Welcome to our fourth and last edition of our Watch Basics series of 2020. While in part III we had a closer look on one of the most stunning and admired complications among watch collectors – the (minute) repeater (click here to read the full article), this article addresses an almost forgotten technique of decorative haute horology.
Watch dials are the first thing your eyes capture when looking at a timepiece. Regardless of the amount of money you spent for your watch, most dials start as a disc of raw metal that are then painted by a machine. As you can imagine, there are various techniques in haute horology to paint dials but for watch collectors only one is eminent: the process of enameling.
Enameling is the process of applying a thin coat of finely ground glass (made of silica, red lead, and soda) to a metal. When heated to a high temperature, the glass melts and fuses to the metal which creates stunningly beautiful dials. This method is used only by the top-tier brands in the luxury watch industry as it is one of the most -if not the most- difficult decorative process for a watch dial. Purchasing a watch with enamel dials costs almost as much as a luxury car.
According to historians, the origins of enameling can be traced back to the sixth century B.C. Greek sculptures from the fifth century B.C. show surfaces with areas of inlaid metal covered with enamel. One of the first examples of the cloisonné process goes back the ancient Greek goldsmiths who inlaid their jewelry with thin layers of white and blue enamel between gold wires. By the third century B.C., the enamel process had spread to England and Ireland. The process continued to move slowly from Europe to the Middle East, India, China, and then to Japan by the third century A.D.
Nowadays, this same ancient technique is still being used by brands like Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet or Vacheron Constantin. With careful experimentation, the subtle variations in color and form can be controlled. The real joy in enameling lies in creating a design motif which demonstrates the brilliance of the enamel colors.
Let’s have a deeper look into enameling as there are more specific techniques. Although all techniques are quite similar, each requires exceptional precision and skills.
In ”Grand Feu Enameling”, the process of fusing tiny milled glass onto a metal substrate at a temperature of at least 500°C is repeated several times in order to achieve a multi-layer color. When a dial made in ”Grand Feu Enameling” is broken, split or damaged, it cannot be repaired.
In the ”Cloisonné” method, compartments or housings are created using gold wire in order to create the edges of the design with utmost precision. The enameller must work with rigor to ensure that there is an even layer on each side of the partitions. Often the two techniques of ”Grand Feu Enameling” and ”Cloisonné” are combined. You clearly see the silhouette of the made with gold wire for this elephant on the beautiful Patek Philippe Calatraca reference 5089G. The dial is then finished with ”Grand Feu Cloisonné enamel”.
”Champlevé” is essentially the opposite of ”Cloisonné”. The engraver engraves three-dimensional spaces in the metal to allow the enameller to deposit the different enamel glass paste. The glass paste is then fired to melting point, cooled and polished.
”Grattage” is the artistic process of scratching fresh paint with a sharp blade, respectively scraping off multiple layers of paint thus creating new color forms. In the case of this beautiful pocket watch of Patek Philippe the white enamel primer in the background was scraped out using the ”Grattage” technique and finished with black enamel. All the details of the locomotive and the wagon are engraved by hand in the white gold.
What makes the art of enameling so compelling for us watch collectors is the fact that is has zero space for mistakes. The smallest flaws can result in broken or bubbled dials that need to be scrapped or redone. Vacheron Constantin has even its own department for enameling. The watches in the Métiers d’Art collection of VC pay homage to the decorative techniques used in watchmaking and goldsmithing. Furthermore, they draw their inspiration from the fields of art, history and culture. Finished and refined by the Manufacture’s artisans, these small works of art bear witness to cosmopolitan creativity. Enameling is the most beautiful way to connect haute horology and art.
The Collectors Circle wanted to share with you this almost forgotten technique of decorative dial creation for exceptional watches. We hope you will get the chance to get your hands on an enamel dial to see the stunning detail.
Photography by the respective brand: Patek Philippe from www.patek.com