The creation of an enamel dial sits somewhere between art, science, and alchemy. While it is one of the most recognisable crafts in the field of artisanal watchmaking, the production of these dials is a skillset that very few possess, and even fewer have truly mastered. It is the intricate, and sometimes hit and miss, nature of these techniques that underpins the desirability of the dials. The painstaking process that these miniature artworks go through prior to being mounted into a watch, is such that many defective pieces get rejected and thrown away. However, when everything goes correctly, it is well worth the trouble.
A classical cloisonné enamel dial from Rolex on a ref. 6100, showing a ship at sea, courtesy of Antiquorum.
Like with many of the specialist skills that make-up the horological world, there is a shroud of mystery that wraps itself around working with enamel. Much of the knowledge sits with a small group of artisans, as a skill passed down from master to apprentice. As a result, some of the techniques which can be admired in certain antique and vintage pieces have unfortunately already been lost. This is why we thought it worthwhile to have a look at what lies behind the craft of enamelling, from its history, to the various styles which exist, whilst consulting those who still practice it.
What is an enamel dial?
The art of decorative enamelling dates back millennia, making it one of the oldest artistic crafts still practiced in horology today. Despite the length of time that it's been around for, it still remains and incredibly specialist skill. As with much of the watch industry, the production of enamel dials has been carried-out by experts who dedicate their professional lives to understanding the intricate nature of a temperamental material.
Some of the equipment used for enamelling by anOrdain.
Enamel is a type of glass that contains mainly silica as a base and then, with the addition of further elements, can take on an entire spectrum of shades and hues. Knowing the make-up of each of these colours and how they appear once fired, is just one of the talents that an enameller needs to master. Stored in a powder form, the colour of the enamel in its initials state, can often differ from the final product, adding a further complication to the craft. The Director of Donzé Cadrans once told The New York Times that up to 75 per cent of their dials get discarded due to imperfections.
A classic example of cloissoné dial from Patek Philippe, courtesy of Phillips.
Because of this difficulty, there are only a few names from the last two centuries which can be added to the list of true masters of enamel, in part because the privilege of signing one’s name on a completed piece was only extended to a select few. Ivan Ponzo, writing on SJX, provides a list of known enamellers that used to belong to the “Geneva School”’, which lasted from the 18th and into the 19th century and included Jean-Abraham Lissignol (1749-1819), Jean Louis Richter (1766-1841), Jean-François-Victor Dupont (1785-1863), Charles-Louis-François Glardon (1825-1887). Moving into the 20th century, names such as Marthe Leclerc (1880-1973), Marthe Bischoff (1900-1991), Hélène May Mercier (1910-1996), Nelly Richard (1910-1998), and Suzanne Rohr (b. 1939) are also important to mention.
Whilst the lack of names being attached to specific creations from more recent times could be frustrating to the passionate collector, there is often a manufacturer's stamp or marking on the reverse of the dial. From Stern Créations to Beyeler, and even specialists in enamel such as Donzé Cadrans, there will often be clues as to the origin of these pieces. All of these names have since been absorbed into brands that they previously produced dials for.
Today, there are very few master enamellers left. As with many of the highly specialised skill sets in the watch world, these are more and more elusive. However, a small number of them remain, such as Jean and Lucie Genbrugge, who are perhaps most well-known for imagining and creating the first prototype of the Vacheron Constantin Mercator. A talented watchmaker as well as enameller, Jean also produced the double retrograde mechanism, that has become synonymous with these limited pieces.
Anita Porchet is also one of the more recognisable names from the list of enamelers still working today, having created pieces for Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Piaget, Fabergé, as well as many others. Born in La Chaux-de-Fonds, one of the epicentres of watchmaking in Switzerland, she has become known for her skilfull mastery of cloisonné, champlevé, plique-à-jour, email Grand Feu, paillonné and miniature painting. In 1994, she opened her workshop, where she not only focuses on her own creations, but also dedicates her time to teaching a new generation of artisans.
Enamel Over Time
According to Dr. Helmut Crott’s book Le Cadran, which has become referential on the topic, we can see the Egyptians and Celts making use of enamelling in many of their religious artifacts. It’s thought that the Myceneans picked up these techniques around 1425 to 1300 BC. Obviously, there were no watches or clocks around at this time to decorate in enamel. It’s not until the start of the 17th century that we begin to see pocket watches make use of the material.
A modern example of enamel work from anOrdain, courtesy of Time and Tide.
The most common type, according to Crott, was champlevé, with dial makers filling in carved-out patterns with black enamel and sometimes black wax. This style was rather pared-back, with the technique being used for its legibility and durability, rather than its decorative properties. It’s not until around 1650 that we begin to see opaque enamels being used in more recognisable patterns. It is around the same time that we see Jean Toutin start his production of miniature portraits in enamel and this launching a “golden age” for similar paintings on pocket watches. Many of these small artworks would live on the outside of the case, rather than on the dial, which would maintain a far more restrained aesthetic. This allowed the owner of a pocket watch to display the fine craftsmanship they could afford, without the needing to expose the dial.
There was a resurgence of enamel dials, especially cloisonné, around the mid-20th century. This was an interesting period in watchmaking, as industrialisation was starting to creep-in but hadn’t yet taken hold. While wristwatches were becoming more and more popular, brands were clearly looking for ways in which to distinguish themselves from the competition. Being able to offer pieces with cloisonné enamel dials was certainly one way in which a manufacture could set itself apart.
Examples of mid-century cloisonné enamel dials from Patek Philippe, Omega, Universal Geneve and Eska, courtesy of Christies.
A prime example of this are the wristwatches produced from around the ‘40s to the ‘60s, which displayed intricate cloisonné enamel. A handful of artisans, like Marguerite Koch or Nelly Richard, produced pieces for the likes of Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Rolex, and even Tissot. The similarity in style, colours, and themes between some of these creations is in part due to the limited number of skilled enamellers working at this time. The Patek Philippe World Timers are perhaps the most recognisable enamel pieces from this period. For many, this is considered the golden age of enamel work, when the craft, designs and the style of wristwatches that were being produced, all combined to create some rather mesmerizing, and now collectable, pieces.
Enamel dials are still being produced today, with a continued respect for the heritage of their craft. More often than not, they will appear on highly limited pieces. We spoke with Jean and Lucie Genbrugge, some of the last remaining enamellers working today, about the watches and dials they design and produce in their independent atelier. After studying watchmaking in Belgium, Jean became independent in 1971, starting out, as many do, restoring vintage watches and automatons. “The pieces I was entrusted with often had enamelled dials and decorations which were badly damaged. As a result, I spent many years of research, in order to be able to restore these enamels.” This work led to him researching and creating his own compounds for his enamel work.
Two dials created by Jean Genbrugge, the Copernicus and Mercator, both for Vacheron Constantin, courtesy of Jean Genbrugge and Antiquroum.
Their work has involved them making protypes and one-off pieces for brands, such as the Mercator or the Grand Feu version of the Copernicus, both for Vacheron Constantin. “It is a three-part dial, with many miniature paintings and miniature writing,” says Genburgge of his Copernicus dial. “The earth is domed and has a diameter of 5.8mm, but nevertheless includes several details. Zodiac signs feature a lot of detail and are a challenge to paint and colour.” Combining miniature enamel painting with champlevé on a canvas as small as the 5.8mm earth is an impressive feat.
Interestingly, the Vacheron Constantin Mercator was actually the brainchild of Jean Genbrugge himself, who came-up with the project alongside his wife. As a great admirer of Gerardus Mercator, who was a pioneering geographer and cartographer, Genbrugge chose to create a wristwatch which honoured his legacy. He approached Claude-Daniel Proellochs, the CEO of Vacheron Constantin at the time, who is said to have been instantly captivated by the project, which began a long-standing relationship between the watchmaker and the executive. With several different variations in existence, depicting different corners of the globe, the Mercator pieces are unusually signed on the dial with "J&L Genbrugge" – a rare gesture, considering brands have historically kept enamellers in the shadows.
Taking a modern approach, anOrdain’s enamelling equipment, courtesy of anOrdain.
While press releases today might emphasise the heritage of enamel work, and there is a lot to be said for it, if you ask Lewis Heath, the founder of anOrdain, there are some big differences between the dials that are made now and those produced just a few decades ago, let alone the ones from the 17th and 18th century. He points to two major differences between “now and then”. Firstly, the composition of the enamel itself has been forced to change. “In the early ‘90s, regulations came in which took a lot of the dangerous elements out of enamel,” says Heath. “Heavy metals, arsenic and other ingredients made the enamel better to work with, but obviously worse for the enameller.” These new restrictions mean that what used to only take two or three layers of enamel will now likely take around six, causing a thicker dial to generate a similar richness. This issue is highlighted in white enamel, according to Heath.
An Audemars Piguet pocket watch with enamel miniature painting by Ni. Gi. Barna, after a painting by Édouard Manet "Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe”, courtesy of Phillips.
The second major distinction is the loss of highly specialised knowledge, as has occurred in many other areas of horology, such as casemaking, for example. “In terms of enamelling, we're now in the Dark Ages. There were things they could do even just 40 or 50 years ago that nobody can do today. So much of what's involved is feeling and technique, that can't be written in books. It's learnt over generations and passed down through apprenticeships.” This sense of knowing when something is perfect just through feeling was echoed by Genbrugge, who noted that “it is eye and experience that allows me to assess when to remove the dial from the fire. Our polychrome dials pass an average of 30 to 35 times under fire depending on the colours used, with each colour having its own specific temperature.”
The team at anOrdain took three years to produce enamel dials that were acceptable, showing that their knowledge had to be gained through experience, and couldn’t just be drawn from theoretical concepts. “Since then, we've been actively trying to glean knowledge from enamellers and engravers around the world,” Heath tells us, “and initially that was for us to improve, but now I see it almost as a duty to preserve the knowledge which is still in existence. We've had three mentors over the past 6 years, one sadly passed-away and the other two have a combined age of 162.”
A polychrome example of cloisonné enamelling by Rolex, courtesy of Phillips.
There is now a renewed energy around the craft and bringing in new technology to help improve efficiencies and carry this artistry into the 21st century. “In terms of peak production efficiency,” Heath explains, “if you look at the early to mid 1900s, they had the combination of technology – mechanised sanding and polishing – and know-how. There are old videos of watch factories in the United States churning out enamel dials.” His workshop considers ten dials a week to be of a sufficiently high standard, although they are working in more complex forms than the workshops in the 1900s who were achieving far higher rates. There is also an important distinction to be made, say Genbrugge, between the different qualities of enamel. “Standard industrial quality and then full quality based on flint glass, which creates added depth and brightness in the colours" He compares the difference to that between simple and crystal glass.
Types of Enamel
There are countless types of enamel art in the world. Since the craft has been around for so long, it has taken many different forms over the years. Not all of them are applicable to watch dials, yet the variety that can be found in horology is still impressive. A lot of the information we’ve gained on this subject has come from Le Cadran, by Dr. Helmut Crott. Through his vast knowledge on the subject, access to archival documents and speaking to those who have worked for some of the finest dial manufacturers in the world, Crott has compiled a referential guide on the topic.
Literally translating to “Great Fire”, this is one of the most sought-after forms of enamel in the classical watch world. It derives its name from the burst of flames that erupts from the dials as they enter the oven. This rather dramatic show is caused by an alcohol spray that is applied to the enamel powder just before it goes in. Its deep crisp white texture has been utilised in watchmaking for centuries and can be found on everything from modern-day wristwatches, to the pocket watches of Abraham-Louis Breguet.
The enamel powder being dusted on to a dial, ready to be placed in the oven, courtesy of Donzé Cadrans.
This process starts with a copper or gold plate that is noticeable larger than the final dial will be. After being thoroughly cleaned in an acid wash, to ensure no particles can contaminate and cause faults in the enamel, the disc is rinsed off and the edge slightly curled up to stop any run-off, as the enamel liquifies in the oven.
Then, a fine white enamel powder is sprinkled liberally and evenly over the copper disc, striking a remarkable resemblance to icing sugar on a cake. This is where the aforementioned alcohol spray comes in. To move these discs over to the oven safely a light mist of alcohol is spritzed over them, so that the air pressure from carrying from the dusting table to the oven doesn’t disturb the fine powder.
The alcohol spray burning off in the oven, courtesy of Donzé Cadrans.
As they enter the oven, that has to be set at no lower that 700°C, the alcohol bursts into flames. Staying in there for just a couple of minutes, this process is typically repeated 6 to 8 times, depending on how thick the enamel needs to be, with a fresh coat of powder applied each time. As Heath pointed out earlier, before restrictions were brought in, this number was significantly lower. Being placed in the oven at such high temperatures binds the enamel coating to the disc below as it’s liquefies and hardens again, helping to make this one of the more durable types of enamel dials on the market.
This method differs from many of the more colourful variants by the virtue of the enamel first being applied as a powder. As we’ll see further down, many of the other enamels are applied as a liquid. As for the indications on the dial, such as the signature, or the indexes, these would traditionally have been hand painted on, but now it is far more likely done through pad printing, known as décalque. For this, the enamel is mixed with oil and fired in the oven after each colour is stamped on.
A Patek Philippe ref. 2526 in yellow gold with a Grand Feu dial.
The dial is then cut down to size, along with the centre hole for the hands being created with a diamond, which is then lubricated with water. There is obviously a great risk of chipping and cracking in the process. If the design calls for subdials, these are made separately to the main dial and then countersunk into the finished product.
Every time a batch of these enters the oven, there is a chance that a crack or bubble could appear. Any small imperfection and the dial will most likely be scrapped. Once these pieces are finished there is no way to repair them should they become damaged through use. This is why enamel dial makers will often be called upon to reproduce damaged dials for historically important pieces, although due to the new health and safety standards required, these will never be exact replicas. That being said, it is helped by the fact that enamel colours do not age or tarnish as metals or lume might, so a replacement dial can look remarkably similar to one produced in the 17th century, although never a perfect replacement.
Whilst the decorative properties of enamel were considered as secondary for quite a long time, this gradually changed, with enamel dials becoming appreciated as an art form in themselves, where artisans could express their creativity – this is where the more colourful, intricate forms of enamel, such as flinqué, come in. The art of layering a translucent coloured enamel over a guilloché plate, as with many of these techniques, extends beyond watchmaking. Flinqué has been utilised by the likes of Fabergé for their world-renowned eggs, as well as appearing on dials from Kari Voutilainen and Cartier.
A transparent blue enamel being painted on to a dial that has already been guilloché, courtesy of Donzé Cadrans.
The coming together of these two old techniques creates wonderfully deep and rich dials that cannot be recreated in any other way. With the dial first having the pattern applied by a craftsman on a rose engine, the coloured enamel is then painted on in a liquid form, as the pigment and minerals are mixed with oil.
A Grönefeld Remontoire with a rich blue flinqué enamel dial made by Kari Voutilainen.
This will then have multiple trips to the oven, bonding to the metal plate and having another layer of enamel added every time. One added complication to this is that if the enamel cracks or bubbles at all during this process, the work of the engraver of that dial is made redundant. The enamel cannot be scraped off to start from scratch. While other coloured treatments can be added to guilloché dials, such as bluing or PVD coatings, nothing will give the same effect as flinqué. The enamel catches different shades thanks to the intricate texture that lies underneath.
Often carried-out with coloured enamels, this is another instance of the combining of engraving and enamel work. This time, the engraver will carve out the pattern which the enameller will fill in. They will leave raised, exposed metal to act as outlines for the image, whilst providing a fantastic contrast to the fired glass.
A classical example of a champlevé dial, courtesy of Jean Genbrugge.
This technique can be paired with the use of a translucent enamel that exposes a texture placed on the dial by the engraver as well. Combined with the three-dimensional borders, this gives the dial real depth. Like with flinqué, the enamel is brushed on as a liquid, and layered after repeated trips to a high-temperature oven.
The process of engraving and laying enamel, as shown here by anOrdain.
Interestingly, this technique can be dated back as far as the 11th and 12th centuries, when it was being used widely across Europe. The true skill in this method lies in the engraver’s hands, ensuring that all the cavities created for the enamel are of the correct depth and the walls separating each individual section are solid and of uniform height. Any discrepancies here can ruin the design and cause issues with enamel pooling, bubbling, or cracking.
Possibly one of the most technically challenging of all the methods mentioned thus far, the cloisonné dial also offers some of the most intricate design opportunities. Some similarities can be drawn between it and champlevé, yet the difference comes in the construction of where the enamel sits. In cloisonné there is no engraving, but rather thin wire is manipulated into the shapes and forms that the design calls for, raising this from the base plate, rather than etching into it.
A Rolex cloisonné dial depicting a chimera, courtesy of Phillips.
Perhaps made most famous by the pieces produced by Rolex, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin in the years directly after the Second World War, the cloisonné dial has managed to hold an intensely coveted position in the hearts of watch collectors. With depictions of mythical beasts and maps from various parts of the world, they can hold real sentimental value for an owner. An example of one with extraordinary provenance is the “Victory Watch” presented to Winston Churchill at the end of the War. A World Time made by Louis Cottier and Agassiz, it depicts St. George slaying the Dragon on the centre dial.
The process of a cloisonné dial at anOrdain.
While this is possibly one of the most time-consuming and intricate ways to produce a coloured enamel dial, it is also one of the oldest, with similar techniques to cloisonné being seen as far back as the BCE era. The ability for craftsmen in the 20th century to produce such detailed designs meant that illustrations of remarkable finesse could be displayed in a relatively small space, such as the inner dials of world time wristwatches. These colourful inner dials would help drive these pieces to the top of the watch collecting world in the early 2000s.
Mythical beasts and maps were common for cloisonné dial subjects, courtesy of Phillips.
Of course, these are not the only types of enamel dials that have been produced, there are many others such as miniature painting, grisaille, plique-à-jour to name just a few. Without publishing a tome of such comparative depth and technicality as Le Cadrans by Dr. Helmut Crott, it would be impossible to go through them all. Hopefully, this has served as an example of what is out there and what goes into the production of these intricate and colourful dials.
The world of enamel dials is one that has entranced many for years. Able to produce such elaborate images through the use of unimaginably high temperatures – Genbrugger says he can fire pure silica as hot as 1400°C to obtain his own silicate – it is incredible to think just how delicate the final products appear to be. One thing that has been made very clear in the research of this article is that the know-how around this industry is slowly shrinking. As the tradition of craftsmen taking on one or two apprentices at a time, has been replaced by a more practical education system of colleges and academies, fine enamel work seems to have fallen through the cracks.
The deep blue enamel at the centre of a Patek Philippe ref. 2523, double signed by Gobbi Milano, courtesy of Christie’s.
Luckily, there are still a few out there, such as Jean and Lucie Genbrugge, the craftsmen at anOrdain and a few others, who are doing their best to keep this craft alive today. As the appreciation for the vintage pieces still left on the market grows, it is hoped that more attention will be given to those doing similar work today, allowing them to maintain the knowledge needed to keep this ancient craft alive.
We would like to thank Jean and Lucie Genbrugge and Lewis Heath for sharing their thoughts, expertise and insights on the intricate world of enamel dials.