A Brief pre-SIHH Divertissement

I was originally going to call this article “Guilloché…eh!” being Canadian and all. But then I thought it was too frivolous. So instead, I thought about something a bid longer: “A history of guillochage including the development of the lathe, ornamental turning and its relationship to Vacheron’s past, present and future.”

But that sounded too boring and pedantic…possibly too Canadian as well.

So, because brevity is the soul of wit, I decided on something simpler and non-specific, as you can see above: “A brief pre-SIHH divertissement”… short, and bilingual.

Wait a minute…hmmmm, that sounds Canadian too! Oh well.

Hope you like it.




In the past few decades, there has been a return to the use of the “artistic crafts” in watchmaking.  I am referring to the four main features found in the high end Vacheron timepieces:  gem setting, enamel work, engraving and guillochage.  All of these techniques provide a significant enhancement to the appeal of the watch as well as to its value watch without any of them having any effect on functionality.

Here are some examples:

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Gem setting design and preparation


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Anita Porchet (left) and Jean Ulrich (right), masters of enamel work and engraving respectively



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Dial undergoing guillochage                                          The Jumping Hour dial guilloché pattern


   As Julien Marchenoir, Vacheron’s Director of Marketing and Communications, comments, “these decorative artistic crafts address the notion of longevity and allow the brand to attain a certain degree of nobility.”  Indeed, they transform what is essentially a utilitarian object into a work of art.

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Julien Marchenoir, Vacheron’s Director of Marketing and Communications and Director of the Heritage Department.


Guillochage has a particular appeal to me because it reflects a synthesis of man and machine.  It uses a cleverly designed yet powerful machine as a hand tool to effect the most marvelous designs upon a blank surface.

The art of guillochage falls into the larger category of ornamental turning.  And “turning” is synonymous with the use of a lathe.  Although ornamental turning has been around for about 400 years, the lathe itself goes back at least to the Egyptian dynasties 3500 years ago.  In fact, turned objects have been discovered in Egyptian tombs.  These ancient techniques using a “pole lathe” are still used in some developing countries and even today in developed countries by hobbyists.


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A pole lathe drawing from an Egyptian Tomb             Mediaeval lathe



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Mediaeval-style lathe still used in Morocco today, here to make chess pieces.


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DaVinci     DaVinci's drawings of lathes from Codice Atlantico, circa 1500. Bow and treadle and crank and flywheel designs

The techniques of the lathe migrated across the Mediterranean to ancient Greece and Rome, and from there, northward throughout all of Europe.  With technical improvements, many conceived by DaVinci, the modern “plain lathe” was developed.  His contributions included the longbow in place of the traditional pole, a cranked flywheel, and an adjustable tailstock. It consisted of a fixed headstock, and a sliding tailstock, with both centres aligned, and later a tool rest. Any ornamentation was done by hand carving after the pieces had already been turned. 

The value of the plain lathe to art and industry cannot be overemphasized.  Its further refinement and increasing sophistication made it possible to produce precision parts from different materials for the production of an enormous variety of devices such as steam engines and electric motors, and of course for clocks and watches.  It is not too great a stretch to say that without the lathe there would have been no Industrial Revolution.  Today lathes can vary from a simple wood lathe to a complex metal lathe which is basically a horizontal milling machine.


However, ornamental turning required a more complex device than the plane lathe.  Early development probably originated in Bavaria around 1525 with the development of a template or cam called a rosette mounted on the lathe’s spindle.  The rosette contained hills and valleys on its circumference.  The number, size and shape of these hills and valleys could vary from rosette to rosette.  The appearance of these rosette cams had a similarity to the petals of a rose, hence the name. The most significant factor was that the headstock itself was not fixed (as in the plain lathe).  In the ornamental lathe, the headstock was hinged and held under tension by a spring.  The headstock could now rock back and forth being controlled by the pattern on the periphery of the rosette and, thus, a pattern could be carved on a given surface.  By varying the rosette pattern, one could change the pattern that was cut into the surface.  By allowing the spindle to slide back and forth along the lathe axis, the depth of cut could be varied even within an individual cutting stroke.  Thus by varying the type of cutter and the pressure exerted by the operator, the nature of the cut could also be affected.  This form of turning was first used on non-metallic surfaces such as wood, particularly lignum vitae.  However, it was also used on ivory, horn, glass, coconut shell, soft stone and mother of pearl. 

Towards the end of the 18th century, Abraham-Louis Breguet introduced the technique of ornamental turning into watchmaking, to enhance the cases and dials of his watches.  In the 19th century, guilloché work expanded in the manufacture of watches and jewellery and received a vigourous push owing to the work of Peter Carl Fabergé.


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Examples of Fabergé’s guilloche and translucent enamel work


Guilloché can be defined as a decorative engraving by means of a machinelike tool, of lines, straight, broken or curved, forming a precise, intricate, repetitive pattern or motif onto a flat or convex surface.  There are two types of machines: straight-line and turning, which produce straight line and circular lines respectively, creating a tapestry.  Some can do both.

Typically the lines are between 0.1 and 0.5 millimetres wide and 3 to 4 hundredths of a millimetre in depth, but there is of course great variability.


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Left: A straight-line guilloche machine.   Right: Roger Smith describes the function of a )rotary) rose engine.


Some have described guilloché as halfway between engraving and sculpting and striving towards beauty and a sublime aesthetic. 

Several patterns were produced in the 19th century that became quite famous and are still in use.  These include the clous de Paris (hobnails), panier (basket weave), grains d’orge (barley corn), grains des riz (grains of rice), and rayons de soleil (rays of sunlight).  But given the combinations and permutations of rosettes and cutter (burins), the patterns produced are limited only by the operator’s imagination and their aesthetic appeal.


A Brief pre-SIHH Divertissement