Imagine you’re creating an intricate painting on the face of a timepiece. You’re working on an area smaller than your wrist, even smaller if the images are to appear on the inset dials. Now imagine creating the outlines of the image in gold wire, by shaping the wires with delicate hand tools, or by engraving the image out of the metal, into which you will painstakingly place tiny grains of colored glass.
Then, imagine setting the whole thing on fire, multiple times.
That’s roughly the process that a watch enamellist like Anita Porchet follows at her studio in Switzerland. She’s a longtime and world-acknowledged master of her craft, and an independent contractor who works with the finest watch makers, including Patek Phillipe. While very few people know what enamel is—glass fused to metal at high heat in a kiln; cloisonné enamel uses wire to create the outlines of the image, while champlevé enamel uses engraved metal—most can appreciate the detail in the timepieces that Porchet creates, achieving a delicate effect with her flowers and landscapes that even experienced artists would have trouble recreating in a far-less challenging medium.
Worth spoke to Porchet about how she learned her centuries-old craft, and its future.
Q: How did you learn how to do enameling?
A: When I was a child, my godfather was an enamellist who worked on miniature enamel paintings. At the age of 12, instead of going out to play with friends, I got interested in his work. I first helped with cleaning the workbench, and then little by little learning about the colors, then doing one color base, so on, step-by-step. It takes a very, very long time to learn enameling. I studied engraving and enameling at the Beaux Arts school in Lausanne, and also learned in workshops in Geneva.
Because it’s so challenging, enameling has never been a craft adopted by large numbers of artists. But starting in the 1970s in particular, there was a real decline in people learning how to do enamel work on timepieces. Is that still the case today?
There was a period of time when no one was interested in learning how to make enameled timepieces. At the time, the trend was an interest in gem setting. Also, an enamellist needs mental resistance to stress, a lot of patience and to like to work sitting at a workbench for hours.
But it’s different today. There’s growing demand in Asia, where people have an interest in such detailed techniques, and appreciate handcraft. And so today there are more young people doing enamel work.
What is the aesthetic appeal of the work?
Enameling is like music—you can create many different things with the same instrument. The important thing is to use this ancient technique in a contemporary way.
How does the future look for enameling?
A risk in the future is that some companies will claim watches are cloisonné enamel when they are not. Today, there are technologies which allow a company to create a “cloisonné” design by milling it out of the metal, but the great difficulty is to shape the gold wire by hand, and bend it so all the enamels stay in their “partitions.” This is what creates the beauty and uniqueness of each piece, the fact that it is made by hand. If some brands will claim a watch is cloisonné enamel when it is just a machined piece, it will not be the same. So we need to start preparing against this future by communicating and explaining the level of work that’s done for our enamel timepieces, which are a real handcraft.