THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS. It goes without saying that talented watchmakers are rare. Even rarer than master horologists and engineers behind the most intricate complications, however, are the elite enamelists
Mechanical marvels like tourbillons and perpetual calendars are the pinnacle of haute horlogerie—“high watchmaking.” In contrast, miniature enamel painting on watches is the apex of belle horlogerie—“beautiful watchmaking”—and even the most dedicated watch collector will have only seen a few enamel dial watches. It also teeters on the edge of fantasy.
A TOUCH OF MYSTIQUE
Enameling is an old art, and since the 17th century it has gone hand-in-hand with watchmaking. Today, this esoteric art is almost at the point of extinction, being kept alive by a few “witches.” Now, the witchcraft analogy is actually a bit clichéd as far as enameling goes, but it is charmingly appropriate. Most of the world’s top enamelists are women in possession of watchmaking’s best-guarded secrets, and they mostly work in seclusion, using mortars and pestles to prepare powders that will go into boiling cauldrons.
Most importantly, when you finally witness their creations (and good luck with that—hardly any will ever make it to a retailer), it’s hard to convince yourself that it isn’t a piece of magic. It is, of course, a happy marriage of science and art known only to a few master enamelists, such as Suzanne Rohr who has plied her art at Patek Phillipe for four decades, Anita Porchet who works for Vacheron Constantin and Dominique Baron from L’Atelier. But before we get to know these artisans and their masterpieces, it is perhaps best that we first get acquainted with the art itself.
THE BOOK OF SPELLS
Put simply, “enameling” means taking powdered colored glass mixed in a liquid medium (usually water), applying it to a metal surface (or glass, and sometimes porcelain) then heating the entire ensemble in a kiln until the two parts fuse together, forming a new surface. There are, of course, a ton of intricate details that a watch enamelist must take into account.
Take, for example, color. The base enamel material is translucent, and color is added by mixing in various metal oxides. Copper creates green and turquoise; cobalt results in various shades of blue and so on. Basic chemistry, really. Metals, however, react to heat, so the colors will usually change during firing—forcing the enamelist to build up multiple layers through successive firings. It goes without saying that the risks are enormous. A few seconds too long in the kiln can ruin several months’ worth of hard work. Impurities in the powder, perhaps the result of a speck of dust, can cause cracking or bubbling. Pigments might change in ways that the enamelist can’t foresee while the base metal’s reaction to heat adds yet another layer of complexity to an already taxing process.
“Cartier’s in-house enameller supposedly works using a brush with a single hair”
Actually, the complexity starts way before any heat gets involved. The colored glass used in the enameling process needs to be ground as finely as possible, and as uniformly as possible, using a traditional mortar and pestle made from agate. A veteran enameler would be able to tell when he or she has it just right by the feel and—purportedly—the faint sound of the glass being ground. But it doesn’t stop there. As colored enamel is produced primarily for industrial needs (it’s used in the production of everything from cooking pots to street signs), it’s nowhere near being pure enough for a watch enameler’s needs. So, the powder needs to be meticulously washed using distilled water, cleaned with nitric acid to dissolve any impurities, and then washed again. Only then is the enamel ready to grace the dial of a high-end watch.
What has been covered so far, though, only deals with the basic concept of enameling. Just as there are many tiers of complexity when it comes to watch complications, there is a sort of hierarchy in the world of enamel dials. The most commonly used methods are le cloisonné and le champlevé. For the former, fine metal wires are affixed to the dial forming tiny cells—or cloisons—that are then filled with enamel, much like stained glass. The latter is the oldest enameling technique and involves carving hollows right on the surface of the dial in which the enamel will be placed.
The next level—in terms of intricacy and value—are bespoke enamel dials, chief among them those decorated using the Geneva technique. Developed in, well, Geneva, this technique consists of putting a transparent enamel layer on an enamel painting. This gives the underlying painting added depth, as well as providing extra protection and an extra smooth finish. Of course, creating an exquisite painting on a “canvas” as small as a watch dial is no mean feat, especially since the artisan has to apply several layers of colored enamel powder mixed with oil using a fine paintbrush. As a side note, Cartier’s in-house enameler supposedly works using a brush with a single hair to achieve a very detailed result.
Each layer is then baked separately, which can cause the metal base to crack. If this happens early on, it’s regrettable; if it happens after, say, the 20th baking, it can certainly be soul-crushing.
If you’re going for rarity, however, nothing comes close to paillonnée dials. These dials feature miniature paillons (cutouts, usually gold leaf) arranged in various beautiful motifs sealed between two layers of clear enamel. The rarity of paillonnée dials, however, stems more from the rarity of the paillons themselves, as none have been made in more than a hundred years. So, each new dial created further pushes this fine art to the brink of extinction.
THE PRICE OF MAGIC
It is said that an even harder job related to enameled dials is that of the shop attendants, who must explain why an enamel timepiece can cost twice as much as the same watch without the specially made dial. And in truth, there is a lot to take in: The time it takes to create an enamel dial (a master enameler like the aforementioned Suzanne Rohr would do, on average, one commissioned watch a year); the inherent risks of working with a material that is prone to burn, crack or even explode; along with the fact that today, there are only a handful of artisans keeping this art form alive.
No less important, however, are the brands that continue to nurture the art. Cartier, for example, has a long love affair with enameling, and is known for releasing enamel dials bearing the image of various animals. This was especially evident at the SIHH fair of three years ago, where the brand showcased a Rotonde de Cartier watch bearing a striking image of a tiger. A year earlier, it created an even bigger stir with a limited-edition Tortue watch featuring a panda.
“An even harder job related to enameled dials is that of the shop attendants, who must explain why an enamel timepiece can cost twice as much”
Adding a touch of classical beauty to fine watchmaking is, of course, a specialty of Hermès. This year in particular, the French-based luxury house brought to light a unique Japanese porcelain enameling technique through its Slim d’Hermès line.
Patek Philippe also routinely employs enameling for its limited edition watches and its pocket watches. It is perhaps especially fitting for a heritage watch brand like Patek Philippe to keep this tradition alive, as the colors of enameled dials do not fade with time—making them the perfect heirloom item. One notable specimen is the Matryoshka doll pocket watch, which incorporated twenty different colored enamels and gold wire totaling one meter to create the cloisons. Every year at Baselworld, the brand also releases a set of four cloisonné enamel watches centered around a certain theme. These usually sell like hotcakes during the annual fair. A similar collector’s set is also available from Vacheron Constantin. For its 250th anniversary, the brand launched 12 sets of four wristwatches, each depicting a season of the year.
In 1996, Jaeger-LeCoultre created a specialist atelier after master watchmaker and painter Miklos Merczel convinced the company to revive the tradition of “conversation between art and watchmaking.” Today, you can find Jaeger-LeCoultre watches with enamel dials bearing reproductions of famous paintings (such as “The Toilet of Venus” by Velázquez) or contemporary paneling (as seen in the Master Tourbillon Wild and the Rendez-Vous Tourbillon) that serves as a thoughtful link between the brand’s focus on high complications and its appreciation for fine art.
Perhaps that last sentence perfectly sums up the role of enameling in today’s watchmaking industry: As a way to breathe pure beauty into mechanical craftsmanship, and to link an ebbing art form to the craft of time.
This article first appeared in DA MAN Caliber 2015. Click here to get a copy of our back issues.