Investments in art (29 percent) and watches (18 percent) saw double-digit growth last year, ranking first and third on the Knight Frank Luxury Investment Index, which tracks the value of 10 investments of passion, weighted to reflect their collectability. Watch connoisseurs who added a Métiers d’Art timepiece to their collection were arguably ahead of the game with a two-in-one purchase of a miniature work of art that happens to tell time. Prized for their rarity and demonstration of ancient decorative techniques, they showcase the creation of a handful of highly skilled artisans executed on a canvas often less than 40mm in diameter with a brush, in the case of enamelling, consisting of a single hair of sable.
While England established its reputation as the foremost watchmaking country in the world in the early seventeenth century, France always had the upper hand when it came to decoration through its school of enamel painters. According to Watches: Their History, Decoration and Mechanism by GH Baillie, the fashion to display watches then provided “a fresh field for the work of the goldsmith, the engraver, the lapidary and the enameller at a period when the craftsman had acquired a high degree of technical skill and before he had ceased to be an artist.” Some of the main types of decoration were engraved scenes, landscapes and patterns on covers and dials, lapidaries’ work on cases formed of semi-precious stones like rock-crystal and agate or set with pearls and precious stones, and enamel, including translucent and opaque enamels and paintings on enamel.
Blois was the first centre for enamelling, producing the best work in the heart of the Loire Valley in France. Early examples of enamelling are found on English, French and German watches, but the art soon settled in Geneva. Today, the artisans who specialise in artistic crafts such as enamel painting, marquetry and engine-turning are as rare as their creations, giving some context to their eye-watering price tags. There are very few opportunities for formal training, so their skills must continue to be passed on from artisan to artisan to survive. Some artisans remain fiercely independent to protect their creativity, like enameller Anita Porchet, who has decorated dials for Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin. Sandrine Stern, head of creation at Patek Philippe, told Reuters: “Miniature painting on enamel is even more rare; it’s a true gift.”
Some brands like Jaeger-LeCoultre offer these skills in-house, in this case since 1866 when it became the first fully-fledged Manufacture in the Valleé de Joux, offering 180 capabilities under one roof. Gem-setting artist Audrey Grosset-Janin is one of the custodians of this age-old expertise. She says, “Weaving inseparable ties between exceptional watchmaking and high jewellery, artistic crafts merge precision with emotions… When the motif takes shape for the first time before my very eyes, I am flooded with a unique feeling. At that moment, I love to think of the woman for whom this creation is intended and to imagine that she will experience the same sensation…”
Fine decorative arts have long featured in Cartier creations, one of the finest examples being one of its first collaborations with Edmond Jaeger. The wristwatch dates to 1913. Its round platinum case is set with diamonds and inserted into a beautiful outer case of intaglio-engraved rock crystal, perpetuating the centuries-long tradition of rock crystal in watchmaking and showcasing the engraver’s art.