There are conservative engravers, and there are crazy engravers like me who try to find the edge of what is aesthetically pleasing,” says Kees Engelbarts. The Geneva-based, Dutch-born artisan has developed a freeform skeletonization technique that he describes as “organic” because it evokes the curvilinear, geometric structures of coral or actual skeletons. “I start off with the bridges and main plate with no plan other than taking away what is not needed and doing it in a rough way,” he explains. “I don’t have a drawing or a precise layout for what I remove—I just cut away whatever I want.”
Engelbarts is also known for engraving mokume-gane, a material dating to 17th-century Japan that is composed of layered mixed metals, which takes on the undulating banded appearance of wood grain. In addition to engraving special pieces for watchmakers including Peter Speake-Marin and Philippe Dufour, Engelbarts also partners with watchmakers to produce his own timepieces. “I am an engraver, so I have a different approach to watchmaking,” he says. “I look at the aesthetics more than watchmakers, who are into the technical aspects and functions. I am more interested in special dials and decorations. I make a watch like a piece of art.”
The current renaissance of decorative métiers d’art—which include engraving, enamel work, gem setting, and other techniques—recalls a time when such artistry dominated in watchmaking, before technical advances improved timekeeping. Ironically, in the high-tech era of smart phones and ubiquitous digital time displays, métiers d’art have made a comeback.
Patek Philippe’s new Sky Moon Tourbillon Reference 6002, which sports an elaborately engraved case and enamel dial, may be a significant bellwether of the revival of these arts. At the unveiling last spring, Thierry Stern, president of the Geneva-based firm, spoke of his family’s ongoing support of artisans who practiced the traditional crafts even when they fell out of fashion, while in the adjacent room, an engraver carved away at a white gold case using the same tools that engravers have used for centuries. Her high-powered microscope, however, is one example of how modern technology is advancing the art.
“This ability to see the pieces bigger allows you to introduce more details and engrave smaller items, but the techniques remain the same—except every single move is expected to be more precise,” says Olivier Vaucher, whose eponymous Geneva atelier has produced artful dials for Van Cleef & Arpels, Cartier, and Vacheron Constantin, among others. His multinational team of 22 artisans specializes in engraving, grand feu enamel, miniature enamel painting, micropainting, gem carving, and micromosaics. “We like to combine innovative technology such as 3D computer programs, stereo lithography, and lasers with traditional knowhow and handwork to develop new approaches that were not possible in the past,” Vaucher says.
Roger Dubuis approached Vaucher with a rendering for this year’s Excalibur Round Table, a limited edition featuring 12 sculpted and engraved knights holding swords positioned as hour markers around an enamel dial. Vaucher’s artisans were particularly constrained by the miniscule size of the figures (which were eventually enlarged from 4 mm to 6.5 mm) and the challenge of integrating one of the knights with the operation of the crown. The use of 3D computer programs greatly expedites the process of resolving such obstacles and experimenting with different aesthetic approaches, says Vaucher. “This way, our artisans can concentrate specifically on what they should be doing instead of wasting their time on other things.” Eight engravers spend two weeks just engraving the knights, and each dial requires one month from start to finish.