Discover the world of rare handcrafts through Patek Philippe’s patrimony

Discover the world of rare handcrafts through Patek Philippe’s patrimony


Text: Angelyn Kwek

It all started with engraving

'Nautilus' might be the word poised on the tip of everyone's tongue when you namedrop Patek Philippe in a conversation — heck, it's even the top suggested Google search term — but there's much more to the maison's watchmaking than just one ubiquitous timepiece. History nerds will appreciate the 179-year-long history of Patek, within which gifted artisans have graced its hallowed halls with decorated watches a plenty. The incredible processes are recorded in detail on paper, bound into what is known to be the brand's first register and subsequently preserved in the archives of the Patek Philippe Museum. The only thing older than that is the techniques themselves, having existed since Geneva circa 1600s.

Another factoid to geek out over (and show off at quiz nights) is that the maison was Patek without the Philippe back in the early days. Antoine Norbert de Patek and François Czapek helmed the company; six years before Adrien Philippe would join them. Patek and Czapek were Polish, and got their start in the watchmaking industry by purchasing watches and having them engraved by local craftsmen. This all happened before they opened their own workshops. The engravings were inspired by Polish history, and this aesthetic laid out the foundations for bringing in a stream of clients, who were fellow countrymen.

Patek Philippe Rare Handcrafts

What followed was an influx of increasingly complicated handcrafts, such as the first enamels (which were combined with engraving), the guilloché and other techniques. As pocket watches were the norm for that era, timepieces had to be embellished one way or another. It was unthinkable to offer a hunter-cased pocket watch without any decoration. But post-World War II saw a decline in artistically produced watches due to factors such as increasing industrialisation, quantitative concerns aka output versus effort, or Hitler — take your pick — and these rare crafts nearly died out. Patek Philippe took great pains to preserve these handcrafts and succeeded, but a second wave of extinction swept across the industry in the '70s to '80s, in part largely due to consumer disregard for its artistic value, which nearly wiped out the practice entirely as craftsmen and their protégés dropped the craft in order to seek work elsewhere.

Fast forward to 2018 and the maison is proud to highlight its deep connection to the art of rare handcrafts, intertwined throughout their heritage. This staunch belief in cultivating what was almost a devastating loss in métiers d'art watchmaking led to the staging of an exhibition in Geneva in April that showcased the timepieces Patek Philippe has continued to commission from gifted artisans even during the period when handcrafted watches were going out of style. Now these once obsolete creations have been lifted out of the mire, exalted as masterpieces and treasures to be revered, taking pride of place at the Patek Philippe Museum.

If you can't quite make the trip to Geneva to see them in person, here's a little digital tour of the various handcrafts still employed by the maison today, which is the next best thing to seeing the real deal in the flesh.

Patek Philippe Rare Handcrafts

In the past, enamel timepieces were usually interpretations of masterpieces from major artistic movements from symbolism to Art Nouveau, recreated in miniature on a dial. It's based on silica sand that gets transformed into a clear, vitreous substance to which metal oxides are adding to create colour. A handful of steps are involved: First, the pigments are crushed to a fine powder then mixed with water to make a paste, followed by adding a base coat to the object surface before the paste is applied to the areas to be enamelled. The paste has to dry before being fired in an 800 degree Celsuis kiln to fuse the paste to the base, thereby creating an extremely hard and stable enamel coating.

Depending on the intricacy of the design, a model can return to the kiln up to 12 times. Enamelling has sub-techniques to the craft, which include cloisonné and champlevé. The former is fine wire bent to form a design with the spaces getting coloured in by enamel after, and the latter is fairly similar except the base is engraved beforehand.

Ahh, the OG technique. Engraving is a skill that creates neat, shining lines and a subtle play of light upon a metal canvas. Before starting on metal proper though, an artist will first sketch out his designs on paper. The finalised artwork is then transferred on the watch, etched on by hand. The engraver's tool of choice? It's called a burin, which can come in many shapes and sizes for its sharpened tip, penetrating the material to gouge out small bits where furrows of varying depths result in lavish patterns or motifs.  Working with a binocular microscope, the engraver requires extreme concentration and perfect coordination as one hand pushes the burin while the other guides the metal around (which is firmly clamped within a spherical instrument known as the engraver's ball), rotating the piece into various positions as they carve. 

Patek Philippe Rare Handcrafts

Did watchmakers influence jewellers, or did jewellers influence watchmakers? Catch-22 aside, gemsetting is a delicate art where haute horlogerie meets haute joaillerie and it requires nerves of steel to pull off. Working with the same powerful binocular microscope used by engravers, gemsetters will set stones in precious, semi-precious, or even steel materials. Diamonds are usually preferred, with the practice of decorating watches gradually spreading from just the case to encompassing the entire watch; dial, lug, bezel, and bracelet. Gemsetters have to cut, extract, hammer and manipulate the diamonds such that the play of light on the stones is optimised, on top of ensuring the arrangement is neat and tidy. They also have to ensure the setting of the stone is as smooth as possible to prevent snagging any delicate fabrics, and that the gems will remain in place and be luminous forever.

To master marquetry is to master reading wood. The grain of the wood, to be precise, as this is a decorative technique used traditionally on furniture, smaller wooden objects, and pictorial panels. Marquetry's advent in the watchmaking world is considered fairly recent compared to the other handcrafts. To adorn an object or create a work of art on a panel, a miniaturist marquetry-maker has to be deft, methodical, painstaking and precise, being able to read in the wood grain exactly what tiny shapes to cut out from the piece of leaf-thin veneer. The cut shapes are then assembled and applied according the marquetry-maker's inspiration and the motifs chosen or imposed. Up to 130 wood types may be involved for one creation, with the craftsman selecting from 60 to 70 natural tints on top of wood that he has stained in advance.

Fun fact: The first marquetry-decorated Patek Philippe watch is the Black Crowned Cranes of Kenya pocket watch, Ref. 982/115 in 2008.

Patek Philippe Rare Handcrafts

Guilloché work, also termed as engine-turning, is a form of mechanised decoration. It uses a hand-operated lathe to cut fine grooves into the metal in repetitive geometric patterns, creating beautiful engraved patterns on dials, movements, cases, and bracelets. Guillocheurs use many different types of these machines in order to express their artistry and technique, but the two main types of lathes are the rose engine and the so-called straight-line engine. The latter cuts, well, straight lines, which may intersect at any angle, turning out designs such as the clous de Paris aka 'hobnail' pattern. The rose engine on the other hand offers a wider, almost limitless, variety of patterns as it can produce curved lines. The resulting kaleidoscopic play of interlacing lines, curves, and repetitive geometric patterns are a mark of luxury watches, and can appear anywhere on cases, bracelets and dials to the movement itself, displayed through transparent sapphire crystal covers.

Patek Philippe Rare Handcrafts

To learn more on how Patek Philippe remains a custodian of these traditional Genevan artisanal skills, click here.

For last week's #FirstClassFriday, click here.

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