It’s time for the Rat !

Published : 02/04/2020

The watchmaking houses honour the Rat for the Chinese New Year. While a large part of the world has already celebrated the New Year, Asian communities had to wait until Saturday 25 January to mark the changeover into the twenties. The Metal Rat is about to replace the Earth Pig, before giving way to the Metal Buffalo on February 12, 2021. This is an opportunity for the manufacturers to get into the Rat's time and to seduce the precious Chinese clientele with watches that often reflect the unique talent of master craftsmen who perpetuate ancestral techniques.  


Beyond satisfying and always attracting the favours of a well-to-do Asian clientele, the watch brands aspire, through a few exceptional pieces - most of them in limited editions - to highlight the essential place of craftsmanship in their creations, and by extension the precious and meticulous work of the master craftsmen. Traditional Chinese and Japanese ‘Urushi’ lacquering techniques, a reinterpretation of the popular art of Chinese ‘jianzhi’ paper cutting, the ancestral know-how of porcelain and Italian ‘sparsello’, and the mastery of Grand Feu enamelling are just some of the techniques that the manufacturers have used to shape their watches, specially produced for the year of the Metal Rat.

First sign of the Chinese astrological calendar, the Rat is synonymous with renewal, intelligence, ambition and ingenuity. According to legend, the Emperor of Jade invited the animals to a strange gathering on New Year's Eve. Only twelve of them answered the call. The Emperor, the supreme deity, gave them a unique gift, dedicating a year to each of them that would bear their name. At the head of this mythical race, the Rat obtained the first place in the Chinese zodiacal calendar by surpassing animals much more powerful than him.

At Blancpain, the new Traditional Chinese Calendar reference in the Villeret collection boasts two different interpretations of time by combining information from the lunisolar calendar with a Gregorian calendar (adopted by the Chinese in 1912). A genuine watchmaking that required five years of development and which the Manufacture reveals through two men's versions, one in platinum, issued in 50 pieces, and the other in red gold, not limited. A dial in white Grand Feu enamel is the setting for this complication, displaying a Rat at 12 o’clock as well as a double hour counter with numerals and symbols. At 9 o'clock, two hands indicate the month and date, with a small opening dedicated to the leap months. At 3 o'clock, the ten celestial pillars and the five elements take their place. Completed by a moon phase, this technical performance is meticulously adjusted and assembled by a single watchmaker in Blancpain's Grandes Complications workshop. At the heart of this remarkable 45 mm-diameter timepiece, an automatic movement decorated with ‘Côtes de Genève’ has a silicon balance-spring and an oscillating weight engraved with the same small rodent.

Feminine wrists are not to be outdone with a first watch with a porcelain dial, made entirely within the Manufacture in Le Brassus. A nod to the lucky number in Chinese numerology, the eight pieces in this special Métiers d'Art Porcelaine series are strongly inspired by this ancestral technique that requires numerous drying and firing stages. They are a perfect example of the successful marriage between the art of porcelain and painting on enamel. The decoration of the dial shows three rats delicately painted by hand using an extremely fine brush, which gives it a surprising realism. Equipped with a 33 mm-diameter white gold case set with forty-eight diamonds, this new automatic edition is associated with an elegant dark blue alligator leather strap.

In the workshops of Jaquet Droz in La Chaux-de-Fonds, the Grand Feu enamel is also honoured by the master enamellers on four new pieces bearing the effigy of the Rat. As in China, seeing the rodent augurs good harvests and therefore represents a sign of prosperity, the house has therefore delicately chosen to stage the animal in its natural environment and to feed it with pomegranate, a fruit linked to abundance. Painted meticulously by hand on the Petite Seconde models in 35 mm and 39 mm diameters set with diamonds (28 pieces each), this fruit is inlaid with rubies on the 41 mm version with a black onyx dial, available in red gold or white gold inlaid with two hundred and seventy-two diamonds. Even more exclusive, only eight of these pieces are produced, in homage to Jaquet Droz's favourite number.

The Piaget Manufacture also illustrates its know-how when it comes to the purity of the dials. This aesthetic and artisanal perfection can be seen on an extra-thin (2,1-mm thick) Altiplano in white gold set with diamonds, specially created for the Year of the Rat. Shaped in ‘Grand Feu cloisonné enamel’, the dial here depicts a pair of white rats whose ultra-precise silhouettes are obtained using an exclusive process that consists of transferring a design onto the worked surface, delimiting the contours with a very fine gold thread. Forming small partitions, the enamel is preciously laid out before going through the kiln several times to obtain the colour desired by the craftsman. On this model, the enameller Anita Porchet has achieved a real challenge by creating magnificent shades of grey to give life to the animal.

Only eighty-eight copies of Chopard's L.U.C XP Urushi Year of the Rat will be produced. The watchmaking and jewellery house is honouring the ‘Urushi’ lacquerware with this 40 mm-diameter pink gold timepiece. This ancestral pictorial art of lacquering of Japanese and Chinese origin has been used to create by hand a dial in the image of the Rat, whose compositional elements have a strong symbolic significance: the ear of corn, a sign of abundance, and persimmon, the characteristic fruit of longevity, as well as the lucky colours of the zodiac sign (blue, gold and green).

Made in collaboration with the great Urushi master, Yamada Helando, the miniature piece of art is the culmination of a true goldsmith's work combining lacquer (from the sap of the Urushi tree called the "lacquer tree") and gold powder, a mixture applied in successive very thin layers.

Marrying red and gold, colours considered the epitome of good fortune, Harry Winston's Premier Chinese New Year Automatic 36 mm also honours Chinese culture with this flamboyant limited edition of eight pieces. It is the art of ‘jianzhi’ that is sublimated to give its dial incredible depth. This paper cut-out technique is one of the most popular and ancient Chinese art forms. And for good reason, it is present in the smallest details of the environment and the festive life of the Chinese: walls, lanterns, doors and windows are decorated with it.

Reinterpreted by the jeweller-watchmaker, the ‘jianzhi’ translates into the representation of the Rat, not made with paper, but made in a delicate continuous structure of pink gold, contrasted on a mother-of-pearl background of intense red. Precious and sparkling, this piece inlaid with fifty-seven diamonds is served on an alligator leather strap in the same carmine hues. 

The same Chinese artisanal technique inspired Vacheron Constantin, which pushed the two models (in platinum and pink gold) Métiers d'Art The Legend of the Chinese Zodiac. Between Western and Eastern cultures, paper-cutting salutes ‘jianzhi’ as to its Swiss alter ego, the famous ‘Scherenschritt’, to create an engraved dial with paterns reminiscent of Chinese iconography. In Grand Feu enamel, it houses a Rat in platinum or gold, surrounded by four windows opening onto the hours, minutes, day and date, for an atypical and intuitive display of time. With a diameter of 40 mm, these two variations are certified by the prestigious Hallmark of Geneva and have a gold openworked oscillating weight decorated with the Maltese Cross, the emblem of the Manufacture.

In 2009, Panerai launched its first model dedicated to the Chinese zodiacal calendar with the Buffalo. Today, the house is closing a twelve-year cycle with the Rat through an emblematic model. The original Florentine manufacturer has chosen a Luminor Sealand 44-mm, with a 316L steel protective cover on the front, decorated with a ‘sparsello’ pattern. This Italian technique owes its name to the tool used to make the small incisions, strangely reminiscent of a scalpel. These tiny incisions are then inlayed with gold threads struck which are carefully hammered to fill the recesses. A process that requires patience and total mastery to create this little rat that sits proudly on the moving element and seems to taunt the observer with its malicious look.

If they do not approach the subject of the Chinese New Year through crafts, other brands offer colourful creations.

Like Swatch, which publishes a version called "Cheese" which is not lacking in character. Delivered in a gold and red case inspired by a portion of Gruyère cheese, this model in shiny silvered plastic and its metallic grey silicone bracelet, red on the back, shows its facetious side with its rat ear-shaped loop.

While Louis Vuitton is doing very well with its Tambour Horizon. The house's famous and intuitive connected watch takes advantage of the possibilities of its digital colour screen to display the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac, adorable animals with very ‘comic strip’ faces that pose in the centre of the dial accompanied by the iconic bags of the famous leather goods manufacturer.


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