Louis Vuitton’s Newest Watch Is An Homage To Traditional Chinese Opera

What Happened: On March 9, Louis Vuitton unveiled its latest high watchmaking timepiece in Courchevel, the ultra-luxury Alpine ski resort favored by UHNWIs, to an audience of media representatives and monied consumers from across the world. 

Taking inspiration from bian lian 变脸, or face-changing, a subgenre of Sichuan opera that sees performers rapidly switch vivid masks to indicate changing emotions, the watch’s movement recreates a series of mask changes on the timepiece’s face.

In a 16-second sequence, the watch face’s bian lian mask expresses a range of emotions through movements like frowns and winks, finishing with the right eye retracting to reveal a flower. 

“We wanted the Tambour Opera Automata to reflect the striking aesthetics and expressive movements of bian lian,” says Michel Navas, master watchmaker and co-founder of Genève-based la Fabrique du Temps Louis Vuitton, which developed and assembled the timepiece. “This extremely challenging art remains a secret, just as automation mechanisms require perfect knowledge of traditional watchmaking skills.” 

Taking inspiration from Sichuan Opera’s mysterious ‘Bian Lian,’ Louis Vuitton created the Tambour Opera Automata. Image Courtesy of Louis Vuitton

Louis Vuitton debuted its first high-end watch collection in 2002. Despite having been in the sector for only two decades, the French leather goods maison is shaking up the high-end watchmaking world with some bold designs. This Chinese opera-inspired watch is a new departure for the brand, which previously drew on inspiration from Europe for its award-winning Tambour Carpe Diem model, launched 2021, featuring a skull entwined by a snake, referencing vanitas, a form of still life artworks featuring symbols intended to remind viewers of life’s fragility. 

The Jing Take: It’s no surprise that Louis Vuitton chose to pay tribute to Chinese culture for its latest high-end timepiece creation. China’s burgeoning watch market is being fueled by a growing appetite for haute Swiss timepieces. 

Last year, watch and jewelry industry trade show Watches and Wonders ramped up its presence in China by holding events in Shanghai and Hainan. 

Hurun’s Chinese Luxury Consumer Survey last year found that 49 percent of high-net-worth individuals collect luxury watches, a 23 percent increase year on year.  Though China’s share of the global luxury market expanded from 2020 by just one percentage point to 21 percent in 2021, consumption of high-end watches in the country rose 30 percent in the same period, reports Bain.

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Louis Vuitton created an exceptional watch movement that recreated the mask’s expression changes in a 16-second watchmaking spectacle. Image: Courtesy of Louis Vuitton

As a later-comer in the high-end watch industry, Louis Vuitton is leveraging innovation and audacious designs to carve out a space and increase its exposure in the lucrative market dominated by heritage brands.

The Hurun survey shows that Rolex, Patek Philippe, and Bulgari are the three most beloved watch brands among HNWIs in China. The homage to Sichuan opera and exquisite execution of the Louis Vuitton Tambour Opera Automata clearly showcase the 200-year-old house’s ambition to win over Chinese consumers. It’s also an exemplar of luxury businesses’ growing sensitivity to East Asian culture. 

For instance, the number 4, considered unlucky by many in Asia because it sounds similar in Chinese to the word for death, is replaced by a four-petalled monogram flower on the Tambour Opera Automata’s dial.

The watch face also sports symbols considered to bring good luck, like clouds, and a calabash gourd that is believed to protect people from evil.

Though the watch’s price, €520,000 (3.8 million RMB), is prohibitive for many, the concept behind it and the respect for China’s intangible cultural heritage it conveys are reasons enough for Chinese consumers to appreciate it.

The Jing Take reports on a piece of the leading news and presents our editorial team’s analysis of the key implications for the luxury industry. In the recurring column, we analyze everything from product drops and mergers to heated debate sprouting on Chinese social media.

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