is about whimsy and having fun. That’s very attractive to people.”

Though Muller declines to elaborate on the motivation for this latest creative spurt, it is clear that he is fighting the effects of his own success. The Belle Epoque tonneau watch is now the most widely emulated design in the industry, and this proliferation has endowed it with fashion-trend status—hardly a welcome development for the Muller brand. The new jewelry line with its clear watch connection can be viewed as a reaffirmation of Muller’s creative powers and his reclamation of the stylized Belle Epoque look.

But mechanical watches are about more than appearance, and Muller has endured his share of backbiting and criticism. Many purists feel that his self-styling as the “Master of Complications” is at odds with his use of base movements from industry giant Swatch Group. Likewise, his use of modules, a widespread method of adding complications to a base movement, is sniffed at by some members of the artisan watch community as being overly industrial. Much of this criticism is specious and tinged with envy, but not irrelevant in markets where people are just learning how to compare Swiss watches. Muller has responded by creating striking pieces that demonstrate his daring imagination and sense of adventure. And no one can quibble with that.

Franck Muller, 212.463.8898, www.franckmullerusa.com

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