The use of enamel in watchmaking has a long history. The earliest known watch with an enamel dial was made during the first half of the 16th century.
Although enamelling is more labour intensive than using a metal dial, it eventually gained a foothold because it was durable and allowed the dial to feature intricate works of art.
The world's most exclusive and desirable watchmaking brands use this technique to create unique timepieces, often in limited editions.
'The art of enamelling requires delicate precision, tolerates no carelessness and represents passion and craftsmanship,' Van Cleef & Arpels says. Enamel is made from a mixture of lead oxide and quartz sand, and the chemical composition is similar to glass. The components are first mixed and [ground] to fine particles, washed and the impurities removed. The mixture is dried and applied on a metal base, then put into an oven at 800 to 860 degrees Celsius to melt the mixture.
At Jaeger-LeCoultre, the art of enamelling, also known as Art of Fire, has always held an aura of mystery.
The group says that an enamelled watch dial is extremely difficult and complex to achieve, and requires a great deal of patience and tension.
Gold is often selected for its resistance and nobility. This material is decorated with a series of troughs into which enamel is later poured.
Once finished and smoothed, the surface must be as perfect as possible to allow the enamel to adhere.
After this preparation, the enamel can play host to the colours and decoration that will adorn the watch dial, which is when the enamelling artist comes in.
Enamel granules must be applied freehand under a microscope, using a fine sable paintbrush. Miniature enamel painting is one of the rarest and most precious pictorial arts.
'The fineness of the enamel and the complexity of the technique produce real masterpieces,' Jaeger-LeCoultre says.
'These unique pieces require long hours of intense concentration, as well as extraordinary patience, meticulousness and dexterity.'
Ultimately, it allows an artist to create a work of art on your timepiece's dial. Boucheron's Ronde 'Seconde Folle' Peacock Watch (HK$897,000), with a white gold, sapphire-set enamel dial and self-winding mechanical calibre, with the movement provided by Girard-Perregaux, features an 18-carat grey gold case (97 grams) and 42mm diameter. The dial is in 18-carat grey gold with clear purple enamel, opalescent enamel and opaque turquoise enamel with sapphires.
'The majestic yet dainty [peacock] seems to have leapt out of a medieval illumination and landed on the face of this most attractive timepiece,' Boucheron says.
The intricate watch also features a rotary motion given by the 'Seconde Folle' complication - associated with the GP 4000 calibre - creating the illusion that the Peacock is breathing.
Jaeger-LeCoultre offers the Master Grand Tourbillion Continents (HK$991,000), which reveals borders of various countries and the outlines of continents that gradually take shape on the dial.
Each Master Grand Tourbillion presents one of the three large continental ensembles: Asia and Australasia, the Americas and Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
Each of the three versions have been issued in a limited series of 20 in platinum, 20 in pink gold and 20 in yellow gold, all fitted with a sapphire crystal caseback. The tourbillion regulator appears in all its splendour at 6 o'clock, at the heart of land or sea depending on the model.
At Jaquet Droz, the classic pocket watch is alive and well. This classic style is the inspiration for its flagship model - the Grande Seconde Enamel pocket watch (HK$221,800). It features an ivory or black enamel dial and a manual movement with 40-hour power reserve.
For ladies, enamelling also allows the colourful world of birds to come alive. Van Cleef & Arpels Lady Arpels Extraordinary Hummingbirds - Blue Throated (HK$607,000) boasts a case in white gold set with round diamonds (38mm), a dial with three dimensional craftsmanship, alligator strap and a limited edition of eight pieces.
Cartier boasts the Tortue watch with panda motif (HK$610,000) in its D'Art collection, a large model in 18 carat pink gold case set with round diamonds.
The 18-carat yellow gold dial with panda motif also features 18-carat pink gold, apple-shaped hands. 'Each of these unique dials involves some 30 stages and requires more than 100 hours of work,' Cartier says.
Exclusive, individual and intricate, enamelling is a fine work of art miniaturised and can be taken with you anywhere.