From dials in bloom to faces with undulating waves of colour, the ingenuity and craftsmanship of watch enamellers and painters are extraordinary to behold. But while paint, enamel and jewelled embellishment are long-established horological enhancements (enamel, for example, was used on watches in the 16th century), one decorative device had not – until recently – appeared on the dial: embroidery.
Piaget was first fired up by the aesthetic possibilities of embroidery two years ago, enlisting the help of Sylvie Deschamps, a highly skilled embroiderer awarded the prestigious title of Maître d’Art by the French Ministry of Culture. There are just two designs, each on Piaget’s Altiplano watch, each extremely precious and each coming in small limited editions. Every dial is painstakingly handcrafted by Deschamps herself, using what Piaget calls “painting” embroidery – a technique that utilises thousands of tiny stitches on a silk canvas, rather like the minuscule dots of paint in a neo-impressionist work, and takes around 40 hours to complete. Its most elaborate version (£28,500, of which only three pieces were made, now all sold) features an emblem much loved by the brand, the rose (about which Nick Foulkes wrote so eloquently in How To Spend It back in April 2014; see “Fantastical floral watches” on Howtospendit.com). In many glorious shades of pink, each petal has contours accentuated with silver filet thread to give greater depth, and the rose blooms over about seven-eighths of the black dial, which is circled with small diamonds.
The other, less flamboyant design features a small decorative laurel branch lying on one side of the dial. This time Deschamps uses a different technique, first drawing the motif on a tracing sheet, then piercing it to outline the contours of the branch, followed by sprinkling powder to make the design appear on the silk – only then does the embroidery work begin. The version with a white face, gold thread and encirclement of diamonds is £23,700, while the one with a black face and silver thread is £24,500 – 18 were made of each, both still available. So charmed is Piaget by the results that more new watches with embroidered dials are planned.
Chanel also first stitched thread to its dials in 2013, when it took its most iconic motif, the camellia, and, capitalising on the skills of specialist embroidery house Maison Lesage (which it bought in 2002), used coloured silk threads to create a flower that appears to blossom from the centre of the dial of the Mademoiselle Privé Lesage watch (£53,000 in a limited edition of 18, from which one is still available). That year, it won the Artistic Crafts watch prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie in Geneva, and the following year came another two enchanting designs (made to order, from £23,750) offering different variations on the camellia theme using silk thread covered with gold, and yellow and white 18ct gold pallions (sequins).
This month, the house is taking the idea even further, launching three styles featuring embroidery techniques and jewelled embellishment. Two, in beige-gold silk (from £30,000), feature a face with pretty embroidered silk camellias embellished with tiny natural pearls; the other (£27,750) has a black face with a comet (one of Coco Chanel’s most loved images) embroidered in silk with diamonds and glass beads. These both require enormous technical skill and expertise to pull off, and the silk – as always – must be dust free and guaranteed to keep its colour under the crystal.
At Dior, which has long linked its watch-face design to its haute couture collections, embroidery has been inspired by the art of lace making. The marque’s first foray into the genre came last year, when it launched the Dior VIII Grand Bal Fil de Soie (£32,000) with pink or sea-green silk-thread embroidery (in a limited edition of 88 of each colour, still available). It was based on the design of an earlier diamond watch that, in turn, was inspired by the lace on the house’s ballgowns. The intricate embroidery uses a lacemaking technique, developed from a 16th-century bobbin-weave tool, to sew thread onto the calibreinversé movement, which, unusually, sits on the front of the dial. The oscillation of this embroidered movement is intended to be reminiscent of a swirling ballgown. And this month, Dior is launching the Dior VIII Grand Bal Fil d’Or (£35,025, in a limited edition of 88), featuring the same design but this time with gold thread on a black ceramic face, coupled with rose gold and diamonds.
Lastly, Hublot’s embroidered watches pay tribute to the legendary needlework of Swiss grandmothers. The company took the iconic Big Bang sports watch and worked with Bischoff, the Swiss lingerie and lace maker, to come up with pieces unlike anything else found in the elegant salons of haute horlogerie. Hublot devised a skull pattern, which Bischoff adapted and embroidered on tulle, before it was layered and encased in carbon fibre to become part of the dial and bezel – as well as flowing over onto the strap. There are three versions – with black thread and black diamonds (£14,200), silver thread and white diamonds (£13,400) and gold thread and white diamonds (£26,900) – each in an edition of 200, launched in January.
While these limited-edition watches are exceedingly time-consuming to create, the love and care that goes into each piece makes them fabulously special and, as for the embroidery technique, I’d venture that we are only at the very beginning of its full decorative possibilities.