Enameled Dials: Swiss Watch Alchemy in Miniature
New York Times, December 8, 2006
On a scale of productivity, Suzanne Rohr barely ranks. In nearly four decades of work for the venerable Swiss watch brand Patek Philippe, the artisan has earned a reputation as the world's finest miniaturist on enamel. Working from home, she finishes just one pocket watch a year.
But given her virtuosity at reproducing luminous works of art, such as renderings of Old Master or Impressionist paintings, on metallic canvases no bigger than a compact mirror, fans of her repertoire eagerly pay for the privilege of waiting, sometimes as long as four years. So specialized is Rohr's knowledge that when she completed the enameler's course at the Geneva School of Decorative Arts, she was its only student. She apprenticed under the celebrated Geneva enameler Carlo Poluzzi before catching the eye of Patek Philippe's then-president, Henri Stern, in 1967.
Just as esoteric mechanical features known as "high complications" represent the apogee of watchmaking science, Rohr's specialty, miniature enamel painting, is the pinnacle of its art. Derived from a tradition of "belle horlogerie," or "beautiful watchmaking," that has flourished in Geneva since the 17th century, when Huguenots fleeing persecution in France brought their artistic savoir-faire to bear on the local trade, watches decorated with enamel are sought by collectors who know to place their orders early — for almost as soon as these coveted timepieces hit the stores, and often well before, they sell out.
"It's a very small market for one simple reason," said Dominique Bernaz, head of the Geneva boutique for Vacheron Constantin, a 251-year-old Swiss brand with an uninterrupted history of producing watches of this nature. "As far as enamelers are concerned, you can count them on the fingers of one hand."
Rohr's counterpart at Vacheron Constantin is Anita Porchet, an artisan who works from her home in the countryside between Geneva and Lausanne. For the house's 250th anniversary, Porchet created 12 collector's sets, each housing four wristwatches to illustrate the seasons in different colors of enamel. Combining detailed engravings of Apollo's chariot and his team of horses, the Métiers d'Art watch set, as it was called, sold for $340,000. Individually, the watches were valued at $95,000.
The timepieces could command such prices because enamel painting, known as the "Geneva technique" among connoisseurs, is watchmaking's version of alchemy. First the artisan covers one or both sides of the metal watch case with white or colorless enamel and bakes it at temperatures exceeding 800 degrees Celsius, or 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit. Layers of colored enamel powder mixed with essential oils are then applied with a fine paintbrush. Because each layer requires a separate baking, the plate is placed in the oven up to 25 different times.
"The bigger the diameter of the piece, the more risk we have," Bernaz said. "The problem is that we cook the enamel on a gold base. Very often the base is not flat but concave. When we put it in the oven, the shape changes and the enamel can crack. If it happens in the early stages of the process, it's bad but not so bad. But if it happens in the later stages of the process, it means we can lose an entire year."
To ensure that Switzerland's enamel artisans maintain a steady, if limited, production, watch companies draw on a host of less rarefied techniques such as cloisonné and champlevé. In the former, flat filaments of gold, silver or copper are used to form the design on a metal base, creating a network of cavities (cloisters) later filled with monochromatic dollops of enamel. For the latter technique, grooves cut into the surface of the metal using cutting tools or acid are filled with enamel and subjected to a series of firings before sustaining a high polish to eliminate the excess.
"The techniques are not lost," said Osvaldo Patrizzi, chairman and chief executive of Antiquorum, a watch auction house based in Geneva. He cited as evidence a 2005 Bovet watch bearing a replica of Raphael's Madonna and child, which he said was the finest example of modern miniature enamel painting he had ever seen.