Once-obscure decorative techniques have now become as vital to the prestige of rival watchmaking houses as their complicated movements.
Over the last five years, an explosion of creative techniques used to decorate watch dials and cases has all but dwarfed innovation in timepiece mechanics. “It’s a good time right now,” says Philippe Delhotal, creative and development director of Hermès’s watch division, La Montre Hermès. “Without the [increase in decorative watches,] many artisans might have closed their doors. On the other hand, I’m worried that every company now wants to do métiers d’art watches.”
Delhotal’s observation succinctly summarizes the current state of the watch industry. Techniques such as engraving and enameling have long been a part of watchmaking’s repertoire, but many companies are currently employing individuals and processes that have previously been strangers to horological pursuits. As these brands seek to best one another, decorative arts are gaining a level of prestige in Switzerland that was once solely the province of elaborate complications.
Hermès, for its part, has drawn on its decorative-art capabilities to create special collections of watches since 2008. Initially these pieces focused on traditional crafts, including enameling; but after introducing a dial composed of straw marquetry in 2012, the company pushed its creative limits. The Arceau Millefiori, one of the brand’s latest models, perfectly exemplifies this effort: After immersing himself in the company’s vast portfolio of work, Delhotal ultimately decided to use a technique from the Hermès-owned Cristallerie de Saint-Louis to create a watch with a multicolored, handblown crystal dial.
Other brands have also embraced the trend. Despite its long-standing expertise in jeweling watches and making lapidary dials, Piaget has typically offered only a very limited number of traditionally engraved and enameled pieces, most of them based on themes from various Asian cultures. This year, however, the company introduced women’s watches with hand-embroidered floral dials, as well as men’s watches that feature another art form that is new to watchmaking: mammoth-ivory scrimshaw. At Chanel, a recent collaboration with the enamelist Anita Porchet—originally intended to result in only a handful of pieces—has yielded the Mademoiselle Privé collection, which now consists of eight models and is growing. Among other techniques, these watches showcase mother-of-pearl carving and Japanese maki-e lacquer, the latter of which allows Chanel to render its camellia motif in a combination of gold and quail eggshell.
Even brands with legacies in decorative crafts traditionally incorporated into watchmaking, such as enameling, have explored new possibilities. Patek Philippe’s annual collection of enameled dome clocks and wristwatches, which used to be displayed only once before disappearing into the hands of collectors, now features inventive mixed techniques, and the latest compendium is scheduled for multiple exhibitions.
Historically, independent artisans have been responsible for the traditional handcrafts at the largest brands—a practice that continues even as new techniques emerge. In 2007, Van Cleef & Arpels, flush from the success of its Poetic Complications wristwatches, released a series of tourbillons with complex, mixed-technique dials. The Midnight Tourbillons featured scenes decorated with mother-of-pearl, engraving, jeweling, and enamel, and served as the forerunners of the Extraordinary Dials series that has since attained critical and commercial success.
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Olivier Vaucher, who focuses on fabricating small, creative series for the industry, produced most of these dials for Van Cleef. During the same period, he undertook a project for Vacheron Constantin. That collection, Métiers d’Art Les Masques, was unique in two respects: Not only was it inspired by a mask collection at Geneva’s Barbier-Mueller Museum, which added an unprecedented storytelling component to the pieces, but Vaucher also experimented with the use of computers to assist with the engraving. The success of these assignments did not go unnoticed.
“The collections coming from Vacheron and Van Cleef brought a new artistic discourse about métiers d’art,” recalls Thierry Lamouroux, who oversaw watch development for Cartier at the time. “Competition became more and more aggressive, and we wanted to consider what new métiers we could use, either by finding them in other forms of art or by inventing them.”
Cartier, which launched a dedicated collection of watches featuring various types of enamel in the late 1990s, responded to the newfound popularity of art watches comprehensively, cataloging all known decorative-art techniques and setting up a committee to review ideas. The company typically pursues numerous projects at the same time, discarding some and investing more time in those that look promising, and the results of this approach to development have been impressive. Cartier’s art-based output—which includes such high-profile watchmaking firsts as the use of gold granulation, floral marquetry, and gold-paste grisaille—outstrips that of every other company in the industry. To safeguard its lead position, Cartier is establishing a dedicated facility near its manufacture in La Chaux-de-Fonds specifically dedicated to decorative crafts. The company intends to internalize as much knowledge as possible. “Every maison is working with some of the same artisans,” explains Lamouroux. “It is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain confidentiality as well as exclusivity.”
Even Vacheron Constantin, one of the pioneers of the modern art watch, has had to subtly adjust its strategy. For the last three years, creative director Christian Selmoni and design director Vincent Kauffman have introduced Métiers d’Art collections largely created by the company’s in-house artists. With the occasional help of an outside master, Selmoni has been able to refer to significant artistic and cultural motifs using the old staples of guilloche, engraving, jeweling, and enameling. This year’s women’s watch collection, a riff on various ornamental styles, is no different. Selmoni and his team compiled ornamental styles from cultures around the world and sketched more than 20 different concepts, four of which were selected. In-house artisans and external specialists executed the dials using traditional techniques, with the single exception of the China Limodoron, whose base exhibits an application of stone cloisonné never before used in watchmaking. “There are plenty of crafts that can be used in watchmaking,” explains Selmoni. “The question is, how do we transfer these crafts into a horological creation that has to have a sense of aesthetics? Creativity and execution remain most important, but each new watch has to fit into a concept. To create a watch that is simply nice is basically just a waste of time.”
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