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.
Hermès new Dressage L’heure masquée is a playful watch with dual time zone with a secret hour hand. Somewhat reminiscent of the also-whimsical Arceau Le Temps suspendu from a few years ago, a the Dressage L’heure masquée is constructed such that the hour hand and second time zone display remain hidden, revealing themselves only when and so long as the crown is pressed. They disappear again when the pusher is released.
There are materials whose apparent simplicity is, for the artisan, a great source of inspiration. Here we see another fine example of the talented folks at Hermes whose passion and expertise lies in the art of straw marquetry. It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of these types of dials, particularly those done by Hermes — I absolutely LOVE how Hermes indulges its passion for this craft. Hermes had a number of nice pieces this year at Baselworld but this one really stuck with me.
Hermes Arceau H Cube
Limited Edition 10 Pieces
41mm white gold case, straw marquetry dial, automatic mechanical Hermes Cal H1837 (Vaucher), alligator strap by Hermes
Hermes is of course well known for its use of unique, repeating geometries — including those created with marquetry (see my review of the Hermès Arceau Marqueterie de Paille). This piece is particularly special in that it uses an interlocking Hermes “H” pattern motif.
Each blade of straw has been hand selected, carefully cut, dried and dyed in hues of orange, burgundy, fuscia, coral and purple.
Of course pieces like this do not lend themselves to mass production — this is a limited series of 10 pieces.
For more on straw marquetry, be sure to visit my previous discussion of Hermes Arceau Marqueterie de Paille.
Here’s a first look at a spectacular new piece from Hermes, the Hermès Arceau Lift Flying Tourbillon. Production of this superlative piece is limited to just 176 pieces, and to own one will set you back $165,000. The ornate geometry of the tourbillon carriage and barrel bridge is inspired by a lift/elevator which is installed at the Hermes Paris boutique, 24 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré.
More high res pics on the click