Ages-old techniques are kept alive in the workshops of Switzerland.
While we’ve mostly talked about complications in our previous stories (and these have a beauty of their own) people don’t just buy watches because they’re precise or can do fancy things mechanically. Most of the time, they buy watches because they’re drawn to the way certain watches look. A clean layout, visual symmetry, striking workmanship: these are all hallmarks of a good timepiece, but what we’re talking about are watches that go into the decorative arts.
Enameling, engraving, gem-setting, and micro painting are a few of the traditional arts that have been passed down from generation to generation, each artisan taking years to master a specific style. That these are still present in watchmaking, that the artisans still take up the brush and rod, speaks to the value that these timepieces are given. If a watchmaker spends time perfecting the mechanical arts, then why shouldn’t the rest of the watch be paid just as much attention?
It’s no small effort, keeping these techniques alive, and the brands that do so have invested heavily to continue the old traditions. Still, the work that they manage to produce can yield breathtaking results.
Here’s a look at the history and processes behind these techniques, as well as a few fantastic pieces that have come out of the Swiss workshops.
Enameling is an ancient art that takes glass and fuses it to metal through heat. Some of the earliest examples of enamel work come from a collection of rings that were discovered in a Mycenean tomb from the 13th century B.C. Hundreds of years later, and the art is still alive, though now being practiced with more modern materials and tools.
The material used for the technique is created by heating powdered glass to very high temperatures (750 degrees celsius upwards) and the resulting substance is used to decorate metals in various styles. Enamel is more resistant to ultraviolet light, making them less likely to fade than paint, and is thus used on dials (and sometimes other parts as well) to retain their vibrant colors.
It takes multiple firings to get the exact shade desired by the artisan, and when you think about the number of watches in a single run, you begin to see how much care is required to produce these watches with any degree of uniformity.
Since the 5th Century BC—when people used short rods to carve designs on hard surfaces—engraving has been one of the most widely used decorative techniques. Found on statues, vases, and jewelry, it was also used to embellish early examples of clocks and pocket watches,
Employing a tool called a burin (also known as a graver), the artisan carves out the metal, creating recesses and lines that form a design. Burins vary in shape and size (round, flat, square, v-point), each one yielding a different result. Some engravers have even been known to make their own tools, so they can be used for specific designs.
The process can take anywhere from hours to weeks, with particularly detailed watches taking up to months to create.
Micro painting is a decorative technique that’s quite similar to regular painting. Only, the artisan does it on a much smaller canvas. Considering the average size of a watch case, and the even smaller dial that goes with it, the area that remains available for painting usually spans a few dozen millimeters.
Still, this hasn’t stopped artisans from creating portraits, landscapes, and symbols in the space that’s given. And many complex examples exist, such as a recreation of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch and an entire series of erotic scenes from comic book artist Milo Manara.
The art of gem-setting is an exacting process, which entails placing gemstones in a precise location. The artisan first drills tiny holes into the metal, then painstakingly drills them again to fit each particular piece. With slow, precise cuts, the artisan forms a setting, and the holes are then grained to hold the gems in place.
Commonly found on bezels, dials, and various parts of the case, the process becomes even more difficult with intricate designs and their larger number of stones.
Given the lengths that the watch houses go to just to maintain all of these arts, that’s hardly unexpected. And as long as they remain, the workshops of Switzerland will continue to keep these traditions alive.
Aurelio Icasiano III has been in media for 14 years: as a television producer and writer, travel correspondent, book editor, and as editor of an internationally-awarded men’s lifestyle magazine. He runs an electrical construction company by day but spends all too much time thinking about the next story.