Home The Knowledge The Theory

When Art meets Horology: Métiers d’art in watchmaking

Anna Wu-Chauvineau
Le 13 February 2017
F

From as far back as the 15th century when the first pocket watches appeared, art has been an important companion of the timepiece. As one would expect, precision of time was quite the abstract notion back then. Watchmakers did what they could but were often obligated to equip these first watches with sundials for a more accurate reading of time. Something was clearly missing to give the people a reason to purchase these pieces other than new, but unreliable, mechanical peculiarities.

Watchmakers found their answer in art, glorious art. These first timepieces would be embellished with enamel, engraving, and other decorative arts. Not only was this the perfect way to attract attention away from the flaws of the watch, but it also became a status symbol, illustrating the social value of the owner. This does sound familiar doesn’t it?…

No toolwatches here, only artwatches

“Métiers d’art” is what we’d call artistic crafts in French. It’s a bit more politically correct than that, but for this article it’ll do.

Enameling, engraving, gilding, embroidery, marquetry, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. The impact of these traditional artisan techniques can be seen in collections of the biggest names in the industry today…more about that in a bit. In terms of watch decoration, houses who mastered the art of jewelry design had an edge over “simple” watchmakers. But this was the past, now the great houses of watchmaking are increasingly invested in the development of these arts for their high-end collections, and the result is quite remarkable I dare say.

Enameling

Piaget Altiplano DragonPhoto credit: www.piaget.fr

In a nutshell, enamel is the result of powdered glass melted together with color pigment. When completely cooled, the matter will perfectly bond to surfaces such as metal, glass and ceramic. For desired artistic designs, the enamel is applied several times on to the dial using a goose quill or a similar tool.

There are a variety of enameling techniques available for artisans to choose from, but the ones most widely-used for high-end watches are Cloisonné, where fine partitions are added to the dial before enameling, and Champlevé, when metal is carved away from a dial to create cells that will receive enamel. Associations between techniques are also relatively common.

Vacheron Constantin - Copernic Spheres Celestes

Embroidery

Who would ever think of seeing the words “embroidery” and “watchmaking” in the same sentence? Not me, until very recently, that’s for sure… One is wholly rooted in fabrics, unrelated to the mechanisms of the timepiece. The grand house of Chanel, in collaboration with master embroidery workshop Lesage, has united the two skills and for the very first time in the watch industry, we have ever-so-elegant embroidered dials.

Photo credit: www.chanel.fr

Here we are witnesses to a glamorous dance of gold and silk threads, delicate pearls, gold foil, and diamonds for that extra sparkle.

Floral Marquetry

You’ve most likely seen marquetry techniques on wood. Conventionally speaking, the art of marquetry consists of inlaying different woods and other materials such as ivory, mother-of-pearl, metal, etc. to create a picture. With the Floral Marquetry Parrot watch from the Ballon Bleu collection, Cartier shows us just how far they can go in playing with texture.

Cartier Ballon Bleu - Floral Marquetry Parrot
Photo credit: www.cartier.fr

Once again, for the first time in the watch industry, authentic flowers are used to decorate the dial. And in this unique piece, real colored flower petals are carefully preserved, cut then placed on the dial to create the vibrant feathers of the parrot. Onyx is used for the bird’s beak, emerald for the eye, and diamonds cover the background. Not too shabby…

Shakudo

The Japanese ancestral art of shakudo can be described as a technique of transforming a warm-toned alloy made of copper and gold into the desired black-grey-indigo hue. After this delicate step of coloring has been accomplished, other decorative techniques may be worked into the dial such as extremely fine engraving and damascening like in the example below.

Blancpain Villeret Shakudo Ganesh

Magnificently portrayed, Blancpain honors the Hindu god of Wisdom Ganesh in all its spiritual grandeur. The representation itself is superb and the detailing of each unique dial is so intricate and perfect that you can easily gaze at it all day long with a magnifying glass, in admiration of its technical feat. And you think I’m kidding…

Our interest?

The métiers d’art techniques mentioned here represent only a few number of artistic crafts that have enchanted the watchmaking scene since its comeback at the turn of the century. These different types of traditional, and sometimes ancestral, know-how that have been passed down from generations. This unique and rare gift that up until recently has been fading from popular culture, is finally enjoying a revival of sorts. The watchmaking industry can’t be thanked alone, but we can’t ignore its leading role in the phenomenon when you look above.

I wonder at times, what’s more valuable, the mastery and artistry of a skilled artisan or the magnificent result that comes from it. Now that’s a question for the ages…