When Chopard co-president Karl-Friedrich Scheufele was curating the brand’s watch museum, he found himself admiring a style of engraving on the movements of its 19th-century pocket watches. Rather than adding a simple decoration or a brush finish to the calibre’s bridges, artisans in the past had used hand engraving to elevate the components with volutes (scrolling patterns) and floral motifs.

This style of engraving was called fleurisanne, and Scheufele liked it so much he wanted to incorporate it in Chopard watches. The problem was that there were hardly any craftspeople left who could produce it. It was an art form that was edging towards oblivion.

He was in luck, however. An artisan known simply as Nathalie, who had been embellishing Chopard’s movements since 2004, expressed an interest in learning the fleurisanne style. “She showed me some plates she had done at home, and she was so enthusiastic that I said, wow, here is someone who can probably revive this with me,” says Scheufele.

As there was no master to learn from, Nathalie had to study the antique watches and try to replicate what she saw. Her other challenge was that she had to miniaturise everything, as today’s watch movements are far smaller than those in pocket watches from centuries past. It took the best part of a year before Nathalie and Scheufele were happy with the results.

Karl-Friedrich Scheufele: ‘It takes years for someone to learn the skills and they need to find somebody who will teach them’
Chopard artisan Nathalie had to study the antique watches and try to replicate the fleurisanne style

Chopard has since expanded its use of fleurisanne, adding it to dials and cases. Scheufele says that such time-consuming flourishes attract clients seeking an individual watch, including “a younger crowd of collectors looking for the extra mile”.

Elsewhere, other watchmakers are doing their part to revive and protect artisanal crafts. At Cartier, the Maison des Métiers d’Art department — a workshop set up in La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland for this exact purpose — is instructing a new generation in old techniques.

Granulation is one of the ancient skills being practised at the workshop. This involves creating three-dimensional patterns using tiny beads of gold. There is a science to this as the gold beads must be heated to a high enough temperature to adhere to the dial but not so high they are deformed. With each granulation dial requiring exposure to a flame between 2,000 and 3,000 times, there are plenty of opportunities for error.

This heritage skill is so rare in the watchmaking world that, when Cartier introduced it in 2013, it asked experts from the Louvre in Paris to supervise its artisans to ensure it was properly replicated. Three years later, Cartier introduced enamel granulation, an old Etruscan goldsmithing craft that dates back to the third century BC. This proved even more difficult to master than gold, as the spheres of coloured enamel, which must be fired 30 times during the process, have slightly different fusion temperatures depending on their shade.

The face of a watch with a panther motif
The Ballon Bleu de Cartier enamel granulation with panther motif

Enamelling also keeps the Maison des Métiers d’Art artisans busy. In addition to creating designs with hand-painted enamel, cloisonné enamel (applied like stained glass with colours separated by strips of metal) and champlevé enamel (powder packed into engravings), they also work with the rarer grisaille enamel. For this technique, the dial is coated with black enamel and fired, then white enamel is hand-painted to create shades of grey. In 2015, after much research and development, the workshop swapped the white enamel for gold paste enamel, creating a moody gold-and-black palette. In doing so, it revived an art form that had been totally lost.

Other rare crafts being utilised by watchmakers include micromosaics, whereby artisans decorate dials with tiny tesserae. Bulgari’s latest collaboration with Japanese architect Tadao Ando, which launches this week, features Serpenti Tubogas watches with micromosaic dials made of fragments of gemstones and mother of pearl. Each one took its craftspeople five hours to create.

Japanese architect Tadao Ando’s designs for Bulgari’s Serpenti Tubogas

“Fine watchmaking is all about the art of the craft — we will always be in awe of the skill and dedication it takes to hone techniques [such as] case making, enamel dial painting and movement finishing,” says Adrian Aldred, founder of bespoke watch service Convopiece, which introduces collectors to one-off investment pieces sourced directly from watchmakers’ ateliers. “Preserving these skills are essential to fine watchmaking culture . . . and deserves investment,” he says.

Richemont agrees. In 2012, the luxury group opened its Campus Genevois de Haute Horlogerie in Meyrin as a “knowledge transfer centre” offering training in niche horological skills. It has invested SFr180mn ($200mn) in the project and expects the campus workforce to go past 1,000 in the near future.

Despite this, some of the group’s brands still have to turn to external craftspeople for the rarest of skills. At its watch brand Montblanc, for example, it works with expert engraver Fanny Queloz on bas-relief; she creates three-dimensional scenes by carving away metal. This was originally a technique used by stone carvers, and translating it to a watch dial less than a millimetre thick is incredibly difficult.

At Montblanc, Fanny Queloz engraves bas-relief scanes on metal © Studio Christoph Weiss

“The engravers use a binocular magnifying glass to perfectly realise the details of the works — far beyond visual acuity,” says Laurent Lecamp, managing director of Montblanc watches. “As the magnification of the binocular magnifier is 20 times greater, the engraver’s gestures must also be 20 times more precise.”

While collaborating with external craftspeople might be a necessity in producing highly artisanal horology, there also seems to be an element of celebration in doing so. There are just three watches in Louis Vuitton’s latest high watchmaking collection but each uses a wide range of métiers d’art techniques, with the individual craftspeople named for their contributions.

Queloz is credited for damascening (a style of inlay), as is Vanessa Lecci for champlevé enamel, and Rose Saneuil for wood, straw and parchment marquetry.

Louis Vuitton’s limited edition Snake’s Jungle watch is enameled by Vanessa Lecci © Louis Vuitton

Lecamp believes the only way rare techniques such as bas-relief dials can be kept alive is by continuing to create new watches that use them.

In Geneva, Patek Philippe is doing its part to raise the profile of such work with a Rare Handcrafts exhibition of 80 watches created using niche skills. The watches will be on display at its Rue du Rhône headquarters on April 13-27, alongside live demonstrations by its artisans.

Chopard’s Scheufele says it is important to think ahead when considering how best to help these crafts survive and meet the rising demand for them — there is no quick fix, he says. “It takes years for someone to learn the skills and they need to find somebody who will teach them,” he says. “There’s no school teaching you this, so you have to be lucky to find a master who will accept to show you.”

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