One feature firmly in the spotlight at many luxury watch brands: hand-painted enamel dials that, in a technique used for centuries, are fired in an oven to create a hard, deeply pigmented finish.
“I would almost call it a renaissance of the enamel,” said Patrik Hoffmann, chief executive of Ulysse Nardin. “In the case of enameling work, where everything is handmade, it’s true value, and today serious consumers are out for true value.”
Such enamel work was featured on more than half of the timepieces Ulysse Nardin introduced in January at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva. The Jade Grand Feu timepieces, for example, are offered with intensely colored enamel dials in deep red, sky blue or steel gray; the Marine Tourbillon Grand Feu has an understated face that showcases the soft white enamel on the dial. (“Grand feu”, or large fire, is a term used to describe the oven-baked enameling process.)
Piaget’s recent enamel additions included a 60th-anniversary edition of its Altiplano watch with an inky blue dial, and a one-off tourbillon with the Chinese zodiac enameled on its face.
Several of Vacheron Constantin’s most recent offerings also feature enamel dials, like the Métiers d’Art Copernicus Grand Feu Enamel decorated with a highly detailed depiction of Earth, complete with light-blue oceans and encircled by astronomical symbols, including a crimson crab for the sign of Cancer and, to represent Leo, a bright yellow lion. It is priced around $130,000.
The cost of watches with enamel work is often high, at least in part because of the exacting work that goes into making them. It takes at least five hours to create a simple enamel dial in a single color, according to Claude-Eric Jan, director of Donzé Cadrans, a dial specialty company. More elaborate pieces that incorporate techniques like cloisonné, in which wires are strategically placed to create complex designs, can take as long as 60 hours.
Throughout the enameling process, dials coated with strongly hued pigments are repeatedly baked in an oven set to a temperature of more than 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit, to intensify the color and deepen the surface appearance.
Donzé Cadrans — in Le Locle, Switzerland, about a two-hour drive from Geneva — is one of just a handful of companies that specialize in traditional watch enameling. (“Cadrans” is the French word for dials; the company was founded in 1972 by Francis Donzé and purchased by Ulysse Nardin in 2011.) About 60 percent of its clients are brands owned by its parent company, the luxury giant Kering; it also makes dials for companies like Patek Philippe.
Another enameler, Anita Porchet, based in nearby Corcelles-le-Jorat, Switzerland, creates dials for brands like Piaget and Hermès. She frequently uses techniques like champlevé, which adds engraving patterns to the process. Demand for the work is constant; as she said, “I’m 150 percent busy all the time.”
With their visible craftsmanship and scarce supply, watches with enamel details appeal to connoisseurs. “You target a collector for sure — someone who appreciates the quality,” said Franck Touzeau, international watch marketing and creative director at Piaget. “It’s probably the most exclusive dial you can find on the market.”
Brian Duffy, chief executive of Aurum Holdings, which owns Watches of Switzerland, the British retailer that sells a wide selection of timepieces by luxury brands such as Rolex, A. Lange & Söhne and Audemars Piguet, said enameled watches “sell very, very well.”
“It’s because hand-enameling artistry has very limited availability,” he said. “There are only limited quantities produced, and that’s what creates the rarity and the desire.” For the enamel watches by Patek Philippe, for example, there typically is a waiting list, he said.
But the rarity of enamel-detailed watches isn’t entirely a result of the craftsmanship and hours required to produce them. “Our artists will tell you that nothing is completely controlled,” said Christian Lattmann, chief executive of Jaquet Droz, whose watches are enameled at its headquarters in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. “For example, if the air is too humid, if it’s too sunny, the weather changes the process. It’s really funny, but it’s true.”
“Some days, they don’t know why, but when they put the dial into the oven, there are bubbles,” he said. “It’s impossible to control everything.”
Mr. Jan agreed. “Some days it’s a nightmare,” he said. “We don’t know why exactly. You have no real solution.” Many dials are discarded because of imperfections during production.
White dials are especially problematic: As much as 75 percent of all production, Mr. Jan said, cannot be used because of blemishes and bubbles.
Also, learning the skill is not easy. “There’s no official school,” said Mr. Hoffmann of Ulysse Nardin. “There’s no training. There’s no official apprenticeship that people can do.”
So, faced with strong demand, the company has created its own way to ensure the hand production of its watch dials will continue: Two Ulysse Nardin employees joined Donzé Cadrans recently to learn the craft as part of a long-term plan to replace enamelers who are expected to retire in 2028.