On July 19, 1488, Jacopp Trotti ambassador of the d’Este family at the court of Ludovico Sforza in Milan writes to the Duke of Ferrare: « His Grace Duke Ludovico has had three garments of silk, richly adorned with very fine pearls secretly prepared. They are all cut to the same pattern and are adorned with a striking watch except for that of His grace who does not wish his watch to strike.”
Marvels of miniaturization these timepieces were considered certainly more as elements of beauty and decoration that true time telling devices.
As early as 1570-1580 watches closer to jewelry, worn around the neck or belt appeared with highly decorated cases and as such enamel was playing a major role in this decoration primarily in champlevé and cloisonné. In the former, the artist hollows out the base as to delimit the outlines of the motifs. In the latter, fine gold wires (sometimes the thickness of a human hair(!) are used to draw the motif and a such delimit the outlines. In both cases the cavities thus formed are filled with enamels and fired in a kiln.
Another method is in fact enamel painting (today known as miniature painting or technique genevoise because one of the specialities of the city), a method consisting no longer of filling cavities with enamel but painting directly on the surface. The surface to be enameled (most often the caseback) was scored to provide a grip for the enamel and a base coat of opaque enamel was then applied. After a first firing in a kiln (just a few seconds with temperatures up to 800° C) the enammeler would draw the decoration and apply each color depending on its fusion temperature and resistance, starting with the highest.
This latter technique will be the main basis for this article which is not on the different techniques (which will be the subject of a subsequent article) nor an exhaustive review of all of Vacheron Constantin enamel pieces but rather a focus on some of the more interesting pieces from the 20th century (mainly usinge the mianture enamel technique) to show the diversity and evolution of these designs throught the past 114 years. Even though Vacheron Constantin’s collaboration with Verger Freres in Paris resulted in absolutely amazing enameled clocks they will not be documented here as I have concentrated on watches.
Another element which I need to underline is that pocket watches were categorized by enamel artist whereas wrist watches by date of production. However, just to show that Vacheron Constantin did make some enamel pieces before the 20th century I have added some from the early 18 hundreds.
Two elements struck me while preparing this article. First the lack of enameling on the dial for pocket watches. I would believe that sufficient space was provided on the “bassine” or case back and the dial needed to remain uncluttered as time reading remained essential.
Secondly as early as the 19th century the vast majority of the enamel work has been inspiration or reproduction of classical pieces by European artists even in wrist watches - other than in the few wrist watches from the 50s with graphic designs or the Mercator (1990s) and Tribute to the Great Explorers (2000s).
Even though this article is focused on the 20th century a rapid look at some of the marvels from the previous century
Before attacking the heart of the subject two very interesting pieces whose enamel work is unsigned yet deserve to be mentioned. The model from 1919 is interesting due to the fact that it is one of the extremely rare timepieces of the time to have an enamel decoration on the dial!
What she lacks in celebrity she had in talent and remains until today one of the greatest enamel artists of the 20th century whose works were greatly inspired by the great European painters of the 18th century.
In 2011 Vacheron Constantin held its first major exhibition outside of Geneva at the National Museum of Singapore The Treasures of Vacheron Constantin. This exhibition featured over 180 pieces representing Vacheron Constantin’s production from 1755 to 2005. A special catalogue was published for the occasion and the watch gracing the cover was not a grand complication or a unique minute repeater but a tiempiece the general public and many at Vacheron Constantin were unaware of: Les Bergers d’Arcadie (The Shepards of Arcadia).
This 50mm marvel of finesse was made in 1923 for brothers Robert and George Grandjean who were members of the Vacheron Constantin board at the time.
This timepiece which is a tribute to everything Vacheron constantin holds dear today in the Metires d’Art, has a very original enamel dial with blue printing, the back of the case features Nicolas Poussin’s Les Bergers d’Arcadie painted in miniature enamel
For more information and photos: http://www.thehourlounge.com/en/vacheron-constantin-discussions/shepherds-arcadia-elusive-watch-hidden-story-598376
A student of Poluzzi and Le Grand Roy (which translates very poetically into the great king)
Certainly one of the best known enamel artists of the 20th century in Geneva. Born in Seveso, Italy, he moved to Geneva with his family as a child. He specialized in painted on enamel portraits and landscapes, in the style of works from earlier periods. In 1914, Poluzzi became an apprentice at the “Fabrique d’émaux de Genève”, while also pursuing studies at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. He obtained his diploma in 1918 and became a “chef d’atelier” during the next several years. In 1921, Poluzzi set up his own workshop with a large part of his pieces being made for Vacheron Constantin.
1950- La Nourice (The English name is the lacemaker but the litteral translation would be the Wet nurse) inspired by a painting by Frans Hals. This amazing pocket watch was auctioned by Antiquorum in May 2012 for over 206,000 CHF and sold to a Lounger who has this to say about the watch:
“For me it was love at first sight. Poluzzi is a recognized master in the Genevan school of enamelling and I just knew I would regret it if I let this one go! The Lacemaker's incredible depth of tranlucent colors and ethereal finesse of the details leave a nauanced yet lasting impression long after I put it away.
1956 - La Dentelliere (the Lacemaker) inspired by Vermeer, the case back was later removed and inserted into a powder holder
1964 – le Fumeur (the smoker) inspired by Adrian Brower For more photos and information http://http://www.thehourlounge.com/en/vacheron-constantin-discussions/another-gorgeous-poluzzi-enamel-pocket-watch-smoker-602243
She seems to also have been a student of Poluzzi but I have not found further information on her.
Muriel Sechaud is one of the better known contemporary enamel artists and one of the rare to still use the technique genevoise. Even though she has worked for Vacheron Constantin by creating enamel dials in wrist watches (ie Audubon series) .
In the 1990s Vacheron Constantin launched the ref 57120 a modern pocket watch whose case back could be personalized with miniature enamel painting. Of which here are some examples
Two other paintings for whom I do not find the inspiration but obviously Geneva scenery
It is only in the late 1940s that we see polychrome enamel dials in wrist watches, nevertheless enamel work is still done on the cases
The lack of interest of the public in dial arts followed by the quartz crisis of the 70s-80s saw the almost complete disappearance of not only enameled watches but also enamel artists of which only a handful remained in activity many retiring with their sercrets and few stepping up to carry on the tradition.
However, Vacheron Constantin in the early 1990s decided on creating what if for many a modern icon and a beautiful mix of enamel and alternative time display: the Mercator.
Vacheron Constantin launched a series of watches whose dials were made amongst others by Muriel Sechaud or Anita Porchet and inspired by the works of John James Audubon a 19th century American ornithologist, naturalist, and painter. He was notable for his expansive studies to document all types of American birds and for his detailed illustrations that depicted the birds in their natural habitats. His major work, a color-plate book entitled The Birds of America (1827–1839), is considered one of the finest ornithological works ever completed. Audubon identified 25 new species.
The Audubon series had a special case with hinged back opening to a beautifully skeletonized and engraved rotor.
Three dial variations were added using the same case but with either a Dragon or Ottoman motifs.
A worthy heir to the iconic but discontinued Mercator the Tribute to the Great Explorers maintained the original theme of the Mercator with its invitation to discover far and exotic lands with champleve enamel dials representing the lands discovered by great explorers such as Zeng he, Magellan, Marco Polo and Christopher Colombus. Each watch was limited to 60 pieces.
Launched in 2005 as a 4 piece set in celebration of the brand’s 250th anniversary, the Métiers d’Art Four Seasons is a tentative in displaying at the same time both the brand’s technical mastery, with an all new inhouse cal 2460, as well as the artistic crafts of enamelling, sculpture and gem setting. And a first for the brand in mixing different artistic crafts on the same dial.
The time and calendar functions are visible via four apertures respectively revealing the hour, the minute, the day and the date. These indications, wandering for the first two and jumping for the latter two, appear through four openings arranged around the central dial motif.
The dial represents in its centre, Apollo’s chariot (Apollo was chosen since in Greek mythology he is the God of the arts but also of passing time) pulled by four horses, depicted on a raised hand-engraving in 18K gold, applied to the two-part dial decorated in the colours of each of the seasons.
Made ina limited edition of 20 pieces special for the Greek market this timepiece uses the same system as the Four Seasons with an engraved Alexander the Great in the dial center on an enamel background.
For the opening of its flagship mansion in Shanghai at the Twin Villas Vacheron Constantin released 3 limited editions with enamel dial representing the stained glass windows found in the villa.
For the 30th anniversary of the Friends of the Opera de Paris association Vacheron Constantin created a unique timepiece it was to auction and gift the proceeds to the Paris opera. The dial was to represent the ceiling of the Paris Opera Garnier as painted by Chagall representing 14 master composers. Vacheron Constantin renewed with the old and extremely difficult art of of miniature painting and called to Anita Porchet to fulfill the difficult task of reproducing an over 200square meter ceiling in a 31 mm dial. A task which took over 3 months to complete.
So enthusiastic was the brand with the final outcome that it decided to keep the watch in its private collection and create a series of unique timpieces each with a dial representing the works of a different composer as drawn by Chagall.
The Only Watch auction is held every two years. Watch brands offer unique watches or the 1st piece from a limited edition and the proceeds of the sale goes to research against muscular dystrophies. For the 2011 edition Vacheron Constantin created a watch inspired by Echer’s tessalation concept of repeating but non overlapping patterns. The dial of theis watch represents a dove in the white and red colors of the Monaco flag (where the auction takes place) . Like with the Four Seasons Vachweron Constantin included different techniques other than enamel such as engraving, guillochage and gem setting. This watch was infact the precursor of what would become the Univers Infinis collection.
In celebration of the Chinese year of the snake Vacheron Constantin released a new collection of watches limited to 12 pieces in either platinum or rose gold. The year’s symbol of the Chinese zodiac takes center stage in the form of an engraved animal (in this case a snake) on a blue or brown enamel back ground. Each year a new dial with the year’s zodiac sign will be released.
A new range in the Métiers d’Art collection the Univers Infinis dials mix different artistic crafts on a dial with an enamel base (gemsetting, engraving, guillochage individually or with any mix thereof). The dials representing one of Escher’s works. As of today 6 different dials are abvailable (each limited to 20 pieces)
For more information on the Univers Infinis http://www.thehourlounge.com/en/vacheron-constantin-articles/sihh-2012-personal-journey-590217
For the first time watches in the Metiesr d’Art collection were made specially for the fairer sex. The dials being a tribute tribute to the delicacy of English botanical illustration in the 19th century. The plants, taken from Robert John Thornton’s The Temple of Flora, published in 1799, grow over the dials of watches that combine the artistic crafts of enamelling, guillochage and gem-setting.
For more information on the Florileges http://www.thehourlounge.com/en/vacheron-constantin-articles/sihh-2013-personal-journey-599564
In these unique watches Vacheron Constantin uses a techniques never seen in wrist watches : grisaillewhich consists of using a special enamel from Limoges (France) enabling to obtain an almost monochromatic hue.
The dials of these watches are based on the highlights of a ballerina’s daily life: learning, training and performance. And inspired by the paintings of Edgar Degas
The Traditionnelle WorldTime with its 37 time zone indication was created as a unique piece to be auctioned at Only Watch with a stunning enamel dial representing France and a diamond where Monaco is located!
The latest offerings in the métiers d’art collection mixing different techniques inspired by the crafts of different countries. Two models in this collection have enamel dials.
One representing Indian ornemantation with champlevé enamel dial with an amazing 10t different enamel colors. These shimmering shades form oriental-inspired flowers blooming against a blue sky. The other represents French lacework with engravings on an enamel background
From pure case ornementation in the 19th century to vivid works of mianute art today, enameling has always been part of Vacheron Constantin's essence in traditional form such as the Chagall & l'Opera de Paris pieces or more daring and avant garde such as in the Mercator or the Univers Infinis. An art form that the brand wishes to perpetuate by hiring and training inhouse enamelers (a craft which is no longer taught in school but which can only be passed on) but also by launching pieces using rare and forgotten techniques such as the Grisaille in the Tribute to the Art of Dance
more evocative but the wrist watches are quite amazing too.
Kudos to VC and hope we'll see more of these alternative displays like the Mercator and Grand Explorers
VC has really kept this art form alive in watches for 190 years!
make choices in the watches to show
Beautiful survey of some of the most beautiful watches ever created.
Audubon and Chagall pieces
First of all thank you for your kind words and glad you liked the article.
As specified in the intro unfortunately I had to leave many watches out and tried to show (at least for vintage pieces which were rarely seen or documented) but thank you for the extra photos
Regarding the tropical landscape which was in the Antiquorum catalogue I believe there was some issue and the watch didn't make it to the auction. As for verger I've been considering a full article on them for some time and will do something in the near future, that is why they were left out
. There is certainly some models of wrist/pocket-watches from the 50s that I have never seen beforeI will be looking forward to the article about VF Cheers, Kent