THE AGE OF A TYPICAL WATCH can be gauged by looking at the patina it has gained over the years – faded dials or discolouration of the hands, for instance – but not when it comes to enamel-painted watches. Enamel, which is essentially melted powered glass, literally lasts forever. This is why antique enamel-painted timepieces, many over a hundred years old, still look pristine today.
Enamel painting rose in popularity right around the moment pocket watches became more than just time-telling instruments, as symbols of one’s style and taste for the arts. From the late 17thcentury onwards, timepieces have been decorated with anything from Renaissance paintings and portraits to classical pastoral scenes and whatever the prevailing trends of the time was.
But as watchmaking entered the 20th century, baroque horology gave way to more contemporary aesthetics – the Bauhaus movement, Art Deco, Art Nouveau, postmodernism, etc. – it was clear that there was no longer a demand for enamel painting. With decreased demand, supply fell. Sharply. The artisans stopped practising the craft but even more ruinously, they stopped teaching it.
Despite its centuries-long existence, precious little had been documented about enamel painting. The numerous techniques require years of apprenticeship to master, and of course, natural-born talent. There are no schools that teach this craft and no organisation dedicated to it. By the end of the 20th century, there remained only a handful of master enamellers left in the trade.
One of the most renowned master enamellers today is the notoriously private Suzanne Rohr, who is perhaps the last great master enameller of our generation. An independent artist in her 70s, she’s dedicated over 40 years of her life to one branch of enamel painting: Miniature grand feu enamel painting, also known as the Geneva technique. Since 2009, she has focused only on the timepieces of Patek Philippe.
According to the Phillips Auctioneers, Rohr’s genius lies in her range of style. She can embody an Old Master, Impressionist or even portraitist with great ease, fluidly adapting her style with any kind of subject matter.
Yet as age catches up with her, she has reportedly slowed down gradually, needing up to two years to finish a piece. Her works are highly sought after on the auction scene and greatly cherished by Patek Philippe, whose museum in Geneva houses 26 of her creations.
There is no doubt that Rohr is a tough act to follow but it is also true that her apprentice, the immensely talented Anita Porchet, has indisputably come into her own.
After Rohr, Porchet is the most in-demand master enameller in the luxury watch industry. Her works can be clearly identified by a set of initials very discreetly painted by hand. Unlike Rohr, however, Porchet does not limit her scope to just one technique. Rather, she freely moves between cloisonné and champlevé enamelling, dabbling occasionally in even rarer techniques like paillonne, grisaille and plique-a-jour enamelling.
Porchet is known to be exceedingly fastidious about her craft; most geniuses are. Her atelier in Corcelles-le-Jorat, western Switzerland, stockpiles an arsenal of enamels of every hue imaginable, some of which were from the time she apprenticed under Rohr. She is also known to travel far and wide to secure enamels of the best quality. Additionally, Porchet has a precious collection of vintage gold leaf, which are at least a hundred years old, and which she uses on her paillonée enamelled creations.
Her works have been featured on the timepieces of the industry’s most beautiful brands – Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Hermes, Piaget, Chanel and Parmigiani Fleurier, to name just a few.
Other than relying on independent artisans like Rohr and Porchet, some manufactures have been steadily investing and building on their own in-house enamelling expertise.
Jaeger-LeCoultre was one of the first to respond to the growing demand for enamel timepieces by bringing the talented Miklos Merczel into the manufacture. The autodidact who moved to France from his native Hungary has been creating enamel dials for Jaeger-LeCoultre since 1992. Today, he heads the enamelling department, producing dials and also training the next generation of enamellers in order to preserve and evolve the craft.
Cartier, as well, is deeply invested in the traditional Swiss watchmaking arts. The French luxury powerhouse has even dedicated an entire facility to it. Known as the Maison des Metiers d’Arts inaugurated in 2015, the building is situated a short distance from the Cartier mega-manufacture in La Chaux-de-Fonds. A refurbished farmhouse, it comprises four levels, all devoted to researching and developing every known metier d’art in history.
Finally, Van Cleef & Arpels is widely regarded as the maison that really brought the art of traditional enamelling into the 21st century. This French jeweller-watchmaker began its journey with a series of exquisitely decorated timepieces featuring all manner of enamelling. It was the first to showcase plique-a-jour and grisaille enamelling. Van Cleef & Arpels’s enamelling department was led by the talented Dominique Baron who was a metiers d’arts phenomenon in every sense of the world.
With the continued increase in desire and demand for enamel-dial timepieces, it is only natural for manufactures to devote resources and manpower to this product category. Over time, however, as more enamellers enter the market and supply increases, the value of these watches are unlikely to equal those made by true old masters like Rohr and Porchet. What would ensue is a distinction between new pieces crafted using modern techniques and vintage or antique pieces made the old-fashioned way. The fact that the 2017 Grand Prix de Haute Horlogerie de Geneve awarded its Special Jury Prize to these two master enamellers only serves to stoke the demand for their creations further.
One can only hope that Porchet transmits all her skills onto the next generation. Otherwise, collectors should expect the value of her – and Rohr’s – watches to go up and through the roof. Looking for an enamel dial watch? Now’s the time to start hunting.