The very first time I can remember seeing a Jaquet Droz paillonnée enamel dialed watch in person was sometime around 2003 or 2004, at an event the company had organized at the Museum of Arts and Design here in New York on Columbus Circle. The company at the time was extremely small – I assume that it is still not an enormous industrial undertaking; but in 2004, the company was headquartered at No. 5, Rue Jaquet Droz in La-Chaux-de-Fonds and Peter Conrad, a moderator for, reported that it consisted of a grand total of 20 people, about half of whom were involved in actual watchmaking. Production numbers at the time were extremely low as well, and quite a few of us had discovered – for the first time – the art of horological enameling, which was something then-CEO Manuel Emch had invested a great deal of effort and energy into foregrounding for the company.
Horological enameling is a niche interest within a niche hobby (although watchmaking is not as niche a hobby as it used to be – in 2004, Revolution Magazine had not yet launched, and if you were American and wanted to read a watch magazine you still had to hunt for them between the model railroading and numismatics magazines on the newsstand; the domain name would not be registered for another four years).
It’s a niche interest for several reasons: first of all, if it’s done using traditional methods, techniques, and materials, it’s incredibly labor intensive and therefore very, very expensive; and secondly, it’s generally used to produce, at least in horology, portable works of art rather than – oh, I don’t know – go-anywhere emblems of rugged masculinity, for instance. For all those reasons you just don’t see that much of it at all, and if you do want to see it – in person – you usually have to be in the right place at the right time. The Patek Philippe booth at Baselworld, for instance, typically contains an absolute Ali Baba’s cave of a treasury of enamel decorated wristwatches, pocket watches and clocks; if you visit Jaeger-LeCoultre you may have an opportunity to see some of the most accomplished enamel work in the industry, but you have to go to Le Sentier... and so on.
If you’ve never really looked closely at the art form before, here’s a little introduction. Enameling is basically the use of colored glass to form a decorative surface over a base material, like gold. Colored glass fragments are ground by hand into a powder, and the powder is mixed with some liquid substance like oil or water and then applied to a surface. One the enamel is applied, you then fire the dial in a kiln at a temperature high enough to melt the powder into a single surface (the process is called vitrification) at somewhere between 800-1200 degrees Celsius. Sometimes a dozen or even more firings have to be done, depending on the dial, and at any stage things like the formation of cracks or air bubbles can ruin hours of work and force you to start over (which is probably why so many enamellists like to work in rural seclusion – nobody can hear them swearing).
Enamel work is classified by technique and the vocabulary’s fascinating – there is cloisonné, for instance, in which fine gold wires are bent into shapes that form individual cells for the enamel; or champlevé, which involves placing enamel into shallow cells made in a metal surface with engraver’s tools. The application of enamel requires a great deal of skill and patience, especially owing to the great control the enamellist has to exert over sometimes minute areas – tiny brushes and even quill pens can be used, and in really fine enamel miniature painting brushes having only a single hair are sometimes used. Horological enameling was something of a dying art during the early quartz era but it’s now back in a big way. As with any high craft technique, there are shortcuts to be wary of – cloisonné, for instance, can be mimicked by using machine tools to produce thin-walled metal cut-outs rather than the traditional hand-formed wire, and enamel miniature painting should be carefully distinguished from so-called “cold enamel” which is another word for colored, thermosetting epoxy resins.
One of the most difficult is the technique called paillonnée – the technique of covering a surface with several base coats of enamel, and then placing tiny gold spangles called paillons on the enamel base coat and then, finally, covering the paillons with a top coating of fondant, or transparent enamel. The work begins with actually making the paillons – this is a craft in itself, as it involves making a special punch in the shape of the final paillon, and then punching them out one by one from extremely thin sheets of 22 or 24 karat gold foil. At this point you have something that is so delicate – remember, pure gold is extremely soft – that it can only be handled by manipulating it with a soft brush; you have to then maneuver the paillon into the right position on the enamel base. In the case of a watch like the Jaquet Droz Petite Heure Minute Paillonnée, you have to do this dozens of times and every time, you have to place the paillon in exactly the right position.
This particular dial is actually a combination of two techniques – there is the paillonnée itself, and then there is the engine turning on the gold dial underneath; enamel over engine turning is known as flinqué. If you’d like to get a better idea what it actually takes to make one of these dials there is a quite evocative little video over on Jaquet Droz’s website which you can see here.
The movement – as with another Jaquet Droz wristwatch we recently looked at hands-on – is the caliber 2653.4, which is actually derived from the F. Piguet 1185 and as we mentioned in that earlier story, it’s a simply lovely piece of work which has gained rather than lost charm over the years.
To understand the appeal of this sort of watch, it’s necessary to understand and find appealing the sort of extremely traditional, very Old World, very European approach to luxury and craftsmanship that it represents, and wearing it requires a certain amount not only of self-confidence, but in today’s watch culture, a certain ability to disregard the opinions of others. But for the few with both the means and the taste for this kind of approach, the paillonnée enamel watches from Jaquet Droz represent a connection to one of the most austerely demanding and sophisticated decorative traditions in the entire five hundred year history of portable mechanical horology.
As shown, the Jaquet Droz Petite Heure Minute Paillonnée in rose gold is offered at $42,000. View the entire collection here, and then check out our 2014 coverage of a classic enamel dial Jaquet Droz Grande Seconde.