For ardent connoisseurs, the beauty of a watch lies not just in its dial or in its technical functions. Indeed, it is often in the details that remain hidden in plain sight: an engraved balance cock, a chamfered main plate, a guilloched rotor. Reserved solely for the pleasure of the wearer, these exquisite crafts have existed since the dawn of horology. We unpack their origins, and explore why they remain enduring emblems of haute horlogerie
In my years of writing about watches, I’ve been privileged enough to try my hand at many of these crafts listed on these pages, including tremblage engraving (it was so tough that my hand hurt for a good six hours after); perlage (my botched dial was more Pollock than Monet); and of course, guilloche. Apart from realising that I severely lack artistic skills and patience, each session imbibed in me mad respect for the artisans that spend months and years perfecting each craft, and diligently ply their trade day in, day out.
My attempt at guilloche was disastrous as well: For one, the artisan needs to apply consistent pressure to the dial, so the pattern is uniform throughout — a deeper or lighter incision can be seen by the naked eye, making for a visual mess. Of course, an artistic temperament is a given. None of which I possess.
Guilloche is a type of intaglio engraving, and is executed on manually-operated machines, including rose engine lathes, straight cut and brocading machines. There’s evidence that the technique flourished in the late middle ages, and the manual machines that guillocheurs still use today were built in the 1500s.
The machines are all hand-operated, but over the years, CNC machines have been calibrated to emulate the effect of a guilloched dial — but whether it’s hand or machine executed impacts the value of the watch, obviously. In an interview with Robb Report in 2004, German guilloche specialist Jochen Benzinger said, “You crank it by hand, you regulate the pressure on the tool by hand. It’s all a matter of feel.”
Still, brands including Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Breguet continue to perpetuate the artistic craft of guilloche by hand. In fact, the use of guilloche in watchmaking can be attributed to Abraham-Louis Breguet, who started using the technique in 1786, as it served a functional purpose: it protected the metallic surface of the dial from wear and tear, and prevented fingerprint marks. Plus, because it was not highly polished and thus not reflective, it made for better legibility.
It served an aesthetic purpose as well, as the different guilloche patterns demarcated different sections of the watch. Today, a look at Breguet’s modern watches feature this visual artistry. The Breguet Classique 7137, for instance, features a number of guilloche patterns executed using a rose lathe. A Clous de Paris pattern on the gold dial doubles as the canvas, while the power reserve (within the fan-shaped subdial at 9) features a basket-weave design, and the date subdial features a chequerboard pattern.
While Breguet was responsible for introducing the technique to watchmaking, one man found beauty in its purely decorative form: Peter Carl Fabergé’s famous eggs would famously feature a number of artistic crafts, including guilloche.
There are a few “common” guilloche patterns that we often see today including barleycorn, sunburst, and flinque patterns, as well as the clous de Paris, which as its name suggests, resembles the cobbled-stoned streets of the French capital. The latter is also another name for the tapisserie dial, which has become synonymous with Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak watches, proving that the craft can be just versatile and modern. The difference between the tapisserie and the clous de Paris is that the former features flat squares, and not pyramid tops.
One of the oldest artistic crafts on this list, the art of engraving dates back to the Ancient Egyptians, the most famous example being hieroglyphics engraved in stone. This artistic craft has endured through the ages, surviving the Roman Empire, the Byzantine era, the industrial age, the digital renaissance… Of course, through the years, the art of engraving has been modernised as well. While it was formerly only done manually on a rotary machine, it can now be executed by lasers and pantographs.
Still, there’s no denying the charm of engraving by hand, a tradition that a handful of watchmakers continue to perpetuate. To master this technique, it is not enough to just be skilled at manipulating metal — it also requires an artistic temperament and a dexterous hand. Craftsmen work with a set of burins – most engravers have a tool kit of 20 to 40-odd burins — that are used to carve out the metal (or wood, ivory and plenty of others besides) to create incisions. These incisions can take the form of words, a pattern, a motif, or an artwork.
Historically, engraving has long been part of the watch decoration lexicon, and has been applied on most parts of the watch, including the dial, case, movement components and even the buckle. One of the proponents of engraving in the 19th century was Édouard Bovet, who designed the fleurisanne engraving, which features a repetitive floral pattern. Patek Philippe, too, gained a reputation for its stylised watches that featured crafts such as gem-setting, enamelling and engraving. In fact, engraved watches were a status symbol back then, one that showed wealth and good taste. For Patek Philippe founder Antoine Norbert de Patek, he would engrave his watches to please his wealthy, aristocratic clients, and sometimes even personalise the timepieces with custom designs.
Today, the brand continues to promote artistic crafts through its Rare Handcrafts department, where it perpetuates the tradition and transmission of skills that would have been long forgotten if not for their support. Most recently, it showed its engraving skills to great effect with the Grandmaster Chime ref 5175 from its 175th anniversary celebrations, where the gold case is exquisitely hand-engraved in an elaborate floral pattern, befitting the milestone.
At A. Lange & Söhne, six in-house engravers work on its watches. Notably, the German watchmaker hand-engraves every single balance cock that leaves its manufacture. The design features a florid pattern of petals, but each balance cock is unique by sheer virtue of being done by hand. In fact, each balance cock can be identified by the stroke of the engraver, each individual possessing a distinctive style that can be seen in the depth and flourish of the engravings. The engraving of a balance cock takes about 45 to 90 minutes, while a case back can take about one week.
The engravers put their skills to good use on A. Lange & Söhne’s Handwerkskunst dials, which have long been a canvas to showcase the brand’s artistic crafts. The likes of Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and Blancpain have also all used engraving to elevate their artistic dials, tapping on different engraving techniques.
Engraving offers a plethora of options for the wearer — in fact, many choose to engrave the caseback with names, initials and mottos, but for those who want to go that extra mile (and who have fatter wallets), they can also choose to engrave dials, cases and even buckles with a design of their choice.
Perlage and Cotes de Genève
Watchmaking is as much of an art form as it is a technical science, one that can be appreciated from all angles. Notice how a connoisseur picks up a watch — if he automatically turns it over, chances are he understands and appreciates that there is as much artistry to be appreciated in the working parts of the movement as on the dial.
You’ll spot a number of finishings on the main plate, but two of the more familiar ones are perlage and cotes de Genève. Perlage, literally meaning pearls in French, creates a pearl-like effect on the base plate. Cotes de Genève, on the other hand, features equal stripes of varying dimensions and characteristics. This technique, as its name suggests, originates from Geneva. It is also known as Geneva stripes.
Both finishings were designed to fulfil a technical purpose. Technically scratchings, they trapped the dust in the case, thus protecting the movement from external damage. Both, however, have a distinctly different visual impact. Some collectors find that perlage looks a little cluttered, and hence it is sometimes relegated to a lower bridge or a partially hidden mainplate. Still, there is no denying that perlage is not an easy skill to master as the artisan needs to stamp tiny concentric circles in a repetitive motion so they overlap in the exact pattern so as to create a harmonious effect. It is labour intensive work that requires a meticulous and detail-oriented nature.
While it might be more common to see cotes de Genève, there is one way to distinguish a high-end and not-so-high-end movement: look carefully at the finishing of the stripes. If the stripes feature a sunray, polished or even perlage finish, you have a winner.
Both perlage and cotes de Genève can now be done by a machine, but where is the fun in that?
Anglage / Chamfering
Many decorative techniques were born out of necessity: as we saw in previous pages, both perlage and cotes de Genève were designed to trap dust particles within the “scratches” formed on the surface of the metal, thus protecting the watch movement. But some were purely decorative, stemming from a desire to please the eye. Anglage, or chamfering as it is known in English, is one of them.
It exemplifies the punctilious nature of watchmaking, because anglage, while not necessarily important for the functioning of the watch, is what separates haute horlogerie from the rest. It is a difficult skill to master and in fact, aspiring watchmakers at Vacheron Constantin need to undertake an 18-month training programme to perfect this technique.
Essentially, anglage is a finishing technique that is seen in haute horlogerie watches, whereby the edges of a component or a main plate are bevelled to create a 45-degree slope. It is a minute detail, one that serves no technical function, but one that subtly elevates the elegance of the movement, adding a refined touch.
The craftsman, called an angleur, uses a metal file or wooden peg with an abrasive diamond paste to polish down the surface. Anglage is an exacting skill, as the angleur must be careful in maintaining a steady pressure to the surface of the angle, so that the surface is flat and regular, with a consistent width. No blemishes are permitted, and the sign of a successful chamfered edge is a reflective surface. While a CNC machine can replicate part of the process, a steady hand is needed to edge out those inner angles.
It can take an angleur about eight to 10 hours to work on one bridge, so a tremendous amount of patience and dexterity is required.
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