In early February I found myself in Dubai, in the middle of a cool “winter”. Yes, the desert city actually has temperatures that dip as low as 19° Celsius in the evening, something I experienced on the night of my first evening there. Dubai was the fitting backdrop for a new exhibition by Swiss watchmaking house Jaeger-Le Coultre called “The Stellar Odyssey,” that runs from now till 23 February at the Dubai Fountain, an iconic location near the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.
The choice of Dubai as the first stop in what will be an ongoing travelling exhibition is no accident, says Catherine Renier, the CEO of Jaeger-LeCoultre: “Historically, the Middle East has played a very important role in the origin of time calculation. And that bond continues today—when you go to the desert to look at the sky and observe the cosmos. So there is a very strong link between the region and astronomy and having the Stellar Odyssey exhibition open here felt like a perfect fit.
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Brought into the Nara Oasis for a sunset sojourn, I am treated not to just to the feeling of cool sand between my toes and a seemingly endless view of stunning dunes, but a stargazing session led by a local astronomy chapter that not only allows us to view stars and distant planets like Mars and Jupiter, but the surface of the moon. Treated to tales of how Arabic culture named its stars and created its own folklore around these shining monuments, I began to understand how the cosmos played such a crucial role not just in navigation, but in telling the time and the season.
Linking back to Jaeger-LeCoultre’s expertise and reputation as a watchmaking expert, the new exhibition showcases a brief but informative dive into the history of time-telling from very early instruments like the sundial and the astrolabe to complex perpetual calendar timepieces. One of my favourite discoveries from the brand are the Atmos clocks. First created in 1938, these rely on minute changes in temperature to create a mechanism that winds naturally without any human interaction. “The Tellurium is the latest one that is here and it’s at a level of technicality that we call a Hybris Mechanica. That means that the movement of that Atmos has been created from scratch, with a totally blank page of components in order to specifically represent the movement and the solar cycles.
She also names watches with the brand’s signature calibre 345 as another highlight. “And of course you can see our most prominent calibres, like the 945, where the expression in the representation of the cosmos on the dial has been achieved in a totally different way this time, with miniature Metiers Rares handcraft and it’s very inspiring.” These timepieces that rely on complex mathematical calculations to create a perpetual calendar—one that adjusts automatically to accommodate for the changes in days of the month and leap years—is truly a mind-boggling feat. Says Renier, “Some of the most challenging complications come from the discrepancy that there is between the time that we have on our phone and the actual time of the sky. By this I mean lunar cycles, the solar cycles, leap years—everything that is used to really reconcile the standard time with the time of the cosmos. This work is extremely complex and requires meticulous mathematical and astronomical calculations. We’ve always had expert watchmakers who are fascinated by this challenge and that passion gives way to amazing creativity.”
But even if you’re not a horological enthusiast, there is plenty to take in at this exhibition thanks to its experiential nature. One of the highlights is a 12-minute-long film, “The Stellar Odyssey,” that is shown on a 360° geodesic-domed screen. The film took more than a year to conceptualise and create with the brand working with scientific experts to ensure the utmost accuracy, while taking the viewer through a truly immersive journey into the cosmos that starts with representation of the Big Bang and then looks at the perpetual motion of the solar system, our fascination with the moon and the mystery of eclipses.
The House has also commissioned artist Guillaume Marmin to create an installation called “Passengers: Through Time” that plays with time zones and geographical location to create an interactive, motion-activated light art piece that debuted in Dubai. Within the exhibition, Jaeger-LeCoultre also worked with a celebrated mixologist, Matthias Giroud, to craft innovative mocktails themed around the cosmos for guests to enjoy.
On the brand’s success in innovation, Renier points to its heritage as a watchmaker’s watchmaker that is always pushing the boundaries with only itself as its competition. “We never stick with the status quo. So, we don’t think that we’ve reached the peak of what we can do. Reverso is a good example, as it continues to inspire us. We don’t look at the competition or the industry as our source of inspiration. Instead, we look at our heritage, our identity, our craft, and our knowledge within the manufacture and we build up from that and create.”
Jaeger-LeCoultre’s “The Stellar Odyssey” exhibition runs from now till 23 February at the Dubai Fountain.