Enamel collection 2009
Jaeger-LeCoultre, the undisputed master of enamel, celebrates the union of fine watchmaking and absolute artistic refinement
January 28, 2010 12:00 by Aarti Nagraj
The oldest and most delicate of the decorative arts no longer hold any secrets for the Grande Maison in the Vallée de Joux. Enamelling, engraving and gem-setting are a set of virtuoso crafts that it associates at will in its horological and artistic creations. A splendid embodiment of the love of fine details that has always characterised Jaeger-LeCoultre, the art of miniature enamel painting dedicates its absolute beauty to highlighting the watchmaking feats of the Manufacture – one of the rare brands to enhance its wristwatches with the full range of traditional fine watchmaking embellishments.
In 2009, the artists of the Manufacture, who cultivate very special ties with this exquisitely refined ornamental technique, wished to present a full-fledged anthology of their talent by offering two exceptional series illustrating two traditional enamel techniques – grand feu and champlevé enamelling – on two famous timepieces in the Jaeger-LeCoultre collection: the Master Minute Repeater and the Master Grand Tourbillon
The goddess of love, the muse of the Master Minute Repeater
In order to provide a particularly ‘striking’ demonstration of its expertise, the Manufacture has chosen to treat the dial of the Master Minute Repeater to a stunning interpretation in the form of enamelled miniatures of four famous historical paintings depicting Venus, the goddess of love.
These works stem from a variety of sources of inspiration encompassing the Italian Renaissance, the Spanish school of art and French classicism, as embodied by the famous examples selected by the master-enamellers of the Manufacture: ‘The Birth of Venus’ by Botticelli; ‘The Venus of Urbino’ by Titian; the ‘Rokeby Venus’ by Velasquez and ‘Venus Anadyomène’ by Ingres.
Above and beyond their extraordinary expressive strength, these masterpieces adapt themselves superbly to the diminutive size of the dial on the Master Minute Repeater. The creative talents of the Grande Maison in the Vallée de Joux have chosen to associate the testimony of their admiration for these great painters with the crystal-clear sound of the Master Minute Repeater, featuring a sonorous opulence and flawless purity that represent a major breakthrough in the audible indication of time.
Nonetheless, in order to preserve the authentic horological nature of these exceptional artistic accomplishments, the four unique watches dedicated to the great names in the universal painting heritage do not merely show the hours and minutes. They are also distinguished by the presence of two additional indications appearing on the dial in a manner that is both ideally legible and perfectly discreet: the torque released by the two barrels is shown at 4 o’clock, and the power reserve at 8 o’clock.
Age-old techniques further perfected
To render the timeless beauty of these universal works of art, the artists of the Manufacture decided to reinterpret them through a technique developed in their workshop and which gives the subject of the painting an incredible effect of depth. The magic of a line perceived through the superimposed layers of enamel creates an exceptional appearance of profundity and intensity. Simply moving the miniature gently under a source of light reveals a wealth of chromatic variations, unsuspected perspectives and nuances reflected beneath the shiny surface of the enamel.
Each miniature is the result of a long creative process that starts by coating the dial with successive layers of a transparent white enamel flux that will serve as a luminous background for the chosen subject. Enriching this enamel base with a range of metallic oxide pigments enables the artist to create a broad spectrum of colours. These vibrant shades of enamel are then applied to the metal with a goose feather or a very fine brush, before being fired in the kiln several times until the exact hue is reached. The ultimate success of the work depends to a great extent on strokes that are as fine and accurate as possible, while each stage of firing at high temperatures (between 800 and 850 degrees Celsius) represents a major risk for the work of art in the making. This is what is known as grand feu enamelling. Moreover, to guarantee the smooth running of the watch mechanism, the enamel artist must display absolute precision in every gesture so as not to exceed the infinitely small tolerances of around 2/10th of a millimetre.
Miniature enamel painting is the rarest and most precious of all the pictorial arts and the creation of such a masterpiece in this small a size calls for weeks of intense concentration, extraordinary patience, meticulous care and dexterity – as well as time itself which remains the measure of all things, since making a single dial calls for between 80 to 150 hours of exceptionally accurate fine craftsmanship.
Glowing tributes to the great discoveries: the Master Grand Tourbillon Continents
Historical evidence of the first appearance of enamelling in its present form points to the late 15th century, and this delicate art enjoyed its heyday in a period when European civilisation was heading towards the most sweeping upheaval in its history. This was the era when the lengthy sea voyages and explorations undertaken by Spanish and Portuguese navigators revealed the existence of hitherto unknown territories. Over 500 years after this radical change in our vision of the universe, the Manufacture Jaeger-LeCoultre wished to celebrate the timeless refinement of enamelling and the recognition that the earth is indeed round by presenting three exclusive Master Grand Tourbillon models presenting the face of our planet through a splendid enamelling achievement within a series named Continents.
By dint of meticulous workmanship using the champlevé technique (literally ‘raised field’), the area to be decorated is hollowed out with a burin while leaving aside the partitions marking off the individual ‘honeycomb cells’, representing the motifs to be reproduced on the gold dial plate. The surface of each continent has been meticulously engraved and guilloché-worked in the direction of the four points of the compass, echoed on the bezel, while the oceans are distinguished by wave-like decorative effects. The layers of translucent enamel reveal the engraved motifs and confer extraordinary depth and incredibly intense colours on this horological planisphere. The bezel is engraved with the geographical coordinates of the central point of the motif, where the hands are fixed.
Through the magic of this patient labour of love followed by numerous firing operations, the borders of the various countries and the outlines of the continents gradually take shape on the dial. Each Master Grand Tourbillon presents one of the three large continental ensembles: Asia and Australia – the Americas – and the entity composed of Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
By its very nature, this meticulously accurate craftsmanship clearly precludes any large-series production, which means the Master Grand Tourbillon will always remain an absolutely exclusive edition. Each of the three versions will be issued in strictly limited series of 20 in platinum, 20 in pink gold and 20 in yellow gold, all fitted with a sapphire crystal case-back to reveal another prodigious accomplishment: Jaeger-LeCoultre Calibre 978 with its legendary precision. The tourbillon regulator appears in all its splendour at 6 o’clock, at the heart of land or sea depending on the model.
Miniature enamel painting: an exquisitely rare art radiating exceptional refinement
Miniature enamel painting, the rarest and most precious of all the pictorial arts, is a discipline that is hardly taught any longer and it is thus becoming increasingly hard to fine good-quality enamels. As a loyal guardian of the finest watchmaking traditions, the Manufacture Jaeger-LeCoultre also perpetuates the most ancient techniques applied to decorating watches. It delights in seeking out the most authentic enamels, which it then entrusts to the expert hands of its enamel artists.
Meticulousness, undoubtedly the primary quality of any watchmaker, is also crucial to the work of miniature enamel painting. The specialists within the Manufacture call upon the most refined skills of their art in order to personalise the second face of a Reverso in accordance with the wishes of its lucky owner, or the dial of the prestigious round watches in the collection.
Also known as “painting under flux”, the most sophisticated version of miniature enamel painting is currently in great favour among genuine connoisseurs, both because of its great artistic value and its highly resistant nature. This painstaking, step-by-step process of creating such a work involves a large number of extremely delicate operations. Before beginning the painting itself, the enamel artist covers the back of the dial plate or the case-back with a layer known as enamel backing and intended to prevent any distortion of the metal during firing. The artist then undertakes the actual decorative work by applying successive layers of white enamel. It is only after this stage that he sketches the fine contours of the miniature painting before proceeding to the delicate enamelling operation in small strokes by applying layers of colour using an extremely fine brush. It takes many long hours of work to create a unique luminosity using the full spectrum of colour nuances. Finally, he sets the crowning touch to his work by applying the flux, composed of fine layers of transparent enamel that serves as a protective varnish for the miniature painting and also endows the motif with exceptional vibrancy by enhancing the depth and intensity of the colours. This last step, performed at a temperature of over 800°C, is extremely hazardous, since each firing operation could ruin many hours of patient and meticulous work. The colours become ever more brilliant with each firing and give the painting the full measure of its perfect final radiance. Creating a miniature enamel painting calls for peerless dexterity and expertise, as well as the exceptional ability to maintain consistent mastery of such rare qualities throughout long weeks of intense concentration.
An age-old art
Each miniature embodies the combined talents of different artists and their inexhaustible creative resources. Guided by the eye, the hand and the heart, the process never culminates in the same result twice.
The art of enamelling goes back hundreds of years. The first traces of enamelled workmanship dates back to the 5th century B.C. The sculptors of Ancient Greece decorated their statues with enamel inlays. The oldest Greek and Celtic examples are all composed of opaque enamels, since it was not until the 12th century and the Gothic era that the use of transparent enamels became more widespread. The methods were steadily refined thereafter, to the point of enabling English 16th
century jewellers and their 18th century French colleagues to create genuine enamelled masterpieces.
Of all the techniques known to date, miniature enamel painting is probably the most accomplished form of this ancient art. First used in the 17th century to adorn jewellery and other precious objects with a supreme touch of refinement, miniature enamel painting uses a metal plaque coated with translucent enamel as a base on which the artist applies the colours to be vitrified using a fine brush. Initially known in France as “Blois enamelling”, miniature enamel painting was perfected in Geneva, which soon became the capital of this art and of its applications in watchmaking. It is hardly surprising that the latter city became the cradle of this technique that depends on extremely meticulous care, just like watchmaking itself. This quality that is eminently characteristic of the population of Geneva plays a vital role in determining the quality of a finished watch.
The historical alliance between enamelling and fine watchmaking
In the late 18th century, the same meticulousness, along with a taste for perfection and extreme care lavished on even the smallest details, led Geneva enamellers to develop the method of “under-flux painting”. This enhanced version of miniature enamel painting is distinguished by its artistic precision and the capacity to preserve its splendid appearance over the long term. Using the typically Geneva inspired method of miniature enamel painting, the Jaeger-LeCoultre specialists are reviving a longstanding tradition of ornamenting fine-quality watches with enamelled miniatures. Already during the reign of Louis XIV, enamel artists and miniature painters united their talents in creating increasingly refined watches. Miniature portraits and charming rustic scenes in the style of the French artist Watteau were used to decorate watch dials and cases.
Thus, at the start of the 21st century, the enamel specialists of the Manufacture display their mastery of a time-honoured art that they consistently associate with fine watchmaking achievements in order to give rise to extraordinarily beautiful creations. Perfectly mastered so as to be further surpassed and enriched, the age-old enamelling techniques thus express truly incomparable expertise. The ability to combine the virtuosity of unique aesthetic refinement and genuine historical inspiration within a timepiece that maintains all the functional characteristics of an exceptional horological accomplishment, vividly celebrates the passing of hours and days through magnificent fairytale-like creations. Such splendours could only emerge from the Grande Maison in the Vallée de Joux, the only Manufacture to preserve and perfect under its own roof the full range of artistic watchmaking professions.