In our most ambitious “Making of” special yet, we go in-depth on enamel techniques. 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.
ENAMEL: WHAT IS IT?
The word enamel comes the High German word “smelzan” later becoming “esmail” in Old French. Hence the current usage of ’email’ in French and ‘enamel’ in English. Similarly, the term emaillage is a French reference to ‘enamelling’. According to Vacheron Constantin, “The art of enamelling was invented by oriental craftsmen nearly 4,000 years ago. With the development of watchmaking in the 17th century, Geneva became the center of Grand Feu miniature enamelling for watch decoration.”
Interestingly, we do see on occasion the term ’email’ used on a watch dial, which elicits comments and queries from folks who confuse it with the English word for electronic-mail.
Confusing to Technophiles: “Email Grand Feu”
Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Ultra Thin “Email Grand Feu”
Enamel is basically glass (silica) melted together with a colorant (i.e. a pigment, typically a metal oxide). These ingredients are heated to their melting point (800 – 1200 Celsius), then the smelted mixture is set to cool and bond on a metal surface. It is a process of repeated layering: the “fire, cool, and add new a enamel layer” process is repeated 4-10 times to achieve the final result. Designs and colors are imparted in the enamel itself, or sometimes plain enamel is painted on top of with the desired design.
Donzé Cadrans SA (founded 1972, acquired by the Ulysse Nardin Group in 2012) explains for us further:
Enamel is a soft glass composed of silica, red lead and soda. Mixed together with other elements, enamel is capable of creating intense hues with a subtle, magical depth. Elements used to add hue to enamel include iron which produces a gray color, chromium which creates a green color and iodine which makes a fiery red color. When enamel is heated to temperatures of 800-1200 degrees Celsius, it liquefies and bonds to metal. Enamel is applied to a watch dial using a goose quill. It must be slowly built up to create the appropriate depth so that its color attains the correct hue.
There is no “one” set formula for enamel, which is where the “art” comes in. The enamel artist can create an infinite variety of colors through varying combinations of silica and metal oxides. In fact the process of creating enamel is a decorative art that requires a tremendous amount of skill from start to finish. The problem with enamel is that it is incredibly hard to control. At any stage during the production of an enamel dial, it may crack, air or gas bubbles might emerge and leave tiny holes, or the resulting colors might simply not be optimal.
The reward for mastering this delicate procedure are watch dials that are at times incomprehensibly beautiful and unique, with a hue that never fades. Indeed, centuries-old museum pieces with enamel dials still shine as brilliantly as the day they were first created. Of course this also tells us that once an enamel dial piece is finished, it is unalterable — i.e. if not to the desired look or effect or quality, the artisan must start over from scratch!
OVERVIEW OF ENAMEL TECHNIQUES
Similar yet distinctive, each enameling technique requires its own particular skill and precision. The most commonly seen techniques in the world of high watchmaking are Grand Feu, Cloisonné, Champlevé. Here is a good intro video, produced by Vacheron Constantin:
GRAND FEU ENAMEL
“Grand Feu” enamel is typically referred to as a distinct technique, though the term Grand Feu — which translates as “Great Fire” — essentially refers to the essence of enamel production:
The master artisan does not paint the motif directly on the watch but applies more oxides on the dial in gold. Then, the enameller moves the dial into fire (800-900° C) several times to allow motif and colors appear gradually. The “Grand Feu” enamel sets unalterable and refined decoration.
Jaquet Droz Petite Heure Minute Dragon
A. Lange Lange 1 Handwerkskunst Black Enamel Dial
Blancpain Villeret 8 Days Enamel
Jaeger-LeCoultre Duomère à Quantième Lunaire Enamel Dial
Piaget Altiplano “Skeleton Enamel”
Breguet Classique 7787 and Matching Grand Feu Enamel Cufflinks
Cloisonné (‘to partition’) is an enameling technique in which the outline of the dial design is formed by first adding compartments (“cloisons” in French) to the metal object by soldering or adhering silver or gold wires or thin strips placed on their edges. These remain visible in the finished piece, separating the different compartments of the enamel or inlays, which are often of several colors. Cloisonné enamel objects are worked on with enamel powder made into a paste, which then needs to be fired in a kiln.
Vacheron Constantin cloisonné
Ulysse Nardin cloisonné
The fine strips of gold wire measuring as little as 0.07 mm wide (no larger than a human hair) are hand bent and applied to the outline using pliers. The cloisons give the image an appreciable level of detail, dimension and nuance. As with other enamel making processes, the final dial is crated through a series of layering and firing. In the case of a cloisonné dial, the colored cells might be filled in and fired in the kiln five or more times before final finishing and polishing.
Here are several fine examples of finished enamel dials utilizing the cloisonné technique:
Patek Philippe 5131J — a one-off variant of the coveted 5131G and 5131J produced for Children Action Charity
Ulysse Nardin Classico Amerigo Vespucci
Laurent Ferrier Galet Traveller
Champlevé is an enameling technique in which metal is carved away (with a tool known as a burin) and the resulting cells are filled with enamel. The piece is then fired until the enamel melts, and when cooled the surface of the object is polished.
I think of champlevé and cloissoné as opposites, very generally speaking: champlevé being a “reductive” process (i.e. carving out, or taking away of metal to create the enamel compartments), cloisonné being “additive” (adding small wires on top of the metal base to create the enamel compartments).
Vacheron Constantin champlevé
LESS COMMON ENAMEL TECHNIQUES
To highlight just a few others…
FLINQUÉ ENAMEL (via)
The enamel color is deposited by means of a quill pen or brush on a sheet of metal (gold or silver) previously decorated with an engraving by hand or with a guilloche. This enameling operation will be repeated several times (minimum 4) each with a passage in the oven at about 820 degrees. When the thickness of enamel is good, the surface is radiused. After a final passage in the oven, the front of the dial is polished to give it its final gloss.
Cartier Ballon Bleu Flying Tourbillon with Blue Flinqué Enamel Dial
PAILLONNÉ ENAMEL (via)
According to Van Cleef & Arpels, the Paillonné technique calls for tucking a piece of foil – a “paillon” – between two layers of enamel. Thanks to the transparency of the enamel, the technique brings shimmering reflections, brilliance, and luminosity to the dial.
Here similarly is Hermes with the pailloné technique:
Hermès Arceau Attelage Céleste
However there is a slightly different interpretation of the technique by Jaquet Droz who apply decorative “paillons” to the dial rather than layering the foil:
Jaquet Droz Paillone Enamel
GRISAILLE ENAMEL (via)
First developed for Van Cleef & Arpels, Grisaille enamel involves working with white pigments on a black background. To do so, the metal base is first covered with a layer of black enamel. The difficulty lies in obtaining a deep, smooth black layer with no impurities, which will be able to withstand multiple firings. More finely ground than for traditional enamel, the enamel grains are blended with a natural essence developed especially for the Grisaille technique.
Making of the Van Cleef & Arpels Pont des Amoureux Poetic Complications™ timepiece
The white paint, known as “Blanc de Limoges”, is applied as thickly or thinly, depending on the desired effect. The thinner the layer, the grayer the white will become when the black shines through the transparent pigment. Grisaille enamel is first applied with a brush and then drawn using a needle. The metal point of the needle enables subtle contrasts and plays of light and shadow to be obtained in the final image. Firing brings a touch of magic to this technique, revealing the final colors, which are very different to the dial’s previous appearance. Once complete, it creates a spectacular and mysterious effect of architectural relief.
And there you have it! My somewhat exhaustive review, with examples, of the most common enamel techniques as used in haute horlogerie.
Comments & additional insights are welcome — please leave a comment below!
Further Reading About Enamel:
To learn more about enamel, I recommend the following: