From egg shells to tiny sculptures: Exquisite watches at Baselworld 2016

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series dedicated to Baselworld 2016. Josh Sims is a freelance writer, watch expert and author of “Icons of Style.”

CNN  — 

Look closely at the dial of a new limited edition Arceau Tigre watch from Hermès and the artistry of the techniques used might not, at first, be apparent.

Yet this is the product of many weeks of work by OIivier Vaucher, one of the few enamel artists capable of working in this detail on this scale. Indeed, this particular technique – émail ombrant, or shaded enamel – has never been used on a watch before.

What is shaded enamel?

The motif is negative-carved in a mold, into which biscuit porcelain is poured to form the work itself. The trick here is for the craftsman to imagine the effect of those variations in the thickness of the porcelain to create the right nuances.

By accumulating in the deeper areas, the material becomes denser and darker – so less light can pass through it – while the most raised zones are hardly covered at all and so remain light in color. The result gives a shadowy effect, the image only fully revealed in direct light, hence the method’s name.

Hermès' Arceau Tigre is the first watch to use the shaded enamel technique.

“The cavities and raised areas are fashioned exclusively according to the light they will catch or reflect, which is why an email ombrant engraving is revealed only when it is finally captured in enamel,” says Vaucher of the piece comprising black enamel over an engraved white gold base.

“Engraving gold is of course an art, enamel as well. But the most difficult element in this new technique is that you never know if what you have engraved is correct and how it will look after enameling.”

Watches as art

Indeed, such complex hand work is increasingly found on watches at the top of the market.

Called the metiers d’art, such decorative techniques as engraving, lacquering, gold cloisonne, filigree work and enameling – of which alone there are several varieties, champleve, plique-a-jour and grisaille among them – are making the watches they appear on as much art pieces as time pieces.

“It’s the one aspect of watchmaking that can’t be industrialized; it emphasizes the human touch,” argues Edouard Meylan, CEO of H. Moser. The brand has just launched its Heritage piece, with a pocket watch-style case, unusually, enameled on the curve.

H. Moser has just launched its Heritage piece.

“The metiers d’art are traditional, but that’s what gives a watch long-term value.”

The Heritage is in a limited edition of 10 – but such is the craftwork required of the more extreme metiers d’art that very few are not limited editions.

This is all the more the case given the industry’s hunt for increasingly esoteric arts to employ – reinventing long-lost ones, even inventing new ones.

From egg shells to tiny sculptures

Jaquet Droz, for instance, has its Petite Heure Minute Marquetry, in which the mosaic dial is made from hundreds of tiny pieces of quails egg shells.

Blancpain’s Bonsai or The Great Wave uses silver obsidian for the first time on a base of Shakudo, an ancient Japanese alloy given a unique patina by immersion in a bath of rokusho salts. Chopard’s The Happy Fish uses fleurisanne engraving to create motifs in high relief. Lebeau-Courally’s Baron employs the Liege Tapestry silver engraving technique more commonly used to decorate shotguns.

Roger Dubuis' Knights of the Round Table reveals a warrior sat at each of the indices.

Similarly, recent years have seen Cartier revive granulation, an art form that peaked around 800BC with the Etruscans, while Roger Dubuis’ Knights of the Round Table dial reveals a legendary warrior sat at each of the indices, each 6.5mm tall and sculpted in bronze under a microscope.

In the world of metiers d’art, anything goes. But, stresses Manuel Emch, CEO of Romaine Jerome, such decorative arts need not always look backwards – his brand’s latest watches use miniature painting on a lava stone dial, tattooed straps and employ enameling to create video game characters.

Younger customers want modern ideas

A lava stone dial and tattooed straps are examples of modern designs from Romaine Jerome.

“Interest in metiers d’art has grown strongly over recent years in line with interest in all things crafted and more individualistic,” he says.

“It’s a natural evolution for the watch too. Since we have all these devices giving us the time, the watch is becoming more of a decorative piece. Besides, movement development is so time and investment-intensive that to make the mechanically unique is rarely possible in the way it is with metiers d’art.

“But that doesn’t mean they can’t be given contemporary expression. Younger customers are less attracted to traditional methodologies. They want modern ideas.”