“It started with my grandfather. He was always showing me pieces that were enamelled and engraved.” Thierry Stern, president of Patek Philippe, is recalling his first experiences of watchmaking – visits to his grandfather’s pipe-smoke-perfumed office on Geneva’s Rue du Rhône. Here the old man, a talented amateur artist himself, would unlock a drawer and bring out a velvet-lined box with a few treasured old pocket watches.
Some of Stern’s earliest memories are of handling pieces that would become the nucleus of what is today the priceless collection of the Patek Philippe Museum. As a child, he was struck by their beauty – the jewel-bright colours of the enamels undimmed after centuries. While his eyes drank in the rich visual pageant, the tips of his young fingers ran over the richly chased and engraved cases, savouring the texture.
These visual and tactile memories would stay with Stern into adulthood, and when he took over the running of the family firm, those memories were given physical form in some of the most arresting Patek Philippe watches. The brand is famed for its complications, but with these watches it was not just what went on inside that was of interest, but the case itself: recent years have seen the appearance of some special watches with lavishly engraved cases.
There were at least 200 engravers working in Geneva at the end of the 18th century, says Stern. Those were the days when the craft was considered a bridge between Geneva’s status as a city of jewellers and of watchmakers, a time when watches were worn in the pocket rather than on the wrist. The 5cm- or 6cm-diameter watch case was in effect a canvas for engravers, who produced everything from simple geometric patterns created by guilloche machines to elaborate hand-engraved representational images: heraldic beasts, armorial bearings, scenes from mythology and reproductions of famous artworks.
During the 1970s and 1980s, however, engraving had little place in what was a tumultuous time for watchmaking, and the skill almost became extinct. “When I took over at Patek, demand was low,” says Stern. “But I could still see how we could develop engraved watches. The pleasure came from me and not from the market; I always remembered my grandfather. The real challenge has been the size of a wristwatch; if the engraving is too small, people will not understand it, but if it is too big, it’s not refined.” Even simple engraving can take around 50 hours of work, while the sort of detailed decoration that characterises the case of the 6002 Sky Moon Tourbillon (SFr1.2m, about £864,000) or the anniversary edition of the Grandmaster Chime (about £1.8m) is the result of more than 200 hours of patient, painstaking work.
The renaissance in engraving offers a new dimension of appreciation for connoisseurs seeking an aesthetic that mirrors the mechanical refinement and complication of modern haute horlogerie. Indeed, with the move back towards more sophisticated design and less bloated case sizes, watchmakers have been looking for ways to add value to the horological experience. “Engraving on the case is becoming popular because men increasingly care about the refinement of their watches,” says Stéphane Belmont, creative and marketing executive director of Jaeger-LeCoultre. “They don’t just want the complications, they want the exclusivity of a complicated movement with the aesthetic finesse of a traditional watch.” Which is why Jaeger is looking beyond Switzerland for engravers. “Recently we hired a very young engraver from the Ecole Boulle in Paris, a school teaching many different craft techniques. We’d like engravers to contribute more to the creative process by exchanging ideas with designers and other craftsmen.” This way, engraving can more often be combined with enamelling and gem-setting.
Belmont also observes that although recent years have seen considerable effort devoted to movement decoration and dial design, “the case was looking a bit empty – so we thought we could use the sides and bezel for decoration, referencing that on the dial”. Of the newer pieces, the case sides of both the Master Grand Tourbillon Enamel (£202,000) and the midnight-blue enamel Duomètre Sphérotourbillon (price on request) are engraved with a design inspired by the Doge’s Palace in Venice (recalling the brand’s partnership with the Venice Film Festival).
This motif also carries resonance as an abstract pattern, and in a similar vein Vacheron Constantin used the scales of a dragon as the starting point for an elegantly engraved version of its Calibre 2253, called L’Empreinte du Dragon (£592,300). The play of light over the dense engraving is remarkable; the pattern is more abstract and geometric than a faithful representation.
For such artistry to have an impact, a large case is usually better. And as the movement determines the size of the case, engraved watches tend to be associated with elite makers specialising in unusual features that require more space – the inclusion of an automaton that moves in time with, say, a repeater function. Some of the most entertaining automata of recent years have been produced by Jaquet Droz, and particularly attention grabbing have been the Bird Repeater (from £354,400) and the Charming Bird (from £299,300). “With these watches we have a real niche,” says Jaquet Droz vice-president Christian Lattmann. “Those who choose this kind of automaton want something that surprises.” The brand is now working on enhancing the astonishment factor with case engraving, says Lattmann, with “the combination of this unique movement and an extraordinary case resulting in a fully conceived work of art”.
In other words, a bulky case is transformed into an aesthetic beauty, which is what Zenith has achieved: the Pilot Type 20 Grand Feu (price on request) is Brobdingnagian in its dimensions, and if it looks as big as a pocket watch then that is because it features a pocket-watch movement. “We wanted to take advantage of some beautiful old movements,” says CEO Aldo Magada. “So we combined the iconic 5011K with incredible engraving.” Although only made in a very limited series, the classic movement with a lavishly engraved case proved so popular that Zenith will be extending the concept and launching similar pieces later this year. Among these designs will be one with engraving linked to Louis Blériot – the famed French aviator was a Zenith wearer.
Over at Piaget, the generously dimensioned Polo Tourbillon Relatif (from £408,000) offers a canvas capable of accommodating an entire cityscape, including one of New York, complete with Statue of Liberty. The Altiplano Double Jeu (from £171,000), meanwhile, has been modified to provide a greater surface upon which the engraver can express himself. The upper of the two superimposed watches (a style initially conceived as a way of showing Piaget’s expertise in the field of slim watches) has been substituted for a hinged cover, the sort of space that is more usually associated with the couvercle of a hunter-cased pocket watch. Piaget puts this space and the talents of its engravers at the disposal of clients looking for something truly unique. For one, this was used to accommodate a diamond-set dragon, while another commissioned an engraved portrait of himself. Could it be that the rising importance of engraving will see the return of the hunter case?