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Rainer Bernard On His Role As The Head of Research and Development at Van Cleef & Arpels

Rainer Bernard, head of research and development for watchmaking, shares his fruitful journey at the iconic maison Van Cleef & Arpels. 

Rainer Bernard

Photo: Van Cleef & Arpels, Rainer Bernard

Head of research and development for watchmaking, Rainer Bernard joined the maison Van Cleef & Arpels in 2011. After completing an engineering degree and a PhD in mechanical engineering from the Technical University of Munich, Germany, Bernard worked for several years as a senior engineer and director of development of fiber optics components and systems, before moving to France to take part in a project creating high-power lasers. From engineering to luxury watchmaking, Bernard became a leader in innovative design and engineering. Inspired by his passion for research and innovation, and rich in technical expertise, Bernard made key contributions to both the watchmaking business, and the development of automata at Van Cleef & Arpels, thus contributing to the expression of Poetry of Time, dear to the maison.

What initially sparked your interest in mechanical engineering, and how did it evolve into watchmaking?

I was always interested in mechanical elements and how they work, I was keen on figuring out their secret. Within the maison, watchmaking is based on a lot of technical elements and the usage of mechanical movements, mechanical complications, and poetic complications, to express our stories. It is wonderful because we develop elements that are innovative; we can create fascinating machines on minuscule and intricate foundations which require to be fully functional in order to fit a watch, so I’m in heaven.

Photo: Van Cleef & Arpels

You moved to Van Cleef & Arpels in 2011, how does your role as head of research and development for watchmaking, differ from your previous positions?

In my previous positions, the job was technically driven. However, in Van Cleef & Arpels, the difference is the deep integration of the story, the aesthetics, and the jewelry within mechanical engineering.

How do you balance the technical aspects of watchmaking with the artistic and aesthetic considerations at Van Cleef & Arpels?

At the start of creating a poetic complication, we begin with a story. When we find a nice story, we then think about creating the mechanics to bring it to life. This is quite interesting because the story actually drives the technique and not the other way around. The story truly lies within the heart of aesthetics. It is important that we realize that technically in order to animate it in the same way. Also, you can see that technique is always doing a service to the story; you never see technical elements because they are hidden. For example, if you look at the dial of our novelty Brise d’Été in heightened detail, you will find that the story is animated, but you might question ‘how?’

What unique challenges or opportunities does watchmaking research and development present?

Watchmaking is a huge opportunity to invent new elements. It begins with a story and continues with the invention of a technique that is able to support it. It’s a huge opportunity for us engineers and development teams to really develop completely new things. The challenge lies in the fear of creating a new story that you are unable to find a solution for. However, the opportunity transforms itself into a challenge. In the beginning, it is quite amusing to find ways to animate a story through architectural considerations of ‘how-to,’ and in what direction to move towards to design the mechanics. This challenge poses room for errors; it might not function properly or work at the wrong speed, which means that we have a very big error culture. Nevertheless, we constantly go back and try again differently. Trial and error is very important in our maison because without that you would not be able to develop innovative new creations.

Photo: Van Cleef & Arpels

What are the most technically challenging watch projects you’ve worked on for Van Cleef & Arpels?

They are all challenging because they are quite new. For example, the latest Poetic Complication Brise d’Été was very challenging because the animation requires the creation of wind, which was interesting to mimic the effect of natural wind on flowers. They move slightly irregularly, so the goal was to create the smoothness within that very movement which was a great challenge. From a power-driven perspective, to turn a disk carrying an entire animation with just the force of a spring charged by a pusher was the main challenge. We had to find a new technical solution that went into a patent which is currently pending.

With your extensive experience in both technical engineering and creative innovation, how do you foresee the future of watchmaking evolving, particularly in terms of technology and design?

I foresee the future of watchmaking at Van Cleef & Arpels, to continue evolving with enchanting creations in the field of poetic complications. We have beautiful ideas which are currently in development. It takes normally four or five years to develop a new operating complication, so we have several complications under construction and development. In terms of technology and design, the design will always be driven by the jewelry and high jewelry of the maison. Our creations tell time through themes dear to the maison on love, nature, love stories, ballerinas, and fairies. While some poetry sparks emotions through words, we create emotions through animated stories and the technology that portrays them.

You’ve made key contributions to both the watchmaking business, and the development of automata at Van Cleef & Arpels, thus contributing to the expression of Poetry of Time, can you tell us more about it?

We work hand in hand with the creative studio. This collaboration is very important to us because the development is driven by a cooperation between the creative and the technical. We travel, search, and create new creations. We aim to create what expresses the poetry of time because that’s how the maison sees watchmaking. Our Automatas are the prefect representation. With automata, we have a third dimension in which we travel to. It allows us to transcend higher and deeper in expressing ourselves. The Planétarium extraordinary object holds a fascinating machine that allows us to animate the celestial planets as we imagine them.

Photo: Van Cleef & Arpels

What’s the highlight of this year’s Watches & Wonders edition?

Well, I would say the craftsmanship. In the new models of Lady Arpels Jour Enchanté and Nuit Enchantée, these dials have a 3D aspect that was never matched. We use three new technologies which we have patented. This year’s edition of the extraordinary dials is stunning. Just like our new poetic complications where craftsmanship is evident on the dial; we have several types of enameling and miniature paintings with enamel. So, every piece enchants you with its delicate craftsmanship.

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