Some watches are hands-down amazing, and this trio of wonders falls into that category. Indeed, “amazing” is not a formal or informal category of timepieces but if it were, the Lady Arpels Ballerine Musicale would be the apotheosis. We also love that it gives us a chance to bandy that lovely word around. Essentially, there are three versions of this watch that are distinguished not only by aesthetics but also mechanical execution and components. All three variants have the same functions, right down to the retrograde hour-and-minute indicator, the animation visible via the window on the dial, and the music that accompanies said animation. However, the music and the visuals are different in each of the three watches. Of course, this business about having different music means that each model is mechanically distinct too.
Now, we have to say that the model is very large and thick for what it is. The diameter of 44.5mm and thickness of 14.45mm makes some sports watches look downright diminutive; it is also in white gold, which gives it quite a bit of heft though not as much as a steel dive watch with a steel bracelet. As evidenced by the name of the piece, this is not a high-end stab at the unisex watch, but we will be bold here and say that it is perfectly suitable for men and for women. The word “Lady” in the name will put many men off, but if you are lucky and savvy enough to acquire this watch then you might find your partner covetting it.
Having seen, felt and heard these watches, I can report that it would not be out of play on the wrist of a commodities mogul or perhaps a Russian oligarch. In previous years, I would have said that those Vendome lugs rule this out entirely for men, but I fall back on my own words in our unisex watch feature: a fine watchmaking piece like this is for anyone with the stones to carry it off. Oh yes, there are stones aplenty on all three watches, but the true pleasure here is for both the eye and the ear.
If you know anything about chiming watches, you know the case needs to be beefy, but only to a point. Not a few repeaters for ladies have clocked in at a svelte sub-36mm diameter after all. Indeed, a number of chiming watches for men have stayed very classical by not going above 40mm. So why does this watch need its ambitious proportions? Well, the animation is a vital clue because it showcases a three-act ballet that is perfectly synched with the accompanying music. If the independent mainspring powering this section runs out of steam midstream, the animation freezes. That means that the disc showing the ballerinas simply stops. As you might imagine, this implies that the mobile display section is tied directly to the system that makes the music work. The watchmakers decided it would be more elegant to synchronize all the action, even though it is more difficult to execute.
To get into the musical elements a bit, there are two instruments in each watch. One part is made up of four carillon gongs, with four hammers. The other part is the music box, which is a 10-blade keyboard with pins on the underside of the rotating disc that holds the ballerinas aloft. As noted previously, it is powered by its own mainspring, and one winding can play a tune three times in a row, if so desired. As for the music itself, there are three: Pelléas et Mélisande, Op. 80 by Gabriel Fauré (the green or Emeralds version of the watch), Capriccio for piano and orchestra by Igor Stravinsky (the red or Rubies version) and Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3 (the blue or Diamonds version). Swiss classical concert musician Michel Tirabosco modified the arrangements for the watches. Now, despite the naming convention here, the gems used are all diamonds, except for one of the appropriate type on the crown at 2 o’clock.
It might be surprising to note that all three Ballerine Musicale models are water-resistant to 30 meters, and boast a healthy power reserve of 52 hours. This means that you could actually wear the watch frequently, and need not fuss too much over it. The watch does have a total of 7.92 carats worth of brilliant-cut diamonds on the case, covering everything right down to the lugs (except the display areas), so you will be fussing over it. At this level of watchmaking, the sturdiness is somewhat unusual, and serves as a counterpoint to various other issues, which we will now turn to.
It must be said that watch cognoscenti around the world have agreed that the Ballerine Musicale is altogether too much watch, so to speak. The consensus is that it is a challenge for the typical wrist, and might even be too domineering for a not insignificant number of men. It is, reportedly, the largest case Van Cleef & Arpels have ever produced. Having said that, there is a reason this watch was amongst the favourites at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie Geneve (GPHG), where it was nominated in the Ladies Category. Most observers are quite content to blow past the dimensions of the watch, to say nothing of its utility (It did not win in the end but that is neither here nor there, because another Van Cleef & Arpels watch got the gold – Ed).
That brings us to a few short sentences about the retrograde time indication. Occupying a thin curved window from 10 to 2 o’clock, this is a combined hour and minute display that approximates the hour down to the quarters. This is a charmingly old-timey interpretation, harkening back to the days when timekeepers were too unsteady to keep track of the precise minute. Precision timekeeping is not what this watch is about, and we doubt very much that anyone would have that expectation of it.
Bearing this in mind, the lion’s share of the display is given over to the little stage at 6 o’clock where the five ballerinas present little three-act stories. In each version, the action and the ballerinas are different, and the length of the music is also different. The stage, drapes and ballerinas are all hand-painted to suit the motif of each version, with hand-engraving also gracing those drapes. The caseback is also engraved, featuring a bas-relief of a ballerina in front of the Van Cleef & Arpels boutique on 5th Avenue, New York City. Wherever you look, or touch this watch, you will not fail to encounter some element of the magnificent hand-craftsmanship that traditional watchmaking and jewellery-making are famed for.