Understanding Métiers d’Arts Techniques in Watchmaking – The Watch Pages

For centuries, watch brands have been adorning their watches with diamonds and gemstones. They have been carving engravings on cases and case backs and have created miniature hand paintings on dials small and large. These incredible crafts have become known as Métiers d’ Arts by the brands and the collectors that covet the majestic and beautiful. The best brands today look at the dial like a canvas, at the case and bezel as a sculpture, and at the arts as a way to bring a masterpiece to the wrist. Here we take a closer look at five of the different types of Métiers d’Arts employed by the finest watch brands today.

Gem-setting

When it comes to adorning watches with scintillating diamonds and a painter’s palette of gemstones, watch brands excel. Some brands have their own designated gem setters right on the premises, while others turn to outside master setters to ensconce their watches with shimmer in all hues.  While the end result is always stunning, getting there is no easy feat. Some of the most intense high-jewelry watches command hundreds of hours of meticulous craftsmanship.

Hublot Big Bang Integral Tourbillon Rainbow

Depending on the style of gem setting, the artist must first work the metal to carve the space where each stone will live. The most common settings in watches are the invisible, prong, and snow setting. In invisible settings, the diamonds or gemstones are placed in metal channels next to one another so that no metal at all shows through – hence the name invisible. In prong settings, the metal is carved and then each individual stone is placed into the prong and then the setter must bend the metal edges (typically four corners) back over the edges of the stone again. Snow setting is a bit more complex, with different sized diamonds being used to look as though they were randomly placed, while their placements have been meticulously thought out. Some brands have even developed their own specialized settings in an effort to keep their Haute Joaillerie timepieces looking truly unique.

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Bvlgari Divina Mosaica Pink Sapphire
Bvlgari Divina Mosaica Pink Sapphire set with diamonds and pink sapphires

In addition to the different types of settings, brands use different types of cuts of stone for their watches. The most common is the brilliant-cut (round) diamond, but the baguette-cut is not far behind in the world of high jewelry watches. Baguette-cut stones are faceted and typically rectangular or square in nature. Brands that create floral jewelry bracelets and case motifs often turn to fancy cuts such as pear, marquis, or princess in order to achieve the leaves and patterns.

It can take the gem setter hundreds of hours to properly work the metal and set – using tweezers – the stones into place. Once complete, the watches are then polished and checked again to ensure a very smooth surface where no snags could occur.

Enameling

The art of enameling to create miniature masterpieces for the wrist is very specialized and only a few handfuls of experts are skilled enough to create the finest images on watch dials.  Just like with gem setting, there are a host of different enamel procedures and each requires a different process, different steps, and results in different outcomes.

Metiers d'arts in watchmaking explained
Van Cleef & Arpels Enamelling

When enameling a dial, the artist typically works with a thin-haired brush, sometimes resorting to a single-haired brush to achieve such fine lines as might be necessary. Additionally, enamel work of any sort requires multiple paintings and firings in a kiln that is usually heated to at least 800 degrees Celsius to set the paint. Such heating can result in bubbles in the paint, fissures, or even hairline cracks, requiring the artist to discard the dial and start again at the beginning. Because the color is somewhat burned off during the firing process, the dial must be painted multiple times in order to achieve the proper depth of color.

Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers Flying Dutchman_6540C-000G-034C_MO_4
A Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers Flying Dutchman 18-carat white gold minute repeater tourbillon depicting the legendary ghost ship “Flying Dutchman”, using both miniature and grisaille enameling techniques.

The most elaborate enamel work can take as many as 1,000 hours to complete, with dozens of layers of painting and firing. Generally, enamel work begins with soft glass particles made of silica, lead, and soda that, when mixed, creates the intense hues. Colors are created by mixing the enamel with different elements such as Iron (which creates yellow, green, and brown hues), Chromium (offering green tones), Iodine (yielding fiery reds), Copper (unleashing hues of blue, green, and red) and Manganese (creating black and violets) and a host of other elements. The enameller usually mixes his or her own colors in order to be consistent from painting to painting.

Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers Sea Horse_6007C-000R-056C_MOF_20
This Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers Sea Horse 18-carat 5N pink gold, creation pairs four Métiers d’Art techniques, hand-engraving, hand-guillochage, hand-enameling, and gem-setting to highlight the seahorse parading around the tourbillon.

Among the different types of enamel work is Grand Feu, Cloisonné, Champleve’, Plique a Jour translucent lacquer work, and some might even include the art of Urushi in this category. Sometimes, the brand will combine different types of enamel work together on one dial. With Grand Feu enamel, a dial is typically painted a specific color for an overall effect. In Cloisonné’ work, strips of gold outline the design on the dial, and the enameller fills in each section with enamel paint. Sometimes artists turn to spangling, which means gold foil particles are scattered in the enamel.  Because each watch dial is individually hand-painted, each is unique.

The Japanese art of Urushi is similar to the enamel work, but the artists work with a lacquer that is made from the sap of the Urushi tree. It takes years to get the sap to properly cure so that it is workable as a paint. Here, too, the artist sometimes adds flecks of gold to the sap.

Hand painting

Hand painting a watch dial – with a single color or an array of colors that come together to form scenes with birds, animals, flowers, people, or places is no easy feat. In fact, it can take hundreds upon hundreds of hours depending on the complexity of the image. Additionally, there is a risk of damage at every step – rendering the dial unusable – and demanding the artist go back and start it all again. While hand painting a dial is similar to the art of enamel work, it is different in that the dial does not undergo as many heatings and firings in the kiln. Typically, the scene is painted and there is one firing to set the paint into place. That doesn’t mean that hand painting is any easier than hand-painted enamel work. Both take a lot of painstaking miniaturized work.

Jaquet Droz Petite Heure Minute Dragon John Howe
Jaquet Droz Petite Heure Minute Dragon John Howe – miniature painting of a magnificent dragon

Engraving

Engraving a watch is also delicate work. To engrave a watch, the artist uses a sharp tool which he or she then uses to carve away the metal from the dial or case back (or case) to create the desired motif. Often, engraving is used to create scrollwork, florals, or special motifs. Sometimes, the brand will also turn to metal sculpting of pieces for the watch that are first sculpted out of gold and then further engraved to achieve depth and dimension. This is a particularly popular art for creating animals that grace a dial, for instance, butterflies or people. Engraving is incredibly time-consuming and one slip of the hand can ruin an entire sculpture or design. Many engravers, like enamellists, have learned their trade from generations of family members before them who practiced the specialized art.

Hermès Slim d'Hermès C'est la Fête
Hermès Slim d’Hermès C’est la Fête – hand-engraving

Marquetry

The art of marquetry is particularly alluring on a watch dial, as specialists fit hundreds of tiny pieces of a certain material together to create a design or pattern. Today’s marquetry experts turn to all sorts of materials for their dials, including feathers (responsibly sourced), wood fragments, rose petals, gemstone fragments, and other creative sources. Some brands have turned to paper and straw, weaving them to create a special motif. The idea of marquetry is quite complex, as the artist needs to cut hundreds of tiny pieces and fit them together like a jigsaw puzzle on a dial smaller than two inches in diameter. Here again, patience is key and each resulting dial is not just a work of art but is also unique.

Roberta Naas

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