Patek Philippe’s elaborately crafted dome table clocks are the perfect canvas for fine artisanal skills
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Since the 1600s, Geneva has been a centre of excellence for rare handcrafts, and throughout its own history, watch manufacturer Patek Philippe has flown the flag for the artisans and their incredible work.
From the seventeenth century onwards, enamel was much in demand to adorn watchcases and decorate dials. Today, enamelling is an endangered craft—but not at Patek Philippe.
Enamel is a vitreous substance based on silica sand. It is transparent (known as fondant) and may be coloured by adding metal oxides. Crushed to a fine powder and washed repeatedly, it is mixed with water to make a paste. After the surface of an object is meticulously prepared and a base coat added, the paste is applied to the areas to be enamelled. Once dry, this paste is fired in a kiln at temperatures exceeding 800°C, fusing to the metal base and becoming extremely hard and stable. Depending on the intricacy of the design, a model can return to the kiln up to 12 times.
Enamelling was fashionable in the Byzantine era and came to full flower at the end of the Middle Ages, particularly in regions where porcelain was made. But the technique has remained in use to the present day, especially in watchmaking.
Historically, painting on enamel has always been a Genevan speciality, and Patek Philippe has decisively contributed to its preservation
THE Enameler’s TECHNIQUES
The enameller uses some traditional techniques, or perhaps a combination; but rare is she—in the watchmaking world, most enamellers are women – who masters them all.
In the cloisonné technique, a fine wire, usually gold, measuring less than 0.5 mm in diameter, is bent to form a design and fixed to a base plate coated with a ground layer of enamel. After the first firing, the cells formed by the wire partitions are filled with selected enamels. According to the type of enamel, the colours and the desired effect, several successive firings may be needed. With each firing, details are fine-tuned, colours evolve, the play of transparency and depth intensify, and the final effect is enhanced.
The next technique is paillonné ( enameling, featuring a host of tiny pieces of gold leaf cut out in various forms). These little spangles, called paillons, are then embedded in layers of transparent enamel.
The rarest technique is miniature painting on enamel, which is distinct from the rest. In fact, it can be considered as another craft entirely. From the outset, the enamel is worked differently, being mixed with oil rather than water. It is then applied with a very fine brush on a ground layer of enamel. In this way, as demonstrated magnificently at Patek Philippe, great works of art can be reproduced in miniature form, as can expressive portraits, landscapes, and crowd scenes.
PRESERVING A GENEVAN SPECIALITY
These techniques may be used together in a single piece, and this has already been seen. The enamels mix well, achieving extraordinarily subtle shades, like those of a watercolour. All these procedures require time and patience given the number of steps involved, and each trip to the kiln is a litmus test. A speck of dust, a sudden draft, a knock at the umpteenth firing, and one must start all over again. The risk is ever-present. Hence the enameller’s smile of satisfaction and pride once a piece is completed.
Historically, painting on enamel has always been a Genevan speciality, and Patek Philippe has decisively contributed to its preservation. Yet today, of all the fine crafts, this is the one at greatest risk in terms of its transference to future generations. At the level achieved by the artist-craftsmen who built its reputation, it calls for an expertise that can only be acquired through years of training and practice. It also requires artistic intuition and talent, and these cannot be taught.
The Mother and
Child dome table clock features Roman numerals that frame a dial centre guilloched under translucent mauve enamel;
Moresque Gardens in cloisonné and
paillonné enamel; back view of the
Mother and Child dome table clock in Limoges painted enamel
FROM LEFT An impressive view of the entrance to Patek Philippe’s
Manufacture in Geneva; the intricate art of cloisonné