The remarkable work of Dutch artist M. C. Escher has been a subject of fascination for art lovers and mathematicians alike for many decades. (One of the most intriguing results of his work is the enormous Pulitzer Prize winning book by Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, a Pulitzer Prize winning magnum opus that interrelates Escher’s work with Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, and with J. S. Bach’s fugues, all of which are self-referential in structure.) Escher’s work draws on a number of phenomena, including the use of stylized figures which, repeated over and over, interlock to form patterns of tessellations (or tiles) as well as the use of images which exploit the cognitive predispositions of the human nervous system to produce distinctly un-nerving effects, such as the apparently impossible infinite loop of staircases in one of his most famous images, the etching “Relativity,” of 1953.
As meditations on the nature of time and space, as well as explorations of how the human mind interacts with both, Escher’s work occupies a unique niche in the history of art and is a very special instance of how a particular vision can cross many disciplines to produce spectacular, novel and unprecedented artistic effects. It is perhaps surprising that it has taken so long for his motifs to be incorporated into a watch. Mechanical watches, after all, represent another unique intersection of métiers, requiring engineering and scientific knowledge, but also (at the highest level) a genuinely artistic sensibility, as well as the command of a wide range of specialized crafts. And, like Escher’s work, at their best they are not mere instruments but also expressions of a particular vision of what time is, and how we experience its passage.
At this year’s Salon International Haute Horlogerie, Vacheron Constantin introduced three remarkably beautiful new watches to its Metiers d’Art collection. The Metiers d’Art watches, as the name implies, are intended to be showcases for high level decorative arts and crafts which express a certain particular philosophy of time and which incorporate both unusual designs and demanding decorative arts. The new Metiers d’Art watches are a trilogy –three sets of 20 watches each, whose dials are decorated with a motif taken from the work of M. C. Escher. They are, aptly, collectively known as the “Les Univers Infinis” watches.