A Primer To The World Of Enamel DecorationWritten by Aaron De Silva
A LITTLE HISTORY
Enamelled works have enjoyed immense popularity among connoisseurs throughout the ages. Ancient Egyptians and Romans took to enamelled trinkets like ducks to water. In medieval Europe, goldsmiths forged enamelled pieces for aristocrats.
It was in Geneva that the art of enamelling on timepieces truly flourished, reaching a zenith in the 18th and 19th centuries. A variety of techniques emerged, including cabochonné, champlevé, flinqué, Grand Feu, grisaille, paillonné, plique-à-jour and vallonné. As a result of early global trade, watches with exquisite enamel dials and cases found a ready audience with the Chinese, especially the luxury-loving Qing court.
Although expensive enamelled creations fell out of favour during the 1980s quartz revolution, these decorative watches enjoyed a revival in the late 1990s. Today, those ancient export pieces are highly sought after.
WHAT IS IT EXACTLY?
Enamel is a glass-like substance made of silica, soda and potassium carbonate that’s heated to a temperature of 1,400ºC until it fuses to the material it’s applied to, whether metal, porcelain or glass.
To obtain a variety of colours, oxides of copper, cobalt, magnesium and other metals are added to the molten mixture. After more than 12 hours of firing in the kiln, the resulting material (transparent, translucent or opaque) is removed, cooled, ground into a powder and purified with nitric acid. Only then can the artist start working with the enamel. Unlike paint, different enamel colours cannot be mixed to produce a new colour.
TECHNIQUE 1: GRAND FEU
Grand feu means ‘big fire’ in French. It is one of the most challenging enamelling techniques to perfect. It is also the one that offers the highest durability. Here, the margin of error is virtually nonexistent. The master enameller does not paint the pattern directly onto the dial. Instead, he repeatedly applies oxides to the dial, baking it several times at temperatures of around 1,000ºC. After several rounds of firing, the colours and motifs appear gradually appear. Pictured below: an enamel dial being fired in a mini oven.
TECHNIQUE 2: CHAMPLEVÉ
For this technique, an engraver first carves the motif directly onto the dial plate before the enameller fills the cavities formed. Next, the piece is fired until the enamel melts. Once cooled, the surface is sanded by hand to remove excess enamel and to give a polished finish that allows the enamel’s colours to shine through. The finest champlevé pieces will undergo several rounds of firing to achieve the appropriate depth of colour.Pictured below: The recessed areas dial of Parmigiani Fleurier’s Tecnica “Les Carpes de Sandoz” being filled with enamel.
TECHNIQUE 3: CLOISONNÉ
This involves tracing the outline of a pattern on the dial and applying ultra-fine (0.07mm) strips of gold wire to the outline, as well as to the individual cells that give the pattern detail, dimension and nuance. The cells are then filled with coloured enamel and placed in the kiln to be baked at temperatures of around 800 to 1,200ºC. This process is repeated five times before the dial can be polished. The multiple layers of colour create depth and intensity. Pictured below is an example from Vulcain that showcases this technique.
TECHNIQUE 4: MINIATURE PAINTING
This technique starts with coating the base plate with (usually white) enamel. Coloured enamel is then daubed onto the surface before the plate undergoes successive rounds of firing, starting with the colours that are the most heat-resistant and finishing with those that are the most delicate. This requires meticulous planning and calculations to accomplish. Once the painting is complete, several coats of transparent enamel are applied to fix the image, in a method known as the Geneva technique. Pictured below: miniature painting on a Piaget dial.
TECHNIQUE 5: PAILLONNÉ
Here, paillons (small gold leaf motifs such as flowers, leaves or stars) are laid with surgical precision and sandwiched between two layers of enamel to embellish a dial. Artisans have to fire the dials several times at temperatures of almost 1,000ºC to achieve a deep, rich colour. Even then, only a trained eye can detect when the colour is perfectly consistent. Artisans also need to have sufficient experience to ascertain when the motif has set under the translucent enamel fondant. Jaquet Droz is one of the handful of brands to master this incredible art. Pictured here its pocket watch creation from 2014.
Aaron De Silva is a Singapore-based luxury lifestyle journalist with a penchant for shiny objects – mechanical watches being one of them. When not ogling horological masterpieces or interviewing the industry’s most influential individuals, this former editor of a men’s fashion magazine can be found pounding the pavements of Paris, Copenhagen, Berlin, Hong Kong, Bali or Melbourne. Blessed with an insatiable curiosity and wanderlust, he is constantly in search of epic epicurean adventures, obscure fashion and interior objects or emerging visual artists – all in the hope of discovering the next big thing and sharing these discoveries with his readers.