It was the revocation of the Edict of Nantes that, due to Huguenots no longer being allowed to safely practise their religion in France, saw the persecuted tribes hot-footing it over the border and setting up watchmaking hubs in the now-famous Vallée de Joux and La Chaux-de-Fonds. It was these same Huguenots who, back in the 17th century, were responsible for the first-ever decorative dials, having turned to decorating watches because other luxury objects were banned at the time.
Hunched over these miniature canvasses, using brushes the size of a breadth of a hair, they ushered n a new era of watch design – an era that was to dominate the horological scene for the next 200 years, with its heyday taking place in the 19th century. Translating literally as “artistic careers”, the concept of métiers d’art is not one that is exclusive to watchmaking. Chanel, for example, now has an annual Métiers d’Art catwalk show that serves as a walking, breathing celebration of its network of artisan partners, while in typical French style, there is the Institut National Métiers d’Art in Paris, which exists to safeguard and pass on to the next generation crafts as diverse as lampshade making and floral composition.
In watchmaking, the traditional métiers d’art include hand-engraving, miniature painting, gem-setting and enamelling – which is sub-divided into cloisonné, where the pattern is marked out n fine gold wire, with the cells in between filled with layer upon layer of enamel that is fired at different temperatures, and champlevé, which requires the engraver to incise the metal of the plate to form the design, with the hollows being filled with enamel one colour at a time. Then there’s the original art – miniature painting on enamel, which is thought to date from 1620 to 1630 and requires the miniaturist to outline the design on a surface that has been enamelled on both sides. The colour is then built up gradually using finely ground enamel that has been mixed with essential oil. Each shade is fired after every application with the softest shades being applied last. It is a balancing act between fire and paint, with one wrong blast of heat having the power to erase the whole design – the skill required to render these works of art on canvasses measuring no more than 40mm is something very few possess.
A NEW DAWN
One of the greatest enamellers working today is Anita Porchet. A diminutive French woman with a touch of Coco Chanel about her, she has remained independent, working out of her brush-cluttered workshop in Corcelles-le-Jorat in Switzerland, but her skills are commandeered by some of the biggest names in the industry, from Piaget and Patek Philippe – she painted the latter’s Dawn on the Lake watch to commemorate the brand’s 175th anniversary – to Vacheron Constantin, for whom she recreated in miniature Marc Chagall’s ceiling of the Opéra Garnier in Paris, a project that took her three months to complete.
However, as in demand as Porchet is now, there was a time when even she was wondering where her next dial was coming from. Despite having ridden a steady wave of popularity, by the 1970s decorative dials were not at the top of either brands’ or customers’ watch wish lists. Quartz watches were driving a demand for futuristic function rather than historical romanticism and most of the skills needed to create these dials were nearly extinct. When Porchet went to study in Geneva in the 1980s, enamelling wasn’t a course option so she had to coax a former tutor out of retirement to teach her. This situation continued until 2007 when Vacheron Constantin kick-started the current decorative resurgence, with its Masks collection launched at that year’s Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie Genève (SIHH).
The four limited-edition designs featured laser-cut and hand-rendered masks, representing Oceania, China, Mexico and Africa, that were replicas of those found in the Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva, as well as hidden poems engraved on the dial using a process called vacuum metallisation – a technological procedure that sprays the gold letters on the sapphire so they can only be read when the light hits them at a certain angle. This was métiers d’art but reinterpreted for a new era.
“Métiers d’art has been part of the Maison since its very early years,” explains Christian Selmoni, Vacheron’s artistic director. “That said, the Masks collection was developed at a time when haute horlogerie was particularly creative with disruptive designs and the use of new materials. Following the 250th anniversary of the Maison, where we presented very complicated timepieces, we wanted to demonstrate our creative approach in another field, so we unveiled the Masks collection during SIHH 2007.” Suddenly, decorative arts were back on the watchmaking menu but brands weren’t confined by the traditional crafts that had held sway in the previous century. These dials were blank canvasses to fill in any way they wanted.
PRESERVING THE CRAFT
One name that really embraced this challenge was Hermès. Under the creative direction of Philippe Delhotal, there’s been everything from Anita Porchet’s delicate brushstrokes to straw marquetry. Delhotal even managed to convince France’s oldest glassmaker, Les Cristalleries de Saint-Louis, to create a millefiori dial for its Arceau. “Usually the craftsmen working on a bigger scale are hesitant to make their craft work on a much smaller scale for a dial,” says Delhotal, when asked how he managed to convince the aristans at Les Cristalleries de Saint-Louis to make a glass dial. “This was the case of the Arceau Millefiori in 2014, where the crystal dials came from a paperweight design. When I visited the manufacturer, I suggested this idea to the craftsman. He looked at me thinking I was making a joke. After a while, I was able to convince him to try it and he saw this opportunity as a new challenge.”
So popular is métiers d’art now that Cartier has recently put the art back in its name by converting an 18th-century farmhouse into a five-storey paean to watchmaking’s more decorative delights. From champlevé and cloisonné to the more unusual crafts of plique-à-jour – where the design is traced out n gold thread for a stained-glass effect – or filigree – which dates back to 3000 BC and creates patterns using platinum or gold wires that are twisted then hammered flat – it has all been gathered under this one roof, with the express purpose of ensuring these more esoteric techniques are around for a few more decades yet. “Most of the craftsmanship now involved in our creations no longer exists, so we had to recreate it,” explains Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s image and style director. “It is our preoccupation not only to bring beautiful objects to our clients, and to the public, but also to keep this craftsmanship alive for as long as possible, so our objective is to keep craftsmanship alive beyond the next 20 years.”
While safeguarding traditional methods is vital, the other thing that is breathing new life into métiers d’art dials is a stretching of the boundaries of what can be done on a 40mm circular canvas – a pioneering spirit that is coming from houses that are historically not watchmakers. There’s Chanel, which has been mining its couture contacts, namely the legendary embroiderer Lesage, to render scenes from Mademoiselle’s famous folding Coromandel screens in thread, or Dior, which has used lace, feathers and even micro-sliced mother of pearl to bring to vivid life the world of its eponymous founder.
And now you have iconoclastic new brands such as ArtyA, which uses gold marquetry and feathers, and Romain Jerome, which lovingly recreates pop culture icons such as Super Mario n enamel, which are blending métiers d’art tradition and the 21st century in bold and exciting ways. n design terms, at least, that’s a long way from a hunched Huguenot sitting at a candlelit workbench.