Watch­mak­ers are throw­ing the spot­light on tra­di­tional Ja­panese ar­ti­sanal tech­niques, dis­cov­ers Ly­di­anne Yap

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Three Ja­panese ar­ti­sanal tech­niques that el­e­vate the dial into an artis­tic can­vas

With the Swiss watch in­dus­try’s re­cent ob­ses­sion with tra­di­tional metiers d’art, artis­tic tech­niques such as enamel, en­grav­ing, guil­lochage and skele­ton­i­sa­tion are go­ing through a re­nais­sance. This has led to the re­dis­cov­ery of other art forms that span from ob­scure dec­o­ra­tive meth­ods such as scrimshaw to an­cient crafts like gran­u­la­tion (which first ap­peared in 2500BC) and lac­quer work (used since 5000BC).

In 2015, both the SIHH and Baselworld watch fairs of­fered an ex­cit­ing se­lec­tion of ar­tis­ti­cally dec­o­rated watches. One of the most mem­o­rable ex­am­ples is Blanc­pain’s Villeret Cad­ran Shakudō Ganesh, with a dial made in shakudō, a spe­cial al­loy with a unique patina that is tra­di­tion­ally used in Ja­pan to em­bel­lish katana (longsword) fit­tings.

The part­ner­ship be­tween Swiss me­chan­ics and Ja­panese art is a nat­u­ral one that stems from a com­mon align­ment in val­ues and be­liefs. Like the Swiss, the Ja­panese hold on to the same fas­tid­i­ous at­ti­tudes to­wards qual­ity and crafts­man­ship. They are also known for per­pet­u­at­ing tra­di­tion and her­itage. While Ja­pan may be com­mer­cially known for its del­i­cate cui­sine, quirky sar­to­rial in­cli­na­tions and pen­chant for or­der­li­ness, it is per­haps its lesser com­mu­ni­cated spe­cial­ity in hand­i­craft that is truly worth men­tion­ing. Here are three tra­di­tional Ja­panese crafts that have el­e­vated the dial into an ex­quis­ite artis­tic can­vas.


Strictly speak­ing, shakudō isn’t a craft tech­nique. In­stead, it is a metal al­loy prin­ci­pally com­posed of cop­per and about four to 10 per­cent gold. Be­fore Blanc­pain show­cased it in its Villeret Cad­ran Shakudō pieces in early 2015, the craft el­e­ment was rarely seen in the watch­mak­ing world. His­tor­i­cally used in Ja­pan to con­struct or em­bel­lish katana fit­tings (such as the tsuba, a sword’s hand guard which sep­a­rates the hilt and the blade and menuki, or­na­men­tal de­signs that are found on the hilt), the al­loy presents a dark patina that ranges be­tween blue and black, depend­ing on the vari­a­tion in its composition and tex­ture. Now, this is where the dec­o­ra­tive tech­nique in­volv­ing shakudō comes into play: The ma­te­rial’s dis­tinc­tive patina is achieved through a process called pas­si­va­tion, where a so­lu­tion (known as rokushō) com­posed of cop­per ac­etate is ap­plied to it. With added ap­pli­ca­tions, the patina takes on a deeper and richer hue.

Most no­tably, the dark patina serves as a vis­ual con­trast against the other el­e­ments on the watch’s face and adds depth and re­al­ism to the im­ages etched on it. This then en­sures that the fine and in­tri­cate de­tails of the en­grav­ing are not lost within the dial’s land­scape. In this new col­lec­tion by Blanc­pain, shakudō and gold are used as in­lays for the watch’s dam­a­scened dial (a craft tech­nique of Chi­nese ori­gin that in­volves the hand-chis­elling of troughs on the piece’s sur­face be­fore ham­mer­ing in rolls of gold or sil­ver into these troughs and pol­ish­ing it flat). They are avail­able in four unique pieces, each pre­sent­ing a dif­fer­ent mo­tif on its face: The Hindu god Ganesh; the rare and elu­sive Coela­canth (a deep-sea fish); a gryphon (the le­gendary ea­gle-lion hy­brid crea­ture); and a bon­sai.


Lac­quer­ing is one of a few Ja­panese tra­di­tional arts that has found its way onto watch di­als. Al­though it was the Chi­nese who first de­vel­oped lac­quer­ing, the Ja­panese later adopted this craft and gave it their own spin, be­com­ing their own masters of the craft.

Maki-e is an urushi — the Ja­panese art of lac­quer­ing — tech­nique that in­volves the ap­pli­ca­tion of metal pow­ders (usu­ally gold) onto the lac­quer to cre­ate dif­fer­ent colours and tex­tures. De­vel­oped dur­ing the Heian Pe­riod (794-1185), maki-e grew in promi­nence dur­ing the Edo Pe­riod (16031868) and was ini­tially used to beau­tify house­hold items for court nobles. The elab­o­rate de­signs soon gar­nered the at­ten­tion of royal fam­i­lies and mil­i­tary lead­ers, who viewed it as an in­di­ca­tion of power and em­braced it for them­selves as well.

As maki-e lit­er­ally trans­lates to “sprin­kled pic­ture”, the pow­ders are trans­ferred onto the still-wet lac­quer us­ing a mak­izutsu (a sprin­kling can­is­ter), a kebo (paint­brush) or bam­boo tubes. The lac­quer used in this art form is made from the sap of the urushi tree, which is mainly found in Ja­pan and China. Through a process sim­i­lar to rub­ber-tap­ping, resin is har­vested from these trees once a year in small quan­ti­ties and kept for three to five years be­fore it un­der­goes treat­ment to achieve a honey-like tex­ture and con­sis­tency.

One of the most em­blem­atic cre­ations fea­tur­ing urushi is by Chopard. Nine unique mod­els fea­tur­ing maki-e di­als were cre­ated and pre­sented ex­clu­sively in Ja­pan un­der the su­per­vi­sion of re­spected Ja­panese artist Kiichiro Ma­sumura. Chris­tened the LUC XP Urushi col­lec­tion, the watch di­als were dec­o­rated solely by Mi­nori Koizumi, a worl­drenowned urushi and maki-e mas­ter. Gold dust pro­cured from the Ya­mada Heiando Com­pany (the of­fi­cial ap­pointed sup­plier of lac­quer­ware to the im­pe­rial fam­ily of Ja­pan) is ap­plied to the lac­quered watch di­als us­ing bam­boo tubes and small paint­brushes made from rat’s hair for the trac­ing of ex­tremely fine lines. While one of the time­pieces por­trays the uni­verse on its face, five oth­ers de­pict the ba­sic el­e­ments of the uni­verse ac­cord­ing to the Chi­nese nat­u­ral sci­ence phi­los­o­phy (wood, fire, earth, metal and wa­ter) in the form of le­gendary crea­tures in­clud­ing a dragon and a phoenix, while the re­main­ing three fea­ture a pea­cock, a red fish and a jun­gle scene. More re­cently, the watch­maker also re­leased the LUC XP Urushi “Year of the Mon­key” in line with the Chi­nese zo­diac an­i­mal as­so­ci­ated with the year 2016.

French Mai­son Chanel also adopted the maki-e dec­o­ra­tive method in its 2014 Made­moi­selle Privé Camélia Maki-e Dial, which show­cases a dial painted with black urushi resin. To cre­ate vol­ume for the petals of the flow­ers in the de­sign, sev­eral lay­ers of lac­quer is ap­plied — a time-con­sum­ing process as each layer re­quires a day to dry and has to be slightly bur­nished be­fore the next one can be painted on. Fi­nally, the yel­low gold pail­lons are sprin­kled on to com­plete the pic­ture. The watch is also made in a vari­ant that also fea­tures quail eggshells and mother-of-pearl pail­lons on the lac­quered dial.

Other ex­am­ples of fine watch­mak­ing brands mak­ing use of the maki-e tech­nique in dial dec­o­ra­tions in­clude the Mid­night Ex­tra­or­di­nary Ja­panese Lac­quer pieces (2010) by Van Cleef & Ar­pels and the La Sym­bol­ique des Laques (2010) col­lec­tion by Vacheron Con­stantin.


First pro­duced around 1640, aka-e roughly trans­lates to “red pic­ture” and is a type of ukiyo-e (a genre of wood­block print and paint­ing that flour­ished in Ja­pan from the 17th to 19th cen­tury) that is printed en­tirely or pre­dom­i­nantly in red. Though the tra­di­tional Ja­panese art form was largely pop­u­lar through­out the 19th cen­tury, one would be hard pressed to find an ar­ti­san who still wields this tech­nique to­day. One such rare prac­ti­tioner is Buzan Fukushima, who hails from the Ishikawa Pre­fec­ture lo­cated in the Chūbu re­gion of Ja­pan. Her­mès ap­proached him when it sought to com­bine ex­quis­ite French porce­lain (forged in the ate­liers of Sèvres, a com­mune in the south­west­ern sub­urbs of Paris) with the his­tor­i­cal art of aka-e, in its Slim d’her­mès time­piece in 2015.

In this watch, Fukushima re­vis­its an ageold Ja­panese horse-rac­ing rit­ual that has been per­formed an­nu­ally at the Kamig­amo Shrine in Ky­oto since the year 1093: Koma Kurabe. Orig­i­nally held in the im­pe­rial court, the race is part of the Aoi Mat­suri Fes­ti­val (one of Ja­pan’s largest and most an­cient cel­e­bra­tions), which is said to bring the na­tion peace and pros­per­ity. The mas­ter ar­ti­san recre­ates a scene from this renowned cer­e­mony on a del­i­cate porce­lain dial in sub­tle shades of red and ochre, be­fore finely out­lin­ing cer­tain parts of it in gold. Af­ter which, the painted porce­lain dial is sub­jected to three rounds of fir­ing to seal the land­scape pic­ture in place. The in­tri­cate time­piece is pro­duced in a lim­ited se­ries of 12 only.

The same tech­nique is also used on a sec­ond vari­ant that fea­tures a paddy field scene on the dial. Named the La Femme aux Semelles de Vent (which trans­lates to “the woman with soles of wind”), the mo­tif on this other piece was first pre­sented in an Her­mès scarf dat­ing back to 2009 to hon­our French-bel­gian ex­plorer and writer Alexan­dra David-néel (1868-1969), best known for his ex­ten­sive trav­els to Asia. It is also avail­able in 12 ex­clu­sive units only.


This page and op­po­site page: Blanc­pain’s Villeret Cad­ran Shakudō Ganesh

Clock­wise from left: Chopard’s LUC XP Urushi Year of the Mon­key; the mak­ing of Chanel’s Made­moi­selle Privé Maki-e; Chanel’s Made­moi­selle Privé Camelia Maki-e dial; Van Cleef & Ar­pels’ Mid­night Ex­traor­di­nar y Ja­panese Lac­quer

Clock­wise from left: Slim d’her­mès La Femme aux Semelles de Vent; paint brushes used in the dial dec­o­ra­tion; aka-e paint­ing on the dial of the Slim d’her­mès Koma Kurabe

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