Watches & Jewellery

Strokes of genius

Intricate enamelling by Europe’s finest craftsmen and women turns traditional watches into highly collectable works of art, says Vivienne Becker

March 04 2012
Vivienne Becker

Over the past decade, the watch dial and case have, like a blank canvas, invited all kinds of artistry, from marquetry to feather collage to master gem-setting, making the experience of checking the time an altogether more thrillingly decorative proposition. But it is the art of enamelling that has most transformed the wristwatch into a covetable, unique work of art.

Enamelling has gone hand-in-hand with watchmaking throughout history. From the 17th century, pocket watches have been lavished with intricate decoration, most notably in the 18th century, when breathtaking painted enamels became, and remain, the speciality of Geneva workshops (as can be seen in the superb collection at the Patek Philippe Museum in the city).

Yet, like many traditional crafts that require a high level of skill, much like watchmaking itself, enamelling in its most sophisticated forms had been largely sidelined and the esoteric art of miniature painting in enamel pushed almost to the point of extinction. Then, some 15 years ago, as part of a growing appreciation for craftsmanship and the so-called métiers d’art of the watchmaking industry, enamelling was slowly reborn, so that today watches produced in limited quantities with hand-enamelled dials or cases are highly sought after.

Swiss watch brand Jaeger-LeCoultre has nurtured the art of miniature enamel painting, decorating its famous swivelling Reverso case backs with reproductions of famous paintings, such as The Toilet of Venus by Velázquez (price on request), and dials with lush scenes of golden sunsets, exotic landscapes, birds and flowers. Enamel is also incorporated, using various techniques, into watches that are quite different in style, such as the bold and graphic Master Tourbillon Wild (£85,500). Many other examples are made to commission, although clients must wait a year or more, and of the 120-130 enamelled watches made each year, only about 30 are painted miniatures.

According to Jaeger-LeCoultre’s artistic director, Janek Deleskiewicz, the amazingly detailed paintings offer clients a way to personalise their watches; sometimes the painting is owned by the family, or has another special significance. For example, a miniature Girl With a Pearl Earring has recently been commissioned by the curator of a Vermeer exhibition in Japan.

In Jaeger-LeCoultre’s small atelier (which more resembles a laboratory) in the Vallée de Joux, outside Geneva, I saw the influential watchmaker and painter Miklos Merczel at work. About 15 years ago, he went to an exhibition of Patek Philippe pocket watches, where he “saw a conversation between art and watchmaking”. He was so inspired that he studied and researched the subject of enamelling, and even experimented with it at home, before he finally approached the CEO at Jaeger-LeCoultre with his idea for reviving the tradition. As a result, the specialist atelier was created in 1996. “It has been a way to link the Jaeger-LeCoultre calibre with artistic expression,” says Deleskiewicz.

Merczel uses a microscope as he paints on to a base of opaque white enamel, known as blanc de Limoges, with a fine sable brush. Each layer is fired separately, up to 20 times, in a little kiln – a delicate process with no margin for error. Beside him on the workbench lie examples of miniature Alphonse Mucha and Tamara de Lempicka paintings, as well as trials for a new series of birds, inspired by a Chinese silk painting, using guilloche (engraved gold beneath translucent enamel). New for 2012, the birds are painted on to a yellow ground for the dial of a Master Grande Tourbillon (£80,800).

In another mood entirely, I spot a Fabergé-style, blue enamel Reverso dial, plain with handpainted numerals (£24,600), which is also new, and super chic. For women, the Master Lady Tourbillon, launched last month, has an extravaganza of overblown roses in cloisonné enamel (“cells”, or “cloisons”, of different coloured enamels are separated by fine gold wire), with delicately degradé petals on a guilloche ground (£120,000). Even more decorative is a version combining cloisonné roses, enamels, feathers, mother-of-pearl and diamonds (from £83,000).

Flamboyant decoration can also be found at DeLaneau, which makes watches exclusively for women. Its team of three art enamellers – all of them women – has produced some rarefied art-dials, painted with butterflies, kingfishers or peacocks (price on request). Creative director Brigitte Morina explains that the enamellers have complete freedom as artists, as each dial is the work of one artist, and is signed by her: “In the early 1990s there were only a few enamellists left, mostly experimenting in their kitchens. We saw the potential and hired our first enamel artist in 2001.” DeLaneau enamellers use many techniques and styles, and this year they have introduced “paillons”, enamels with flecks of gold that give the watches a jewel-like finish. “We push our enamel artists to explore new techniques and take on challenges,” says Morina.

Pierre Rainero, the image, style and heritage director of Cartier, explains the current fascination with complex enamelled dials as “the dialogue between the constraints of watchmaking and revitalised traditional skills”. He says that while enamelling is very much part of Cartier’s heritage, its focus on the material from the mid-1990s responded to an increased interest in one-of-a-kind pieces. “Watches with spectacular enamelled dials are so much in demand now that we sell our entire production,” he says. “There is a special alchemy between art and craft, and clients like to know they are buying the work of an individual artist, with the supreme mastery of a craft that so few people can accomplish today.”

Cartier’s enamelling techniques include champlevé (enamel inlaid into a carved recess in the metal), cloisonné, and even plique-à-jour (translucent enamel with no backing that creates a sheer, stained-glass effect), all made more enticing by the addition of paillons – clearly the glittering trend for 2012. In Cartier’s dedicated Metiers d’Arts workshop, its specialist in-house enameller, who learnt her craft at the company, works with great dexterity, using a brush with a single hair.

A recurrent theme at Cartier draws on its animalier past, with watch faces incorporating images of panthers, dragons, bears and other animals. Two of the enamel sensations at last month’s Salon International Haute Horlogerie, in Geneva, were a Rotonde de Cartier watch depicting a tiger (price on request) in grisaille – shades of grey, black and white blanc de Limoges enamel on an opaque black ground, showing the finest textural details – and, in contrast, a pretty-in-pink cockatoo carved in mother-of-pearl, and made more luminous with highlights of champlevé enamel, on a Tortue watch (price on request). And last year, Cartier enjoyed huge success with a limited-edition Tortue watch that featured an enamelled panda (£60,500).

Just as Cartier uses enamels to show savoir-faire and communicate its identity, so Chaumet translates its romantic signature story, Attrape-moi... si tu m’aimes, into spider-web, honeycomb and bee designs (£68,960) on lavish enamel dials that are embellished with gems.

Patek Philippe and Piaget, both heritage watch brands, have museum collections that continue to inspire enamellers. Today, Patek Philippe still uses enamels, mainly for limited editions and pocket watches. These include the Matryoshka doll pocket watch (£110,000), which combines cloisonné with miniaturisation in a purple composition of great intricacy that took 15 days to complete. Twenty different coloured enamels were used, and one metre of fine gold ribbon to make the partitions between the enamel “cells”. The watch can be admired as an objet d’art on its own gold-and-marble stand, studded with a toning briolette-cut purple sapphire.

Patek also creates a limited number of annual “sets” comprising four cloisonné enamel watches, each dial decorated in a variation on a theme, such as the colourful geishas that danced over last year’s slender Calatrava models. Each dial takes the master enameller between six and nine days to complete, and they are unveiled each year at Baselworld, the global watch and jewellery fair. Madly collectable, they sell out immediately, and more will be launched this month.

At Piaget, UK brand manager Nicolas Mohs says that as a historical watchmaker it has “a duty to perpetuate this art [of enamelled watches], which almost disappeared in the 1960s and 1970s, in parallel to the quartz crisis”. In terms of design, Piaget likes to link its art-enamel dials to the theme of its collections, such as the new Dragon and Phoenix series (price on request).

Among the fierce and fiery dragons is one particularly sophisticated design executed in some 20 shades of grey, mixing cloisonné with painted enamels. It was created by one of Switzerland’s most famous enamellers, Anita Porchet, who makes her own huge palette of enamel colours, often enhanced with gold, and whose work is in great demand. Mohs says that the Piaget design team works closely with the enameller, shaping themes around techniques, integrating art and craft. A good example of this can be seen in the magnificent miniature paintings of orchids, with their rich colours and sensual shapes, it has produced on its Altiplano watch (£70,300).

Vacheron Constantin also works with Porchet on its limited-edition art-dial ranges, including the Chagall series of 15 one-of-a-kind watches (£113,000), with painted enamel dials replicating, in full or part, Chagall’s mural for the ceiling of the Opéra Garnier in Paris. Graff has also embarked on art enamels for its luxury watches, working with the atelier of master enameller Aurélien Laine, who created an engraved octopus in a sea of brilliant blue translucent enamel for the back of its ScubaGraff diving watch (£37,000).

Van Cleef & Arpels, dreaming up perhaps the most extravagant of high-wire complications and sumptuous dial adornments, collaborates both with art-enameller Dominique Baron and, most recently, with painter Dominique Massonat, for its latest Poetic Wish watches (prices on request), part of its Poetry of Time collection. The series continues the Van Cleef storytelling tradition, recounting tales of love and magic. Hence, the Lady Arpels Poetic Wish details a daytime vision of Paris from the sky, while the men’s Midnight Poetic Wish has a painted night sky of ultramarine over mother-of-pearl, leaving a soft haze around the crescent moon. As a lover looks out over Paris, atop Notre Dame, with its flame-like enamelled windows, he steps across the hours, as a shooting star signals the minutes. Utter enchantment in miniature: that is the art of enamel.