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.
De Bethune followed up 2012’s elaborately engraved IX Mayan Underworld with this year’s DB 25 Imperial Fountain, a limited-edition set of 12 watches, with the dial of each timepiece featuring an engraved animal head from the Chinese zodiac. The sculptures replicate the bronze zodiac animal heads that once adorned an 18th-century fountain at the Old Summer Palace on the outskirts of Beijing. Master artist Michèle Rothen uses the bas-relief technique to engrave the heads, which are placed on a background of grand feu enamel and encircled with symbols and the heads of the other zodiac animals. The central positioning of the sculpture required De Bethune watchmaker Denis Flageollet to develop a new movement using micro ball bearings and an original transmission system that drives revolving disks to indicate hours and minutes on the periphery of the dial.
Typically, such elaborate and esoteric projects are commissioned to independent artisans. A number of companies, however, are making significant investments in their own in-house engraving capabilities that will allow them to create special pieces that pay tribute to each brand’s historical roots. Vallée de Joux stalwart Blancpain has long employed engravers to embellish casebacks, oscillating weights, and moon-phase displays. Its engraving department has continued to expand as demand for these touches and more expansive treatments grows.
One area in which Blancpain continues to commission independent artisans, however, is the longstanding yet closeted tradition of creating erotic automatons, in which sculpted and engraved couples carry on in flagrante delicto on the casebacks of perfectly respectable-looking watches. Independent engraver Jean-Vincent Huguenin, who has performed G-rated engraving for Urwerk, has produced these pieces for Blancpain since 1992. The tradition dates back to 18th- and 19th-century pocket watches that a man of wealth could use either for bawdy entertainment or other, more risqué suggestions.
Jaquet Droz offers much more tame but still exquisite high relief engraved subjects as it once did in the 18th century. The Petite Heure Minute Relief Seasons, for example, features a white mother-of-pearl dial appointed with a hand-engraved and patinated 22-karat red gold appliqué of a bird landing, wings spread. While outside engravers were employed for some of the early pieces of this type, the brand has opened a new atelier inside its factory, where its own artisans can conceive and produce more elaborate engraved features.
More than merely decorative, engraving capabilities are helping newly reorganized watch brand Arnold & Son define itself. The antique timepieces produced by celebrated English watchmaker John Arnold for King George III and the royal court of that era inspired the brand to create a trio of watches with hand-engraved dials portraying scenes of the historic HMS Victory battleship. While Arnold & Son wished to reference English watchmaking signatures from the past, the limited-edition TE8 Métiers d’Art tourbillon is also distinguished from these pieces by an unusual, contemporary engraved pattern on the barrel bridge and the back of the main plate that was conceived by the brand’s master engraver.
“We specifically wanted to design a hand-engraved motif that would be ornate and beautiful for the TE8, however not be seen as a motif dating back to any historical hand-engraved motifs found in the past,” says Sebastien Chaulmontet, head of innovation. “Our style of hand-engraving is not a replica of what John Arnold and his son did in the past. Our motif, designs, and different subjects are designed and crafted with today’s collectors’ tastes in mind.”