Affairs of the Art
Blancpain continues to display its expertise in métiers d’art with extensions to its collection of shakudō timepieces, writes nur syahzanani
the recent years have seen traditional métiers d’art going through a renaissance within the Swiss watch industry. While conventional techniques such as enamelling and engraving remain highly prized, watchmakers have also started expanding their repertoires by looking to the past and reviving various decorative methods for use in its pieces. These range from the ancient (like lacquer work, which has been in existence since 5,000BC) to the obscure (such as the use of shakudō embellishment).
First introduced to the world of haute horlogerie by Blancpain in 2015 (in its Villeret Cadran Shakudō collection), the latter is a special alloy that is principally composed of copper and about four to 10 percent gold. A historic Japanese technique of ornamentation, Shakudō is traditionally used in Japan to decorate katana (longsword) fittings such as the tsuba (a sword’s hand guard that separates the hilt
and the blade) and menuki (ornamental designs that are found on the hilt). It presents a dark patina that ranges between blue and black, depending on the variation in its composition and texture. This patina is achieved through a process called passivation, where a solution (known as rokushō) composed of copper acetate is applied to the alloy until the desired hue is achieved. It should be noted that this process does not produce a coating on the shakudō but instead transforms the colour of the alloy.
In Blancpain’s Villeret Cadran Shakudō series, shakudō and gold are used as inlays for the watch’s damascened dial (a craft technique of Chinese origin that involves the handchiselling of troughs on the piece’s surface before hammering in rolls of gold or silver into these troughs and polishing it flat). Here, the rich patina of shakudō serves as a visual contrast against the other elements presented on the watch’s dial and ensures that the fine and intricate details of the engraving are not lost within its landscape. This is displayed in the Villeret Cadran Shakudō Ganesh timepiece (the headliner within the range), which showcases an image of the Hindu god Ganesh on its dial. Known as the deity of wisdom and intelligence who conquers obstacles, he is portrayed with the head of an elephant and multiple arms as per most depictions of him in Hinduism. The Villeret Cadran Shakudō also comes in three other variants, each with a different applique on its face: The rare and elusive Coelacanth (a deepsea fish); a gryphon (the legendary eagle-lion hybrid creature); and a bonsai. All four unique 45-mm timepieces are equipped with the brand’s in-house manually wound calibre 15B.
This year, Blancpain takes its expertise in working with shakudō to a new level with the introduction of The Great Wave. Inspired by renowned Japanese artist Hokusai’s famous woodblock print The Great Wave off Kanagawa, the piece presents a wave applique in white gold. Affixed to a shakudō base, the applique is immersed in a bath of rokushō salts to attain a patina. Once the white gold attains its desired patina, the shakudō is removed. To enhance the appearance of the billowing wave motif, certain parts of the white gold applique are then further polished before being affixed to a disc of Mexican silver obsidian (used by Blancpain in its watches for the first time) that serves as the base of the dial. Part of the manufacture’s Villeret collection, The Great Wave is equipped with the 13R3A movement that provides an impressive power reserve of eight days thanks to three series-coupled mainspring barrels.
Since the 15th century, before the balance wheel was created and timekeeping lacked accuracy, exquisite artistic techniques were used to decorate watches as a means of increasing their perceived value. Today, métiers d’art continue to flourish and are now recognised as a means to demonstrate a watchmaker’s savoir-faire rather than a form of recompense for mechanical flaws.
an artisan creating the villeret cadran shakudō ganesh dial
from top: villeret the great Wave; the calibre 13r3a