The Art that Solidifies Time
Jewelry’s dazzle, jade’s warmth and porcelain’s delicacy combine when enamel is set like a drop of wonder in a watch’s tiny space.
Enamel is the glassy coating formed on metal or ceramics by firing quartz, feldspar, borax, fluoride and other silicate substances at a high temperature of around 800 degrees Celsius. As early as the 19th century BC, the Egyptians enameled necklaces. After artisans of the Eastern Roman Empire further elevated this craft, the skills traveled the Empire and beyond: the English word “enamel” comes from High German “smelzan” (to smelt), which later became “esmail” in Old French.
Today, exquisite antique enamel watches can often fetch astonishing prices at auctions. Mr. Philippe Stern, the former chairman of Patek Philippe, explained, “When ancient people produced namel objects, they usually imitated famous oil paintings. In this sense, an antique enamel watch is a miniature oil painting. When people produced enamel watches, they often would spend 10 or even 20 years to paint, and then another 5 to 10 years to fire and polish the watches repeatedly. In this long process, if there was a mistake in one step, then this effort, this masterpiece, was wasted. How many 10 years and 20 years are there in a person’s life?” This painstaking artistry has contributed to the fact that this ancient craft has a decreasing number of masters. Only 10 worldwide are expert in miniature enameling.
Unlike rare natural materials, vitreous enamel’s preciousness comes entirely from its complicated and ingenious fabrication, making it a striking complement to watches. Enamel’s admirers prize its vivid colours. A few hundred years ago, only the French were able to create coloured enamels, similar to the red and blue on classical European oil paintings. Next, the Swiss tirelessly researched over a hundred years, eventually cracking the “colour code.” When gold is added to the raw materials and fired, it becomes red. Cobalt fires blue, antimony produces yellow, rhodium creates black, copper oxide generates green, manganese emits purple.
Enamel arts can be categorized into: cloisonné, champlevé and miniature enamelling. Cloisonné has an extremely high failure rate and therefore cloisonne watches are rarely seen on the market. The champlevé process is similar to cloisonné. The difference? Champlevé surfaces are carved out, creating metal “frames” for the coating. Miniature enameling, one of the most difficult techniques, originated in mid-15th century Flanders. By the late 18th century, master enamellists in Geneva created a new miniature enameling technique.
Enamel watches are inextricably linked with China. Introduced to China in the late Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), enamel watches became widely popular with the Chinese imperial clan and aristocrats during the reigns of the Yongzheng and Qianlong Emperors in the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912), so much so that China became the world’s largest buyer. European horologists designed timepieces catering to Chinese aesthetics. Fans, locks, fruits, birds and flowers appeared on European-designed pieces. Qing craftsmen, in turn, studied watch-making technologies. Top-quality timepieces from around the world, produced at different times with different styles still glow with dazzling brilliance and light up history.