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Piaget and the art of enamelling
As a traditional firm, Piaget has set itself the mission of preserving and developing the artistic crafts of Haute Horlogerie. By passionately cultivating this unique heritage and carefully incorporating it within its collection, it saves it from neglect and restores these all but extinct arts to their rightful stature. This wholehearted commitment explains why the Manufacture de Haute Horlogerie Piaget currently displays such exemplary mastery in the art of enamelling. Painters, glaziers and master enamellers decorate the watch dials and cases with incredible finesse.
April 19, 2009 12:00 by Aarti Nagraj
An age-old art
A distant cousin of crystal, enamel first emerged on the warm shores of the Mediterranean sea. From Ancient times, it embellished jewellery and other adornments before spreading throughout Europe. While initially used in goldsmithing and jewellery-making, watchmakers adopted it from the 15th century onwards. From then on, craftsmen perpetually fine-tuned their techniques to the point of developing four distinct methods: champlevé, cloisonné, flinqué and miniature enamelling thus became four different ways of playing with this time-defying material.
In Geneva, local artisans gradually became specialists in this technique that they used to decorate the dials and cases of the watches entrusted to them. Keenly aware of the value of this heritage, the Manufacture de Haute Horlogerie Piaget has decided to revive the prestige of enamelling, which had become a rarity on watches over the previous century. As confirmed by CEO Philippe Léopold-Metzger: “Enamel has become a fountain of youth for Piaget creations”. This is why the Manufacture chooses to create one-of-a-kind or limited edition pieces displaying a level of beauty and refinement only enamelling can help to achieve. After pioneering the field of ultra-thin mechanical movements and displaying its technical competence through major accomplishments such as the Tourbillon relatif, Piaget is now also reinforcing its mastery of the artistic crafts.
From crushed powder to shimmering beauty
Enamel is composed of glass combined with metal oxides serving as colourings. The infinite range of colours and shades of enamel results from various oxides that can be associated with enamelling, and their combination. Compared with “classic” enamels, the distinctive nature of “grand feu” enamels such as those used by Piaget lies in the fact that they reach their melting point at a far higher temperature, meaning between 820°C and 850°C. This technique makes them extremely pure and guarantees the longevity of the resulting models.
Raw enamel comes in lumps or as coarse powder. During the preparation process, the material is ground in a mortar to create an extremely fine powder, which is then thoroughly rinsed. The cleaned and ready-to-use enamels are stocked in distilled water.
Enamel is always placed on a metal die mould and only copper, silver and gold feature the qualities required for this purpose. In keeping with its constant pursuit of excellence, Piaget uses only gold on all its creations. Depending on the thickness of the metal part, the latter will need to be enamel-backed. The enamel backing is extremely important, since it keeps the base in a state of fusion in such a way that it does not camber or buckle. The enameller can then apply the enamel using a fine brush and plant glue and leave it to dry before proceeding to the firing process.
Beauty often stems from extreme simplicity. Thanks to its extremely deep hues, enamel enables watchmakers to create models featuring exceptional finesse and understated elegance. Piaget is keenly aware of this, and even though the Manufacture is well acquainted with the various enamelling techniques, it is prepared to use it in its simplest and purest form. A monochrome enamelled dial punctuated by slender Roman numerals is enough to confer an aura of nobility and strength on a timepiece. Vividly revealing the fundamentals of the art of enamelling, this process consists in applying the matter in layers, one firing after another, in order to mark the numerals and the brand logo, for example. The enameller’s know-how manages to achieve a subtle nuance in the shade of the material so as make it a perfect match with that of the watch case or bezel.
Piaget Emperador Coussin
With the Piaget Emperador Coussin model, the Manufacture de Haute Horlogerie Piaget has used enamel specifically for the intensity of its colours. Slender Roman numerals appear against a deep white background. In this case, enamel does not serve to reproduce images, but to create a pristine and incredibly dense surface. At the heart of this exceptional model beats the mechanical self-winding Manufacture Piaget 809P movement, which can be viewed through the sapphire crystal case-back. This refined mechanism is housed in an 18-carat white gold case fitted with a polished bezel and satin-brushed middle. This Piaget Emperador Coussin model is issued in a limited series of 50, but also exists in a limited pink gold version with an eggshell white dial.
The technique of miniature enamelling or enamel painting is probably the one that requires the most patience and artistic know-how on the part of the enameller. This technique consists in coating a gold plate with a layer of baked enamel that will serve as a base for the motifs. The latter are then applied to this first layer of enamel and entirely painted by hand. The powders used for miniature enamel painting are extremely fine and are mixed with natural oily essences to facilitate their application.
The painting is applied in several fine layers, each fixed by a firing operation. The colour of the enamels becomes more intense with the successive firings, which means that the enameller needs to know ahead of time how many firings are required, as well as the exact influence of these operations on the development of the colours.
Once the painting is complete, the “Geneva” technique is implemented: the latter is fundamental to the Piaget approach and consists in protecting the painting using a transparent enamel known as flux in order to give special depth and radiance to the work.
More than just a craft, miniature enamelling is an art that gives rise to some extraordinary paintings. The objects created in miniature enamelling testify to the incredible virtuosity of these artists who are truly in a class of their own. An art characterised by rigorous standards, tireless patience and a flair for details, miniature enamelling has naturally found its place in the world of Haute Horlogerie characterised by informed connoisseurs. Displaying the unfailing excellence that pervades all their work, the long-established Piaget teams of designers and enamel specialists enjoy the privilege of constantly enhancing the brand’s creations. Enriched over the years by their spirit of cooperation and respective skills, they jointly work on exploring new techniques creating new effects – as is vividly demonstrated by Piaget’s recent creations.
The orchid family comprises several thousand different flowers. Piaget has chosen four of them ( Cattleya, Doritaenopsis-Kenneth Schubert, Doritaenopsis-Malibu Easter and Dendrobium-Pale Doreen) in 2008 to adorn the dials of Piaget Altiplano models and has revealed during SIHH 09, four new amazing flowers : Irene Yellow Laeliocattleya, Golden of Tainan Brassolaeliocattleya, Profusion Laeliocattleya, Heron Ghyll Brassolaeliocattleya .
Bearing the fascinating names of these orchids, they were selected to grace the eight one-of-a-kind creations painted using the technique of miniature enamelling. Taking full advantage of the spacious dial, the petals unfurl across the entire surface in a spectacular array of colours and slender veins. To achieve this result, the enameller used the miniature technique serving to reproduce motifs on a small scale in enamel. It took the craftsman a full month of work to achieve the final result that also involved a second technique: flinqué enamelling. Used here to create the background, this method is based on a guilloche-work surface covered with a transparent and lightly tinted surface. Each unique in its own right, these dials are housed within 18-carat white gold cases set with brilliant-cut diamonds. Inside it throbs the brand’s pride and joy: the Piaget 430P ultra-thin mechanical hand-wound movement.
By far the oldest technique of the four, champlevé enamelling consists in engraving a motif in a metal die mould before filling the cavities thus formed with enamel. Using a drypoint, the engraver traces the desired motif on the watch case or dial. Being careful to avoid the contours, he hollows out the various fields, thereby achieving a relief engraving featuring grooves of various width and thickness according to the desired effects, with rims as clear-cut as possible. The enamels are then applied to the crevices before being melted at over 800°C. Such a creation calls for several firings, followed by a lapping process to smooth over the surfaces of the work and a glazing firing to give it its final appearance.
Close cooperation and genuine creative complicity between the engraver and the enameller are required, since the final result will depend on both of their work, especially when using translucent enamels that enable one to view all the details of the engraving through their transparent coating.
Piaget Polo Tourbillon Relatif – Limelight Collection
In tribute to the cities of Paris and New York, Piaget in 2008 has created a collection uniting these two star cities. The Manufacture has thus presented two sister versions of its Tourbillon relatif, on which each detail is reminiscent of one or other of the famous metropolises. On the Parisian model for example, the dial displays the twelve avenues leading to the Place de l’Etoile in the dial centre; while the New York version features stylised depictions of the 12 highest skyscrapers.
Engraved in 18-carat white gold, they are illuminated by the contrasts with the black enamel surrounding them. The New York model is based on the same principle. As with the French model, the black enamelled side of the case is engraved with the city’s most famous landmarks. The crown of each model bears a symbol representing the city depicted. The “Paris” version features a large Ferris wheel with a diamond at its centre. Piaget has decided to restrict production of these watches to three for each city.
Following it demonstration of enamel know-how with a special piece in the Limelight Paradise collection, Piaget pays a vibrant tribute to the sailing world. An indispensable companion for any seagoing explorer, the compass is featured on the dial of the Piaget Polo Tourbillon Relatif. Rather than showing the direction to follow, its compass indicates the hours. The magnificent grand feu enamelled blue dial is highlighted by the profiles engraved with sails and boats involved in a regatta. . A majestic sailboat engraved on the case-back makes one feel like setting sail for far horizons, gliding on the whim of the sea breezes…
Reference 608P, the mechanical hand-wound flying tourbillon movement entirely designed, developed and produced within the Manufacture, sets an unusual stage for this tourbillon function. Positioned at the tip of the minute hand and thus totally mobile, it turns at a cadence of one rotation per minute. Its carriage featuring three titanium bridges enhances a movement decorated with circular Côtes de Genève on which the screws are blued and the parts bevelled and hand-drawn. The latter is housed within an 18-carat white gold champlevé enamelled case.
Champlevé flinqué enamelling
With the flinqué technique, the enamel both reveals and protects the precious metal base. Often transparent and occasionally coloured, it forcefully highlights the guilloché-work and intensifies the shimmering reflections inherent to this technique. Flinqué enamelling may be used on its own, but also as a backdrop for other decorations such as miniature painting. Moreover, it provides scope for an exceptional play on colours of which Piaget is a well-recognised exponent, thanks to the talent of the enamel artists and guilloché-work specialists who faithfully and meticulously perpetuate the time-honoured gestures of Haute Horlogerie decoration.
On the two Altiplano models featuring a flinqué enamel dial, the Manufacture reproduces the rare “panier” or “basket-work” guilloche motif. At the crossroads between tradition and the modern era, this meticulous work on the metal base creates a powerful geometrical effect. The ladies’ watch (measuring 34 mm in diameter) is distinguished by the purple colour of the dial, as well as by an entirely gem-set bezel. The men’s model (38 mm in diameter) has a greenish-grey dial. In both cases, the 18-carat white gold dial conceals Piaget Calibre 430P, an ultra-thin mechanical hand-wound movement. Each of these models is issued in a limited edition of 50.
The cloisonné enamel technique consists of creating cavities to form a motif. The contour of the latter is first marked out with silver or gold strips of wire. Since the exceptional is the rule for Piaget, the hollows are made exclusively from gold. Once the motif has been reproduced, the wire strips are fixed to the gold base with a special glue called “tragacanth gum” which will disappear during the firing. The partitions thus mark out a certain number of hollows corresponding to the various colour zones. The enamel is then placed in each of the hollows and fired. This operation is repeated several times in order to heighten the intensity of the colour and to fill all the cavities. After the last firing, the piece is lapped and glazed to create the final effect.
There are different versions of this technique, including “”plique-à-jour” cloisonné enamelling in which the hollows are glued to a thin copper base which is then dissolved with acids. There is therefore no base by the end, which results in transparent-like effects like those of a stained-glass window.
Piaget Miss Protocole
Piaget introduced enamel into its range through the Piaget Miss Protocole collection in 2005. Each year brings an interpretation of a new theme such as flowers, seabeds or butterflies, as in the latest version. Each model scrupulously complies with the concept inherent to the Protocole watches. It is based on a motif that spills over from the dial onto the case and clasp, flowing naturally from one part of the watch exterior to another. The surfaces are thus viewed as a whole, forming a vast field of expression dedicated to the art of enamelling and to that of jewellery. The Piaget Miss Protocole 2008 comes in four versions issued in limited edition of 10 each in tribute to the 10th anniversary of the line. Fitted with an 18-carat white or yellow case, they house a 57P quartz movement powering hour and minute hands.
Piaget Protocole XXL –Paris – New York Collection
This year, the Piaget Protocole XXL collection is clothed in enamel for the first time. Combining the champlevé and miniature enamel painting techniques, the two Piaget Protocole XXL models respectively shows a view of Paris and another of New York. Once again, the motifs occupy the entire surface of the cambered cases crafted in 18-carat white or yellow gold and housing a Piaget 830P mechanical hand-wound movement. Displaying the hours and minutes, it is meticulously decorated and features circular Côtes de Genève finishing, a circular-grained mainplate, bevelled and hand-drawn bridges, as well as blued screws. On the New York model, the Statue of Liberty positioned to the left is swept over by the hour hand. Each of the two models is issued in a limited edition of just three.