Marriage of art and science
Coloured glass is ground to particles as fine as sand and then applied to metal with a brush that can consist of a single hair, under the exacting, scientific eye of a microscope. And, when this precise, careful process of applying colour was completed - often after 40 hours or more of delicate painting - 'it can still go wrong', explained Dominique Baron, one of the world's preeminent enamellists. 'The oven is my biggest challenge. I don't know until it comes out of the oven if the whole process has worked.'
Enamelling is an exacting mix of art, formulas and technique which requires a special mind and particular attention to detail. The secrets of enamelling are known by only a handful of craftsmen in the world today and at the forefront is Baron.
Her workshop, L'Atelier, Stern Creations, is a branch of Richemont International, through which she works exclusively for Richemont. Baron was in Hong Kong recently, when Van Cleef & Arpels showcased her art at The Landmark in an event focused on the wonders of enamel.
Featured in the event was the collaboration between Baron and Van Cleef & Arpels: Les Jardins. Limited to 10 sets worldwide, the collection features four gardens, or jardins, that represent various places and cultures. They are Jardin Italien de le Renaissance, Jardin a la Francaise, Jardin Romantique Anglais and Jardin d'Extreme-Orient.
The enamelled dial of each watch represents between 40 and 50 hours of painting, not including the time to design and fire the scenes. A movement eased a decorative panel over the watch face throughout the year, 'so the movements reveal different phases of the dial with the seasons,' she explained.
'I am inspired by nature, by everything,' she said. 'I love flowers; it's a pleasure to work on this type of dial.'
Enamelling is an age-old art that, in Baron's hands, is a marriage of art and science. Its origins date back to the 6th century BC. Items made of glass paste on gold in Greek and Egyptian pieces have been found. Over the centuries, this art has developed into a craft that is capable of creating extraordinarily refined and delicate pieces.
The art of enamelling requires delicate precision, tolerates no carelessness and represents passion and craftsmanship. The specific technique guarantees the uniqueness of each creation. Van Cleef & Arpels engage the expertise and skills of the most talented craftsmen and women throughout the watchmaking and artistic processes to produce their enamelled creations.
Van Cleef & Arpels is the only brand showcasing this type of enamel work which used to be popular in the 1880s. The enamelling and miniature painting deliver a variety of colours and textures that are close to what Van Cleef & Arpels translates in its jewellery creations. 'There are no straight lines in the designs, the roses have no thorns, and there is a constant impression of movement,' Baron said.
The maison first worked with Baron in 2005, for the creation of their first poetic complication watch, Lady Arpels Les Saisons. 'This experience made us realise how fragile the network of enamellists was in the watch industry,' said Benjamin Vuchot, managing director of Van Cleef & Arpels Asia-Pacific.
'Hong Kong is the biggest market for watch collectors in the world, and watch collectors are true connoisseurs. With the availability of unique dial drawings, and the presence of the actual artists working on these dials, Van Cleef & Arpels was able to bring to Hong Kong this unique experience.'
Staying true to the brand's commitment to beauty, Van Cleef & Arpels wants to create timepieces that are both feminine and technical, with a twist. 'We did not want to use a man's watch and reduce the size to make it look like a woman's watch,' Vuchot said.
The collections show a watch perfectly sized to a woman's wrist, complemented by bezel-set white diamonds and a selection of attractive bands.
Baron's greatest pleasure comes from training young artisans and sharing her knowledge. 'I have trained six more enamellists, and now Van Cleef & Arpels is able to offer more creative dials,' she said.
'You have to have a strong passion to practice this art. You always put a part of yourself in each piece that leaves the workshop.'