You see the terms referred to regularly here at Perpétuelle: “grand feu”, “champlevé”, and “cloisonné”. And what are they? Enamel techniques, of course! Very often used to create some of the most beautiful watch dials the world has ever seen. But what exactly do these terms mean? How are these enamel techniques different? What distinguishes each of these enamel types from the others? And what about those other rare occasions where we see the art of “flinque”, & “grisaille” — enamel techniques as well — on display. I explore these questions and more in this overview of the art of enamel in watchmaking.
In many articles related to fine watchmaking, it is easy to brush past big, fancy (and typically French) words used to describe watchmaking techniques — enamel-related or otherwise. But given that enamel dials are often the most unique and beautiful of all dials in fine watchmaking, with basically all of the most prestigious haute horlogerie brand producing such pieces (some more frequently than others), the time has never been better to deepen our understanding of what these terms mean.
Because of the organic nature of the material and manner in which it is produced — almost always by the skilled hand of an experienced artisan — I believe that it can be fairly stated that every watch with an enamel dial is a unique piece as well. But for most, the difference between a cloissoné dial (such as that found on a Patek 5131G) and a champlevé dial (as seen on a Vacheron Metiers d’Art) is but another trivial watchmaking detail. This naivete, I confess, was somewhat the case for me as well — at least for a while. But then I became more and more intrigued by the art of enamel and decided to expand my knowledge base, which I share with you now.
This is an article I’ve had in my head for quite some time now, and an admittedly one that only the nerdiest of watch-nerds might appreciate. But I’m glad to have finally finished it and I enjoyed writing it. So follow along as I take you through the finer points of enamel and enameling techniques used in fine watchmaking. And please note — this is not an exhaustive study of the very broad ranging “art of enamel”, but as I say will review the most commonly used techniques fine watchmaking, and a few less commonly used techniques as well.
While most of the attention in the auction market last week went to the $24 million Patek “Graves Supercomplication”, there were a couple of neat Breguet pocket watches that sold last week at the Christie’s “Important Watches” auction in Geneva last Monday (November 10th, 2014). Both pieces were acquired by Marc A. Hayek (President and CEO of Breguet) on behalf of the house of Breguet. Most notable among the two historic gold pocket watches is this rare quarter repeating watch equipped with the first free escapement with natural lift ever made by Breguet. The Breguet N° 1135 (circa 1806) sold for a tidy sum of 605,000 Swiss Frances, or about $630,000, including premiums. This piece, in the present owner’s collection since 1983, fetched more than 2x its pre-auction estimate. As a fan of Montres Breguet (in fact the name of this blog was directly inspired by A.L. Breguet’s perpétuelles of the late 1700s), the No. 1135 strikes me (sorry for the pun) as a particularly noteworthy piece and a wonderful example of the talent of A.L. Breguet.
This past Friday, October 31st, 2014, at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève, GPHG (Geneva Watchmaking Grand Prix), Breguet won the most prestigious prize of “Aiguille d’Or” (“Golden Hand”) for its Classique Chronométrie. The GPHG is an annual awards ceremony held in Geneva, essentially a watch industry event for watch industry folks, though its popularity has broadened somewhat in recent years. In any case, it is one the watch industry’s prime opportunities to earn bragging rights amongst peers, and this year it was Breguet who came away with top honors. As a Breguet fan, I was happy to see the Classique Chronométrie 7727, a 10hz high frequency watch with magnetic pivot (among other fine attributes) get the recognition it deserved. See for yourself:
Abraham-Louis Breguet sought constantly to improve the accuracy and reliability of his watches through numerous inventions, ranging from the perpétuelle selfwinding watch (yes, the name of this blog was inspired directly by A.L. Breguet’s work!) to the tourbillon.
Today’s The Classique Chronométrie 7727 is the culmination of several years of research into high frequency (it operates at 10Hz), magnetism (the magnetic pivot was patented by Manufacture Breguet in 2010), and new materials (silicon). At the same time, the watch honors more than two centuries of Breguet’s stylistic tradition with the fluted caseband, welded lugs, engine turned dial, “Breguet hands”, secret signature and unique number, all of which are the identifying features that express the essence of a Breguet timepiece.
Hands-on with Breguet’s Thinnest Ever Tourbillon…
On June 26, 1801, Abraham-Louis Breguet patented the Tourbillon, changing watchmaking forever. As a testament to the complexity of his invention, Breguet sold only 35 timepieces in his lifetime. Just recently, Breguet’s third ever tourbillon, the No. 1176, sold for almost $1 million (purchased by Breguet, for its archives). Over two centuries later, the Breguet watch brand carries on A.L. Breguet’s legacy by producing 32 different tourbillon models, more than any other watch brand.
To mark today’s anniversary of the heralded tourbillon, I thought we should take a look at one of Breguet’s more recent tourbillon models, the 5377. The 5377 is in fact Breguet’s thinnest tourbillon watch ever produced, a mere 7mm thin. The 5377BR in gold case was introduced in 2013; a platinum reference, the 5377PT, debuted this year.