Creating watches with enamel dials is considered to be one of the highest risks undertaken. The process requires fusing powdered glass with metal using extremely high temperatures. At every step of the process, some error can cause cracking, discoloration or bubbling, and hours of work is destroyed.
Enameling is a form of very delicate painting, using colored powdered glass mixed with water. The glass mixture is applied to the metal surface of the watch dial, bit by bit, color by color with multiple layers added over time, and each layer heated in special ovens to high temperatures. The ovens, called kilns, use a baking process called firing. So each layer of precious enameling is a painstaking work involving skill, successive firings and time.
There are several different types of classic enamel techniques:
- Basse-taille – a low relief decorative engraving overlaid with translucent enamel
- Champlevé- the metal base is hollowed out, and the hollows are filled with enamel while the adjacent metal rims are left exposed
- Cloisonné-cells made out of wire are bent to form the designs and the cloisons (cells) are filled in with the enamel
- Flinqué –guilloche-machine turned designs are overlaid with translucent enamel
- Miniature painting-the powdered glass is mixed with oil for tiny paintings
- Paillonnee- setting miniature gold leaf cut-outs; this process is rarely done as paillons are not made today
- Plique-a-jour-carving out the metal surface so light shines through the enamel like stained glass
Enamel dial watches are expensive to make, and the prices reflect the enormous amount of craftsmanship, expensive materials, advanced technical skills, tools and time it takes to manufacture them. For each step in the process, a different set of highly skilled artisans may work for hundreds of hours; each looking through a special microscope designed specifically for the task at hand. A timepiece with an enamel dial requires artists to design the face, artisans to create each layer of intricate designs, and yet others will work to produce the mechanical mechanisms which keep time. Such watches are the ultimate meshing of technology and art.
Here are ten examples from some of the finest enamel dial watches today.
Patek Philippe: The 2016 Calatrava
The watch has an intense sheen which ripples on its blue dial surface. This is achieved by the classic enameling technique used to achieve it. The hour markers are white gold, and its bezel is outfitted with 48 diamonds in baguette cut. The satin strap is also deep blue, with a prong style buckle featuring an additional set of diamonds. The mechanical movement is a calber 215, easily viewed through the caseback of sapphire crystal design. The power reserve is 44 hours. The price is approximately $37,000.
Patek Philippe was begun when Antoni Norbert de Patek came to Versoix, France and began to make pocketwatches. He invited Jean Adrien Philippe to join him in 1845. From that time forward, the name of Patek Philippe has been widely regarded as one of the watchmaking industry’s most prestigious maker of luxury watches. Each year at the Baselworld event, the firm presents its finest new timepieces. The 2016 Calatrava was recognized for its elegant timeless design.
Vulcain: The Vulcain
Watch not featured here
This watch is a strikingly beautiful example of cloisonné technique, with bold flames of fire in red, orange and yellow streaking up from the sword which is being hammered on the sword maker’s anvil. The watch has hour, minute and second functions, plus an alarm. Its case is of 18 carat pink gold, and the case back includes a stylized letter V. It features an alligator leather strap. It is priced at $55,560.
Vulcain has been making Haute Horlogerie for over 150 years. The Ditisheim brothers founded the Vulcain brand in 1858. The brand is known for its complication timepieces. American Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Trumann, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson wore Vulcain watches, which prompted the firm’s name as The President’s Watch. With partnering brand Le Locle, the firm became famous for keeping time on maritime and mountaineering expeditions.
Ulysse Nardin: Hourstriker Oil Pump
This hour striker is self-winding with a caliber UN-610. The platinum case is 43mm and is water resistant to 30 meters. It features sapphire crystals, and a black enamel dial, including jaquemarts. The leather strap has a folding buckle. There are 18 pieces in this limited edition. The rose gold model was priced in 2015 at approximately $100,000.
Ulysse Nardin, owned by Preisdent Rolf Schnyder until 2011, is known for its classical watchmaking techniques and consistent additions of new calibers which have been used throughout its history of mechanical watchmaking. The company has celebrated many firsts, such as the musical Sonata and the Freak, which has no crown, hands or true case. The company has won over 4,300 awards.
Pasha de Cartier: Ballon Bleu de Cartier
This Cartier d’art watch features an automatic movement in a caliber 049, 18 carat yellow gold case. There are 124 diamonds in brilliant cut, totaling 1.80 carat weight. The dial features a combination of blue spangled lacquer and granulated enamel. The panther motive is a fine example of guilloche techniques resulting in intriguing textures on the panther’s head. The strap is a dark, shiny blue leather of alligator skin. The watch is water resistant to 100 feet. This art watch is available in a limited edition of individually signed timepieces, totaling 30. The price is approximately $156,000.
Cartier was founded by jeweler Louis-François Cartier in Paris in 1847. By the time his sons took on the work of the company in 1899, the Cartier brand was known internationally as the “King of Jewelers, Jeweler of Kings. The current lines offered by the company today are named after iconic watches of the past. These include the 1904 Santo, the 1912 Tortue, the 1919 Tank, and then Pasha, Santos 100, Ballon Blue and Calibre. The firm was family owned until 1964.
Van Cleef and Arpels: Lady Arpels Jour Nuit Oiseaux de Paradis
This watch features a champlevé enamel cap, a white gold bezel inlaid with white diamonds, a dial made of white gold, a rotating disc with cloisonné enamel, a moon made of a round diamond and a white gold crown with a round diamond. The blue alligator leather strap is shiny and secured with a pin buckle of white gold and a round diamond. The mechanical movement is an automatic Piaget 800P which was developed for Van Cleef & Arpels exclusively. The timepiece has a 60-hour power reserve. Each twenty- four hours, the dial completes a rotation, with the bird and flower of paradise in coordination. There are 203 diamonds included, with a 2.93 carat weight. The case is 38mm. The price is $103,000.
Van Cleef and Arpels is famous for their champlevé enamel timepieces. Over the years, the company has manufactured many watches which use this technique. The Poetic Complications series combines in each watch several classic features, such as various enamel techniques and intricate mechanisms. Several are artistic watch pieces, with diamonds and precious gems included.
Van Cleef and Arpels: Lady Arpels Poetic Wish Watch
Part of the Poetic Complications series, this ladies’ watch features a multiplicity of enameling techniques. The sky is a miniature painting on mother-of-pearl, and the clouds are sculpted of the same precious material. Basse-taille and plique-a-jour are found in the sun of gold foil overlaid with translucent enamel, the engraved city on white gold with miniature painting, the engraved white gold river and the engraved and sculpted white gold Eiffel Tower. There are engraved bushes and a red kite finished with translucent champlevé enamel and varnishing. White gold crows are adorned with rose-cut diamonds. The strap is made of calfskin and moiré silk in white. The mechanical movement is manual winding, with a 60-hour power reserve. The watch is a numbered, unlimited edition. It comes with a cabinet made of mother of pearl marquetry with sycamore and maple wood. The price for this timepiece is $410,000.
Vacheron Constantin: Metiers d’Art Sartoriale-Herringbone Pattern
This timepiece is part of the men’s line which pays tribute to the sartorial, refined masculine wardrobes of Hollywood’s Golden Era. The watch has a round shape with a diameter of 39.00mm and a thickness of 8.2mm. The case is made from 18 carat 5N pink gold. The watch strap is made from dark brown alligator leather. It is manual winding, with 98 parts and a power reserve of approximately 40 hours. It is certified with the Hallmark of Geneva. The features a Caliber 1400 movement. The price is approximately $53,600.
Bovet 1822: Orange Iris
The Orange Iris is a fired enamel on an 18 carat gold base plate pavé dial. The miniature painting has a background of 1.395 carat weight in 76 diamonds. The bow is set with 0.21 carat weight in 43 diamonds and the crow and strap are bolt set with an additional set of 5 briolette style diamonds. The strap is a deep orange alligator leather with an 18 carat red gold ardillon buckle. The movement is self-winding with a power reserve of 72 hours and is a caliber 11BA13. The oscillating weight features 22 carat gold with Fleurisanne engraving. Pricing is upon request.
The Orange Iris enameled dial is the work of esteemed Russian jeweler Ilgiz Fazulzyanov, whose work is displayed in a permanent exhibition in the Kremlin, by invitation.
The owner of the House of Bovet, Pascal Raffy, is a collector of the antique timepieces manufactured over the history of Bovet. At one time, the historic timepieces connected the Bovet family with the Great Qing Empire. Collectors worldwide admire Raffy’s private collection for its beauty and value as a timeline of fine horology. But Raffy, when asked which was his favorite, mentioned the La Madonna Della Sedia pocket watch, circa 1830, which is acknowledged by experts as one of the finest examples of an enamel dial.
Corum: Buckingham Artisan Limited Edition
This watch is one of the enamel dial timepieces made as limited editions by Corum. This particular watch was part of a circa 2006 limited edition of 80 pieces. It features a white gold case, a black leather bracelet and a manual winding movement. The case diameter is 40 by 37 mm, with a white gold bezel. The dial is in a square shape, surrounded by dual rows of 3.36 carats of diamonds. The watch is in fine condition and comes with the original Corum fitted box, a warranty card and a Certificate of Quality of Stones.
The watch is currently priced at $25,000.
Corum was founded in 1955 and was the first to settle in what would become the watchmaking center of the world, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Zurich, Switzerland.
Jacquet Droz: Grande Seconde Paillonné
This watch is a masterpiece of one of the most difficult forms of enameling. The exacting geometric flourishes on the dial are incredibly difficult to master and execute flawlessly. The dial is paillonné in blue Grand Feu enamel, featuring an 18-carat red gold ring, and the hours, minutes and seconds dial in silver colored opaline. The mechanical movement is Jaquet Droz 2663.P and self-winding. The balance springs and pallet horns are silicon, it is double barrel, with oscillating weight and 18-carat red gold. The subdial features large second hands, and there are off-centered hours and minutes. The case is made from 18-carat red gold, with a 43 mm diameter and a height of 12.06 mm. The case back is engraved with the individual limited serial number. The hands are made of blued stainless steel. The strap is hand-made from dark blue, rolled-edge alligator leather. The buckle is in ardillon design made of 18-carate red gold. The watch has a power reserve of 68 hours and is water resistant to 30 meters.
A pre-owned Jaquet Droz Grande Seconde costs approximately $8,500. Pricing for new models is upon request.
Pierre Jaquet Droz was born in Switzerland in 1721. He created extraordinary masterpieces, and is considered to be the pioneer of haute horlogerie watches. His timepieces are considered to be exquisite jewelry. Today, the brand is known for reviving traditional techniques such as black Grand Feu enamel, spangled dials set with semi-precious stones and minerals.