Artisans spend hours working on these US$100,000 watch dials

Decorative arts at its most painstaking

By JUSTIN MASTINE-FROST / Pics By BLOOMBERG

Get watch collectors riled up, and you’ll be flooded with a litany of reasons why elaborate complications, movement finishing and the other mechanical intricacies of haute horology matter. But most watchmakers have something else they like to brag about: Rare, sumptuous dials handcrafted by elite studios of artisans.

These métiers d’art workshops produce one-of-a-kind, highly ornamental faces, using centuries-old techniques to celebrate a company’s history. Elaborate enamel work — which first gained prominence in the 16th century, the early days of the pocket watch — is employed most frequently. Enamel is essentially glass melted together with a pigment, but its application can be quite complex. In the champlevé method, pools and channels are carved in the dial plate to hold the mixture; in cloisonné, visible wires “fence in” the enamel for a stained-glass-window effect; in pailloné, craftsmen insert foil sheets between the glass layers to add sparkle.

A dial like that of the US$45,000 (RM184,500) Ulysse Nardin Jade Jellyfish (main picture) can take weeks to create. The piece is fired repeatedly, five times or more, as layers of colour are added — and there’s a risk of ruination right down to the last pass in the oven. The same can be said of the micropainting on Bovet’s Château de Môtiers 40 Eurytides Marcellus, a US$53,800 pièce unique: It requires a painful level of precision using nothing but the human hand; the slightest mistake can undo hundreds of hours of meticulous labour.

As such, production volume is extremely limited. These watches may be an acquired taste, but given their scarcity, finding a home is seldom a challenge, despite their high price tags. Eric Wind, a former specialist at Christie’s International plc, says interest in métiers d’art watches “spans beyond watch collectors to those that collect art and fine objects”.

Vacheron Constantin’s Métiers d’Art Les Aérostiers in the blue ‘Bagnols 1785’ colourway

Vacheron Constantin’s latest US$135,000 bauble, dubbed Les Aérostiers, will be limited to five pieces in each of five styles. The brand’s master craftsmen have combined traditional and modern dial making methods to depict an engraved hot air balloon in white and yellow gold surrounded by ribbons of translucent enamel. Through apertures, the self-winding mechanism displays the time and date.

Gem-setting is another longstanding craft in the watch world, and one that Cartier, among others, strives to preserve. Its Panthères et Colibri, price upon request, employs a traditional automaton complication: If you press the crown, a hummingbird flies along a rail as a power reserve indicator. A carved 18-karat rose-gold panther cub also pokes out in front of its mother, who has black enamel spots.

And those 270 brilliant-cut diamonds? Think of them as icing on the dial. — Bloomberg