A Return to Artistic Roots, to Stand Out in the I.T. Age

New York Times, February 20, 2012

GENEVA — M.C. Escher, the Dutch graphic artist whose mind-bending prints straddle the boundaries between art and science, once observed that he felt “more in common with mathematicians than with my fellow artists.”

Historically, most watchmakers would have felt the same way. Horology for centuries has prized the science of mechanical engineering to fulfill its primary purpose, the measurement of time. The arrival of the Huguenots in Geneva in the 17th century introduced artistic techniques that found their greatest expression in exquisitely decorated timepieces, commissioned as gifts for the world’s rulers: Still, watchmaking has remained an overwhelmingly technical pursuit.

In the past 15 years, however, the need to reinvent watchmaking for the digital age has brought esoteric arts like miniature enamel painting and micro-mosaic work back from the brink of extinction, placing them on equal footing with mechanical innovations.

“Watches were produced in the past to tell the time,” said Christian Selmoni, artistic director of the Geneva watchmaker Vacheron Constantin. “Now they are more emotional objects.”

That said, it is easy to understand why Vacheron chose Escher’s unconventional images, known for their subtly modulated geometric motifs and spatial tricks, to grace the dials of Les Univers Infinis, its latest collection of Métiers d’Art timepieces, introduced last month at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva.

Composed of three white-gold models, each available in a limited edition of 20 pieces, the collection employs a combination of enameling, gem-setting, engraving and guilloché work — a decorative machine-turned engraving technique — to recreate three Escher drawings featuring interlocking patterns of doves in flight, shimmering blue fish and copper-tinged shells and starfish.

Across the Swiss watch industry an effort is under way to train the next generation of artisans. From its base in Le Sentier, in the Jura region, the manufacturer Jaeger-LeCoultre has embarked on a campaign to resurrect the myriad forms of enamel, the most traditional watchmaking art. It started in 1992, when the staff watchmaker Miklos Merczel drew on his personal passion for painting to depict a scene from the children’s story “The Little Prince,” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, on the back of a Reverso, the brand’s signature reversible model.

The piece was not intended for sale, “but it was a start,” Stéphane Belmont, the technical and marketing director at Jaeger-LeCoultre, said by telephone this month.

The brand has since hired three additional artisans to aid Mr. Merczel in the time-consuming process of creating enameled dials. But the artistic revival does not end there. Last month, the firm introduced a 10-piece limited edition of its Atmos clock that pays tribute to the 150th anniversary of the birth of Gustav Klimt, the Austrian painter. The clocks feature a marquetry reproduction of one of Klimt’s paintings, “The Kiss.”

Jaeger-LeCoultre outsourced the ambitious project to Jérôme Boutteçon, a longtime collaborator and master of marquetry, which uses inlaid materials to create an image. He was based in Switzerland and devoted six months alone to selecting the wood, Mr. Belmont said.

Mr. Boutteçon used 1,200 pieces of wood — thin slivers of amboyna burl, Camassari boxwood, Ceylon lemonwood from Sri Lanka and maple, among other precious varieties — meticulously cut and assembled to cover the exterior cabinet of each clock, Mr. Belmont said.

Enhanced with gold leaf in the style of Klimt’s original, glued into place and covered with layers of protective lacquer, Mr. Boutteçon’s marquetry displays a painstaking craftsmanship that is reflected in the price: $335,650.

Not to be outdone, Cartier introduced in January a limited edition of 20 wristwatches featuring a koala motif rendered in straw marquetry, an obscure specialty “that was more often used for objects, by cabinet makers,” said Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s director of image, style and heritage. “We decided to miniaturize it and make it entirely new.”