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Watches & Jewellery

About face

A return to slim, uncomplicated watches is placing new emphasis on dial design. Nick Foulkes revels in the painstaking techniques and innovative materials putting horological masterpieces at the top of this year’s Christmas wish lists

November 15 2012
Nick Foulkes

Ten years ago, you had to have white, black, maybe a blue and one sort of guilloché, and that was it.” Marc A Hayek, who runs Blancpain, Breguet and Jaquet Droz, is talking about watch dials at the turn of the century. Today they are more colourful, nuanced and textured: and, increasingly, a bewildering array of techniques and materials is invoked to give high watchmaking a face lift.

“The dial is an extremely important part of the watch, and for me a lot of the signature and identity of the brand are normally found there,” says Hayek. This observation is not as obvious as it sounds – excuse the pun – prima facie. Brand identity is locked into so many aspects of a watch, such as the shape of the case (viz Cartier’s Tank, Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak, Patek Philippe’s Nautilus, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Reverso, etc). It could even reside in a component as banal as the watchglass. It is almost impossible to imagine Rolex without the Cyclops date magnifier, for instance.

In many cases, once the maker’s name is removed from the dial, it becomes less easy to tell one marque from another; yet in Breguet and Jaquet Droz, Hayek has two brands that are defined by their dials. Jaquet Droz is known for its enamel dials (from £14,300), while Breguet is distinguished by its guilloché engraving (from £9,200), a precise and geometric pattern created by a hand-cranked machine that has changed little in centuries and looks like it was devised by Jules Verne for his journey to the centre of the Earth.

One reason the dial has become more important is the recent return of the slim and simple watch to the wrist. When the upper end of the market concentrated more on complications, the dial did not have to work too hard. After all, once a few subdials, some extra hands and a moonphase have been added, your 40mm or so of available space gets a little crowded.

However, now that watches are being made with just two or three hands, brands are refocusing their attention on dial design. Hayek is bringing what he calls “the diversity of material mix” that has been seen over the past 10 years in movements and case construction to bear on the watch face. For example, he talks about combining carbon and gold fibres in a dial. “You can mix them in. The look and depth of the material is stunning, and I think that is just the beginning.” He also feels that clients are more open minded than before. “Today customers ‘get’ a matte powdered black dial that in the high end would not have been acceptable five or six years ago. Now, on a sporty line and combined with carbon fibre, it is fine.” And, as such once‑unusual finishes are less of a headturner these days, so exotic pieces have become more imaginative. He adduces the dragon watch from Jaquet Droz (£54,300) as an example. The alto-relief serpent emerges from the dial. The Year of the Dragon also manifested itself at Richard Mille; the limited-edition RM 057 Dragon – Jackie Chan (from £439,000) has one coiling around the movement, visible below the glass.

But high-relief carving is just one of many techniques being used and often combined with an ever-widening variety of materials to create astonishing watches. From Cartier’s plans for agate in 2013 to Harry Winston’s feathers (from £47,700), the range of material seems limited only by the imagination.

Piaget was an innovator in this field during the 1960s and 1970s, using semi-precious stones for dials (£12,000-£20,000, depending on material), as CEO Philippe Leopold-Metzger says. “Malachite, rubelite, meteorite… It is so much part of Piaget history and we have no intention of abandoning it.” Quite the reverse. He is considering a number of what he says are all-new dial materials for next year. “We are developing probably three or four new types of dial that don’t exist for the moment, and they will use specific métiers d’art.”

It will be interesting to see exactly what he has in mind, as these days it is increasingly difficult to find a material that is unexploited. Take straw, for example. Not the most obviously horological substance, you might reckon. Well, both Hermès and Cartier think otherwise. “Marqueterie de paille uses real straw, which is cut and then stuck all together on the dial,” says Cartier CEO Bernard Fornas. And this is just one of many skills new and old that he is employing. For instance, he is particularly proud of the revival of micromosaic (£90,500). “It’s based on an 18th-century technique, and using very, very small pieces we can create images. This is phenomenal work,” he says enthusiastically. “They’re made in limited series and are highly exclusive, because it is so difficult.”

These days one hears a great deal about métiers d’art. The most widely used is enamelling of various types: stained glass-looking plique a jour; paillons d’or, where flecks of gold are suspended in translucent enamel; and cloisonné and champlevé, once almost extinct, are now seen across the industry. Meanwhile, enamellers such as miniature-painting specialist Susanne Rohr, who does freelance work for Patek Philippe, or Anita Porchet, whose Hermès creations are some of the best today (£87,500), enjoy a cult status.

I first heard the term métiers d’art being used by Vacheron Constantin, and this talk was backed up with some of the most startling designs of recent years: a series of engraved Masque dials (£294,640 for four) based on items found in the unique tribal-art collection of the Barbier Mueller Museum in Geneva. They were a tour de force both creatively and technically. This sort of production is only ever going to be limited, and it appeals to particularly sophisticated collectors for whom this is unlikely to be the first (or, for that matter, the 21st) watch they own. Vacheron has continued to expand upon this work, and recently unveiled watches that use guilloché techniques to create figurative designs (customarily guilloché is geometric rather than representational), further enhanced by enamel and stone setting, to provide visual and textural variety on the dial (example first picture, £81,000).

Stanislas de Quercize has introduced a similar sense of texture and dimension to the more exclusive watches of Van Cleef & Arpels. “The idea with dials is to use them to tell a story, and for that we need a three-dimensional feel, so that you can tell an animated tale with perspective and movement. It is like the difference between a picture and a movie,” he says. “It is easier to be compelled by a story that is a movie. When you see the dial, you think there is a whole narrative taking place.” Van Cleef’s watches coordinate elements of kinetic sculpture – such as the two lovers meeting on a bridge on the Pont des Amoureux dial (£91,800), or most recently the Poetic Wish (£330,000), which portrays a girl walking along an upper level of the Eiffel Tower, as a kite rises and a cloud scuds past – with engraving, enamelling, bas‑relief work, stone setting…

While Van Cleef & Arpels has been inspired by classic Gallic themes, Bulgari has dug into the inspirational treasure chest that is Italy’s rich cultural heritage to come up with an entertaining watch of a different sort. Inspired by Caravaggio’s The Cardsharps, Il Giocatore Veneziano (price on request) is also an automaton that throws dice, a sort of casino on the wrist.

The casinos (and courtesans) of the final years of the Venetian republic were world famous, but for those who’d prefer a more chaste Venetian-inspired dial, Jaeger-LeCoultre has come up with the Répétition Minutes à Rideau Venise (£250,000). It makes use of what can best be described as a Venetian-blind system that needs to be slid to one side, thus activating the minute repeater mechanism. It also draws upon the geometry of the architecture of the Doge’s Palace for a decorative inner bezel of enamel that is suspended between the glass and the movement – in effect blurring the lines between dial and mechanism. This helps create a sense of multiple layers to what is essentially a two-handed time display.

Similar in intent, if not execution, is the new dial for the Pulsion watch by Roger Dubuis (£29,400). Designer Lionel Favre explains: “We wanted to create something where you don’t know exactly where the dial starts and the movement ends. That is why we have the sapphire crystal attached without the bezel. Every detail is designed to create confusion; the 12 and six are directly screwed onto the movement like a bridge and have the same finishing.” Another signature piece of engraving on the numbers – Côtes de Genève – is usually found only on movements. “To complete the confusion, hours are engraved into the sapphire crystal.”

The next logical step is to make the dial seem to vanish altogether. Hublot’s Jean-Claude Biver has redesigned a movement to that very end (£23,300). Distinct from most skeleton watches, where the light peeks through the horological X-ray, his aim is to render the movement sufficiently attractive so as to be able to interpose only a sheet of crystal between it and the hands. This is, in effect, an invisible dial… not so much a métier d’art as a métier de magique.