Jochen Benzinger’s atelier in Pforzheim, Germany, a sunlit room filled with intricate antique rose engine machines, is more reminiscent of a museum than a workshop. But such an atmosphere seems appropriate, for this is where the 42-year-old artisan practices the dying craft of guilloche. The rose engines Benzinger uses to perform this engraving technique are as rare as the watch dials he fashions with them. “These machines work today just as they did 100 years ago,” explains Benzinger. “Machine is actually the wrong term for them; they are tools because they are completely operated by hand.”
Modern watchmakers tend to devote the bulk of their time and attention to the mechanical intricacies of a timepiece’s movement—often displaying it conspicuously through a crystal caseback. Complications and precision are emphasized over ornamental flourish. Historically, though, movements were utilitarian, and there were no transparent casebacks for flaunting mechanics. The decorative elements of the watch were what attracted a potential customer, hence the dial and case were made fancy to distinguish it. Since the dawn of the portable watch, dials have come in many shapes and sizes and have been made of the most precious materials. However, no decorative element has distinguished a watch more than guilloche patterning.
The term guilloche is derived from the French guillochis, used to describe the mechanical creation of precise, regular decorative patterns comprising straight and rounded lines using a technique related to engraving. One could define guilloche as engraving with a ruler, because it employs a rose engine, a straight-cut machine, or both to make even and regular patterns.
A craftsman makes straight lines with a straight-cut machine and curved and wavy lines with a rose engine (named for the shape of its cams). The tool that touches the surface of the metal, cutting into it and producing a shaving, is the same with both machines. Unlike engraving, in which the graver is moved by hand across the surface, in the practice of guilloche, the decorated piece is fixed in place and then moved against the machine, with the guillocheur’s hand, or thumb to be more exact, controlling the consistency of the cut. “You crank it by hand, you regulate the pressure on the tool by hand,” explains Benzinger. “It’s all a matter of feel.” While, theoretically, any pattern is possible, the most popular include basket weave, barleycorn, hobnail, stacked blocks, zigzag, flinqué, and moiré—all of which guillocheurs have been producing for centuries.
Today, however, the craft has become so rare that only a handful of artisans in Switzerland and two—including Benzinger—in Germany can fulfill a client’s wish for a dial that is guilloché à main, or engine-turned by hand. With contemporary wristwatches, nearly all of the designs that appear to be guilloche are in fact imitation, created by less time-intensive and expensive means. Only a trained artisan working with a rose engine or a straight-cut machine can execute genuine guilloche.
Benzinger came into possession of his cache of these machines in 1985, when he purchased the Kollmar company in Pforzheim, a historical center of watchmaking and guilloche. Kollmar was one of the town’s first guillocheurs, in existence since 1857. The acquisition included an inventory of antique engines, all of which had been out of production for many decades because of the waning interest in the craft and the rise of modern mass production methods. “The newest one I own is from the 1950s,” says Benzinger, who personally performs all repairs and restoration on his machines, often struggling to find a supplier for the parts. “Since then, there have been no more.”
When production of the machines ceased, so did most of the tutelage of guilloche. By the time Benzinger embarked on his apprenticeship in the early 1980s, guilloche was no longer taught formally. Even Pforzheim’s legendary watch and jewelry school had stopped offering courses in the craft. Benzinger was first introduced to guilloche by the engraver with whom he apprenticed, a man who owned two antique rose engines. On these machines, under the guidance of his mentor, Benzinger taught himself to apply guilloche to watch dials, cases, and other small objects. The fascination soon overtook him, and after acquiring Kollmar, he delved deeper into every aspect of the technique. “I enjoy getting such an old machine to work again,” he says. “It’s sort of like the fascination old-time automobiles hold for some people. The difference is that modern automobile motors are really better [than the old ones], but these machines work better than anything produced in contemporary times.”
Benzinger employs a watchmaker who helps him create custom timepieces for a small group of private clients. Together they transform reliable contemporary mechanisms and vintage movements into one-of-a-kind components for their watches. Each of these horological beauties features Benzinger’s specialties: a dial done in guilloché à main and an engraved and skeletonized movement that is visible through a sapphire crystal caseback. The conservative starting price for one of these timepieces is $5,000.
Because Benzinger’s workshop is one of only two in Germany that specialize in guilloche, he frequently works for other companies. Benzinger applies guilloches to the enameled imperial eggs for the contemporary Fabergé company, and he has created stunning dials for Martin Braun, Christiaan van der Klaauw, Glashütte Original, and RGM, among others.
RGM is a small watch manufacturer in Mount Joy, Pa., in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country. Despite his company’s unconventional location, RGM founder and owner Roland Murphy has a deep appreciation for traditional Swiss watchmaking, particularly the obscure art of genuine guilloche. Consequently, every one of RGM’s dials displaying a guilloche pattern has been produced using a rose engine. “A stamped dial just doesn’t reflect the light in the same manner as a true engine-turned dial,” says Murphy, explaining why he chooses the more costly method over less expensive alternatives. “If you really want the optimum, engine turning is certainly much nicer to look at for someone who can recognize those differences.”
Among the esteemed contemporary watch houses, Patek Philippe is the only firm to employ a guillocheur on the premises. Paul Moretton is an artisan who works on a rose engine made in 1913 by the industry’s most renowned manufacturer, Lienhard of La Chaux-de-Fonds. Moretton was trained for two years by a guillocheur who originally worked on the machine that Moretton now uses. Patek Philippe acquired the machine and Moretton’s expertise a few years ago. While he does not apply guilloche to any of Patek Philippe’s dials, he does embellish the bezel of the Calatrava model with Clous de Paris, a hobnail pattern. Moretton can also restore vintage Patek Philippe timepieces by re-creating components originally decorated with guilloche patterns.
Of the established haute horlogerie brands, Breguet offers the most extensive array of guilloché à main dials. Horological icon Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747–1823) practically invented the use of this craft in watchmaking two centuries ago and, since then, the company that still bears his name has created masterful genuine guilloche dials to grace its watches. “Today there are only about 15 guillocheurs left in Switzerland capable of executing the necessary skill,” says François Manfredini, head of after-sales service at Breguet, “and these artisans work for the most part for Montres Breguet.” Breguet’s parent company, the Swatch Group, is building a factory that will host engine turning (as well as other artisan techniques, such as enameling and engraving) and thereby bring Breguet’s trademark craft in-house. Manfredini applauds this commitment to the art, because, he says, only guilloche done by hand expresses its original vivacity and finesse.
Benzinger concurs, adding that true guilloche also lends a certain sense of luxury to the timepiece. “When you buy a Breguet or a Glashütte Original tourbillon, you know exactly what the money was invested in,” he explains, drawing a comparison between engraving and book printing. “Most people don’t really know the difference between modern offset printing technology and the antique craft of vintage hot-metal setting done on old machines. But a book [produced the old-fashioned way] even smells different when it is opened. With guilloche, it is the visuals that make the difference, and only a very few can tell this difference.”
Perception Versus Reality
Guilloche is an art form that has been handed down from father to son and master to apprentice for generations. The amount of effort and time that goes into making just one engine-turned dial makes the process prohibitive for most watchmakers. Engraving a single dial can take a guillocheur the better part of a day, while a dial created by a brocading machine, a form of pantograph or copying instrument, requires only about 40 minutes. Still, the vast majority of dials displaying a guilloche pattern, perhaps as many as 99 percent, have not been created by either method—they have been stamped, an instantaneous process that allows for mass production.
A brocading machine uses a transfer process that is almost as old as the rose engine itself. It involves a lathe that was originally hand-cranked, but which is now motorized, and a finger (or projecting component) that travels across the face of a template, forcing an engraving tool to carve the same pattern into another piece—in this case a watch dial.
The casual observer would never be able to tell the difference between the three types of guilloche patterning. However, a connoisseur might be able to recognize genuine guilloche with the aid of a loupe, because a handmade dial would reveal very slight tool markings—indicating where the tool was set, for example. Such slight imperfections are part of what makes every hand-guilloche dial unique. By contrast, stamped and brocaded dials are exposed by their mass-produced perfection.
The art of guilloche was developed during the Middle Ages and was known as ornamental turnery, then practiced on the common lathe and used to decorate soft materials such as wood and ivory. Western Europeans made improvements to the lathe, eventually fastening the driving cord to a treadle or an overhead spring. This greatly increased power and left both hands free for controlling the tool, and turning on metal surfaces became increasingly popular.
Although written records from his era are scanty, Leonardo da Vinci is said to have been an ornamental turner. Just about a century after his death in 1519, the lathe evolved into a rose engine (for cutting circular patterns), most likely in southern Germany. Its cutting tool—or graver—was made of steel or another hard metal (which was enhanced by the addition of diamond powder after 1945).
In the 17th and 18th centuries, many ornamental lathes and guilloche engines, all manufactured in Europe, found their way into the houses of European royalty. Engine-turning became the hobby of choice in the royal courts of Europe. Czar Peter the Great of Russia, Prussian kings Frederick III and Frederick IV, George III of England, and French sovereigns Louis XV and Louis XVI all personally decorated objects such as boxes and compasses that are now found in museums. They also employed large numbers of master turners in their workshops. Both men and women practiced the craft—even Queen Victoria owned a lathe. During this age of fascination with mechanical devices, elaborate turn work was created.
In the late 19th century, Peter Carl Fabergé brought the craft wide recognition by combining it with the art of enamel, incorporating this innovative marriage into his famed imperial Easter eggs. The embellishment was soon adorning portable objects of all sorts: jeweled clocks, watch cases, cigarette cases, cigar cutters, picture frames, cane heads, parasol handles, hat pins, vanity cases, combs, mirrors, pens, buckles, and button sets. Some of these items carried the names of Cartier, Chaumet, Boucheron, Tiffany, and other renowned jewelers.
The history of guilloche in watchmaking is inseparable from the history of Jochen Benzinger’s hometown of Pforzheim, Germany, famed for its watch and jewelry industry. Already in operation as early as 1819 at the Lienhard company in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, rose engines emerged in 1857 in Pforzheim. They were imported for use mainly in the town’s jewelry industry. By 1930, Pforzheim had become a world center for the craft, with 33 guilloche companies employing an estimated 330 guillocheurs.
About this time, automatic guilloche machines and pantographs began to render hand-turning obsolete. Then the quartz movement that overtook the entire watch industry in the 1970s nearly eliminated guilloche completely. By 1982 only three guilloche specialists remained in Pforzheim. Today, the number has dwindled to two.