Though collecting tastes have dictate the bulk of desirable timepieces to be tool watches from the likes of Rolex - watches built with utilitarian purposes in mind - we by no means turn a blind eye to the marvels of haute horology and joaillerie. At the end of the day, some of these pieces are utterly mind blowing, and anyone who disagrees is plain old wrong. One perfect example of such non-mechanical artistry and craftsmanship in watchmaking is cloisonné — a delicate, age-old art used in producing some of the most alluring watch dials of the past century. Without delay, let’s take a closer look at the manufacturing process, and history behind this remarkable feat of creative brilliance historically practiced by Patek Philippe, Rolex, and others.
Cloisonné gets its name from the French word “Cloisonner," meaning ‘to partition,' in reference to the gold wire “cloisons” tused to separate the sections of enamel. Although these designs truly come to life when they emerge from the kiln after being inlaid, the initial process of setting the cloisons to the gold base dial is crucial, as it ultimately determines the appearance and in turn desirability of a piece. Due to the soft nature of gold wire, and the laborious tasks that are forming shapes and creating textures, setting cloisons is an extremely difficult process demanding years to truly to be mastered.
After the setting of several cloisons is complete, next comes the seemingly simpler, yet equally complex undertaking of filling the respective sections with enamel. Typically, the enamels used in watchmaking will begin as a powder, and will then come into form with the addition of small amounts of water. The artisan builds up layers of the enamel paste within the confines of the cloisons, and to set them, fires the enamel repeatedly in the kiln. Different colors and textures will be applied at specific points, along with incredibly thin gold leaf “paillons”, to create a captivating aesthetic. These final steps “seal the deal," so to speak, in the production of a piece of functional art that can be worn daily on the wrist.
While the techniques guiding the manufacturing of cloisonné dials haven’t changed, many the of the dials themselves have with the passing of time. Similarly to more reserved watch dials which have developed significant amounts of patina, cloisonné is subject to an aging process all of its own, yielding more muted or saturated tones as the years progress. This is dependent on both the quality of the enamel used during production along with the specific conditions that the example was subjected to, just as a great painting would age over the years. Because of this, there’s a great deal of individuality to be expressed by way of such dials.
What we find so genuinely remarkable about watches with cloisonné dials is the fact that each one is effectively a unique piece. With each dial being worked on individually — one hundred percent by hand — ensures you’ll never find two alike. What’s more, is that their limited numbers across all manufactures makes seeing another in the wild a seriously rare occurrence. The work that goes into each and every dial is nothing short of arduous, and is most definitely deserving of respect and admiration from watch lovers of all sorts.