Kathryn Bishop reviews the luxury brands bringing detailed artworks to the wrist through decorative enamelled dials.
Precision tools, good eyesight, patience and a steady hand. Those might sound like the typical requirements of a watchmaker, but more so they are the traits needed by the finest enamellers in the trade – those who are adding decorative flourishes to a raft of luxury watches through exquisite handiwork that showcases brilliant colours and playful scenes.
Of course enamelled watches are not a new phenomenon – such delicate decoration of this form goes back centuries to the dainty pearl and gem-studded pocket watches of the 19th century, as do the skills, many of which are unchanged.
Today however the artwork has leapt to the wrist and championing enamelled watches are the likes of Van Cleef & Arpels, Cartier and Piaget. For Van Cleef & Arpels, the creation of beautiful timepieces has long been its speciality but this year it showcased something brand new, with the launch of its Poetic Wish timepiece collection at SIHH in January.
The two models – the Lady Arpels Poetic Wish and the Midnight Poetic Wish – combine superior watchmaking technology (the brand’s Poetic Complication, created in 2006, a five-minute repeater mechanism with a 60 hour power reserve) with beautiful enamelling, picking out detailed scenery of Paris in rich hues such as blue and orange. A closer look reveals that everything from the tiny windows of the Notre Dame and flowing Seine – as depicted in the Lady Arpels model – is considered, while the Midnight version boasts tiny enamel stars in the sky and enamel that appears to illuminate the windows of the buildings depicted on the timepiece.
Cartier’s Cartier d’Art collections also show off such fine detail. Its limited-edition Rotonde de Cartier 42mm tiger motif watch features an almost luminescent enamelled dial depicting a white tiger. Designed to appear as “a hypnotic play of magnetic black and white”, Cartier has utilised the process of Grisaille enamelling, an ancient technique that owes its name to the shades of grey that appear each time the piece is fired in the kiln, after a fresh layer of enamel being applied.
The Rotonde tiger motif dial begins life as a white gold base, onto which swathes of black enamel are layered before it is fired and then, step-by-step, the design is painted on with a fine brush. The end product will require about 40 hours of enamelling work to which the maker can take a special tool to scratch the enamel to heighten the appearance of white – used in this case to depict the tiger’s fur.
One of Cartier’s most impressive pieces is its Tourbillon and Bird watch, a Geneva Seal certified flying tourbillon adorned with a deep purple, red and yellow enamelled kingfisher surrounded by lashings of diamonds.
Animals, albeit mythical creatures, have been a theme for Piaget this year. The brand has paid homage to the legends of the East with a collection called Dragon and Phoenix which celebrates the two mythical beasts as an “imperial couple”, otherwise Yang and Yin in Chinese culture. Piaget has utilised the skills of more than 40 craftsmen to create a decorative watch collection of more than 20 pieces.
The two beasts adorn to the entire watch case on some models, with decorations that run across the dial and case to enhance to the clawing nature of the dragon and fiery spread of the phoenix. The Piaget Protocole XXL has an oversized case that showcases the use of grand feu and champlevé enamelling and hand engraving to depict a swirling dragon on a white gold case. What’s more, it is limited to just three numbered pieces.
For Jaquet Droz and Vacheron Constantin the use of enamelling in recent collections has been less about colour and more about striking patterns, that not only require a steady hand for painting but also for the detailed repetition of the designs.
At Jaquet Droz its enamellers have showcased the fine art of Paillonné enamelling which has origins dating back to the 18th century when Jaquet Droz pioneered luxury decorations featuring paillons – a repeated floral motif – on objects such as watch cases, snuff boxes and even cages for mechanical singing birds. Eventually the style filtered into enamelling techniques and today Jaquet Droz says the process is so special that it is only applied “to a few truly exceptional pieces in our collection”.
The designs are made by enamelling between ornamental paillons (tiny shapes which are cut from gold or silver leaf) with translucent enamel known, rather sweetly, as fondant. The blue Petite Heures model showcases the intricacy of the design with every tiny white flower-like motif slightly different to the next, while a blue sunray design fills the background.
Vacheron Constantin meanwhile has showcased its artistic attributes through its Metiers D’Art collections that include three models launched this year called L’Univers Infinis featuring doves, shells and fish in tessellating surface designs that use engraving and enamelling to showcase texture and depth.
The designs use grande feu, champlevé and cloisonné enamelling as well as guilloché engraving techniques. Vacheron says the making process helps to perpetuate ancestral skills and says the Metiers d’Art collection – the last collection of which featured an ancient method of Japanese lacquering – is a “testament to how graphic art and decorative techniques work their alchemy in the world of haute horlogerie”.
The L’Univers Infinis tessellating dial designs were the brainchild of Maurits Cornelis Escher — the same M.C. Escher that creates tricks of the mind with his unusual drawings, known as impossible structures, as well as his woodcuts and lithographs. While the colours are more subdued than the dials of enamelled timepieces by Van Cleef and Cartier the collection is no less detailed. For the Fish Watch the enameller uses cloisonné enamelling to mark out zones using wire as well as champlevé enamelling, whereby a pattern has been carved ready to receive a flush of enamel.
The beauty of enamelling is its ability to both evoke and capture a fairytale moment through colour, translucency and depth. This artistic technique has long been de rigueur among the luxury watch brands and remains a skill that is used to adorn their very best timepieces or annual showstoppers. And with few highly skilled enamellists thought to be working in the watchmaking industry, it is likely that the beauty of enamelling will remain as niche and coveted an artistry as superior watchmaking itself.
This article was taken from the October 2012 issue of WatchPro magazine, out now. To view a digital version of the magazine click here.