Guardian of the grand Genevan watchmaking tradition

Debbie Hathway took a guided tour of Patek Philippe’s Rare Handcrafts collection 2022 in Geneva this year, which coincided with the annual Watches and Wonders exhibition.

A visit to Geneva cannot be declared a true success without a visit to the revered Patek Philippe salon on Rue du Rhône. But despite regular attendance at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, now renamed Watches and Wonders, to marvel at the new watch releases by the major watchmaking brands, I have never had the opportunity to escape the Palexpo and venture into this part of town. However, this year’s invitation to view Patek Philippe’s new Rare Handcrafts collection 2022 at this historic destination could not be refused. The salon is the firm’s spiritual home, occupied since 1853 and bought outright in 1891 when they expanded the manufacturing headquarters into the entire building.

The ground floor makes a lasting impression, filled with windows displaying the full collection in all its splendour – set into walls clad in gleaming dark wood, with leather from Córdoba on the facades. The Rare Handcrafts exhibition took centre stage on one of the upper levels.

While the demand for artisanally decorated watches practically disappeared from 1970 to 1980, the manufacture was passionately committed to safeguarding this precious know-how, especially miniature painting on enamel, dating back almost 500 years.

Each year, the manufacture unveils a new collection of one-of-a-kind pieces and limited editions that highlight such talents. This year’s exhibition included 59 creations – 15 dome table clocks, nine miniature dome table clocks, 10 pocket watches, and 25 wristwatches) featuring grand feu cloisonné enamel, miniature painting on enamel (a genuine Genevan specialty), manual engraving, manual guilloching and paillonné enamel as well as wood micromarquetry and Longwy enamel on faience.

From left: Bol d’Or, Convolvulus and Dog Rose dome clocks. Pictures supplied

Among the objects directly related to Geneva was the dome table clock 20118M “Bol d’Or” in cloisonné and paillonné enamel, which references the seven trophies won by the manufacture’s honorary president Philippe Stern at the Bol d’Or (Golden Globe) regatta on Lake Geneva. The dates of the victories are inscribed in miniature painting on enamel, while the course of the race is charted in gold wire on the dome. The enameller used 13.8 metres of 24K yellow-gold wire (27.6g) measuring 0.2×0.6mm in cross-section and 64 colours and blends of translucent, opaque, semi-opaque and opalescent enamels and miniature painting on enamel. Embedded gold leaf illuminates the buoy and 13 star-shaped spangles called paillons, also in gold leaf, light up the dome. Each enamelled plate required eight to 10 firings at 820°C. An hour circle in ebony, set with 12 gilt, applied hour markers in the shape of mooring posts, frames a dial centre in cloisonné enamel. A handcrafted cable motif resembling cordage adorns the borders of the hour circle and the clock frame.

Meanwhile, the case back of the pocket watch 995/130G-001 “Swan” showcases this typically Genevan bird in wood micromarquetry. The swan, symbolising light, grace, love and fidelity glides across the back of this unique piece in white gold. Its enamelled dial features hand-engraved hands.

To reproduce the elegant plumage and long curving neck as well as the subtle play of reflections in the water, the marquetry maker cut out and assembled 223 pieces of veneer and 30 tiny inlays, shaped from 23 species of wood of different colours, textures and veining. The dial, in black enamel, presents white-gold applied Breguet numerals and white-gold leaf-shaped hour, minute and seconds hands, embellished with hand-engraving. A spessartine cabochon (0.44 ct) adorns the crown.

This pocket watch is accompanied by a white-gold handcrafted stand resting on a foot set with a spessartine cabochon (0.46 ct) on an oval-shaped base in silver-sheen obsidian.
Meanwhile, wild animals in wood micromarquetry or cloisonné enamel featured on case backs and dials of Calatrava or Golden Ellipse wristwatches in cloisonné enamel. There were greater kudu, oryx antelopes, zebras, lions, rhinoceroses, buffaloes, white Namibian elephants and leopards. For the one-of-a-kind 995/128J-001 “Cheetah” pocket watch, the artist crafted 610 minute parts and 50 inlays from 16 different wood species to depict the cat sprinting at full speed.

Inspired by the naturalistic illustrations of the early 19th century, there were four limited editions, each consisting of six Golden Ellipse wristwatches featuring some of the most extraordinary monkey species on our planet. Their habitat is cloisonné enamel dials complemented with miniature paintings on enamel; one example is the 5738/50G-019 Golden Ellipse and its mischievous American callithrix.

Other wonders of nature, also in the realm of plants, inspired motifs in luminous colours such as on the 20142M “Dog Rose” dome table clock in cloisonné enamel and the 20104M “Convolvulus” dome table clock in Longwy enamel on faience.

The voyage of humanity is depicted on a dome table clock and three Calatrava wristwatches with cloisonné enamel commemorating the first flights across the English Channel, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Pacific Ocean. The 5089G-089 Calatrava has a dial in cloisonné enamel enriched with a miniature painting on enamel showing Louis Blériot aboard his Blériot XI monoplane flying over a coastal landscape and a beach with delicately drawn beach huts.

I was particularly drawn to the ensemble consisting of dome table clocks, pocket watches, and Calatrava wristwatches in cloisonné enamel displaying the charms of Cuba, such as the 992/162G-001 in cloisonné enamel on a hand-guilloched background with manual engravings on the periphery of the case back, the bezel and the bow. This was one of my favourites. The exhibition moved to Paris in May this year, where it was opened to the public before the creations were forwarded to private collectors around
the world.

Preserving artisanal virtuosity

Manual engraving is the oldest decorative art for adorning timepieces. It embellishes the case backs of pocket watches as well as their bezels, bows and hands. Grand feu cloisonné enamel has long been used in watchmaking to create motifs with luminous and enduring colours. First, the artist shapes the contours of the motif with fine flat gold wire and then fills the resulting “cloisons” (cells) with translucent, opaque, semi-opaque or opalescent enamel paints.

Since the 17th century, miniature painting on enamel has ranked among the grand Genevan specialties. The tiny motifs are created dot by dot with a minuscule brush and with colours mixed from enamel powder and lavender oil.

For the tradition-steeped technique of paillonné enamel, small gold- or silver-leaf paillons (punched spangles) are covered with translucent enamel in which they appear to float.
In hand-guilloching, antique, manually controlled machines are used to cut geometric patterns in a metal surface on which light seems to dance. When this interplay of reflections is coated with translucent enamel, it is referred to as flinqué enamel.

Wood micromarquetry is an extremely elaborate technique introduced by Patek Philippe several years ago to decorate the dials of wristwatches or the case backs of pocket watches. It is used to produce small pictures composed of several hundred tiny mosaic pieces of different wood species, colours and graining.

Gemsetting with diamonds adorns the bezels of Calatrava wristwatches with irresistible sparkle. The fully handcrafted pocket watch stands in 18K gold are also set with different gems in nuanced colours.

Patek Philippe showcases its creativity and artisanal expertise on numerous objects with the so-called mixed technique that combines different competencies such as grand feu cloisonné enamel and manual guilloching or the refinement of grand feu cloisonné enamel with miniature painting on enamel.

The manufacture also works with two exotic techniques that were developed in France – grisaille enamel with Limoges white (blanc de Limoges) and Longwy enamel on faience with black framed motifs.

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