Nothing about Antonin Mercier, the founder of horological label Laps, is conventional. Starting with his pocket-sized atelier, a revamped garage just a stone’s throw from the Musée d’Orsay. ‘This is my showroom, and where I assemble most of my watches,’ he says. The space is a hodgepodge of unexpected elements: chunks of wood, crocodile skins, Cuban cigar leaves, a poster from a 1970s Thai monster movie.

And then there are the watches: all the same size and shape – vintage-inspired and discreetly small – and their Japanese-made dials filled with textured materials or miniature pictures. ‘Here is Jacques Chirac jumping the barrier at the Metro,’ says Mercier of one watch face. ‘This is Nakano Takeko, a female samurai from the Edo period. Clyde Barrow at 15. And an S&M picture from the Paris-based Biederer brothers.’ The collection almost feels like a cabinet of curiosities, something he takes pride in: ‘I’m inspired by anyone who dares to be different.’

Laps’ entire collection is on display in the Paris Atelier, sharing shelf space with a surrealist photograph and some of Mercier’s flea-market finds, such as an Empire State Building thermometer and an Indian Ganesh sculpture. Photography: Osma Harvilahti

His background in art history shows through: the son of an auctioneer, Mercier worked for five years in the contemporary art market before deciding to take his career in a different direction. ‘I used to hunt for rare watches on eBay that I took to artisans to repair,’ he says, showing a piece from his personal collection, from the 1968 Nixon campaign, with a picture of the presidential couple inside the dial. As he learned more about watchmaking, he summoned the courage to start his brand. ‘It’s been an exercise in trial and error, especially since I work with materials that are not supposed to be put inside a watch. Laps is pretty much a research lab.’ One that produces wonderfully surprising limited editions and one-off pieces, such as a watch with a dial made out of charcoal rescued from the Titanic wreckage, or the model with a 1970s painting of two cosmonaut chihuahuas.

Mercier clearly has a soft spot for all things kitsch, and a sense of humour. ‘What I enjoy most is subverting the rules of traditional watchmaking. The day a Chinese lady stopped by to take off her €300,000 Van Cleef & Arpels to wear the €120 cosmonaut chihuahua watch with a bubblegum-pink nylon and perlon strap, I knew I had made it.’

Newsstand cover of the September 2014 issue of Wallpaper (W*186). Photography: Brigitte Niedermair

For Mercier, it’s not about the price, but about crafting something brand new, ‘an accessory that is unisex, that can be hidden or shown, and passed from generation to generation’. He works with an assistant, and a freelance collaborator who helps assemble each piece. ‘Some models, considering the time they take, are seriously unprofitable,’ he tells me while showing how he presses cigar leaves to reduce their thickness to a minimum so they will fit in the dials. The process is similar with python and crocodile skins, and wood.

‘I use African sapele wood, which reflects the light almost like silk, and an oak that is 2,600 years old.’ Materials that seem even more complicated to source than the rare photographs, but totally worthwhile. ‘I get a kick out of thinking about what happened around that oak tree before it was felled. Maybe there were druids hanging out under it?’ With Mercier, the word ‘timepiece’ takes on a whole new meaning. ‘It’s about being transported in time, space and within your own imagination every time you gaze at your watch.’

As originally featured in the March 2018 issue of Wallpaper* (W*228)