The image of Ulysse Nardin fuses the hi-tech and the classical at the same time. The innovative Freak models (emerging in 2001) led the historic manufacture into modern horology. The experimental line finally expanded to an entire collection earlier this year, called FreakOut. So far from the Freak-tech designs as they can possibly be, Ulysse Nardin intentionally kept the classical models too. They preserve and employ century-old techniques and enamelling is what they are particularly known for. During our visit to their facilities in in La Locle and La Chaux-de-Fonds we were delighted to see the enamelling workshops.
Beside the two main manufactures (one in La Locle producing the high complications and one in La Chaux-de-Fonds, responsible for calibre development, machining the parts and the assembly of the more standard movements), Ulysse Nardin acquired the enamel specialist, Donzé Cadrans in 2012. The company was founded by Master Enameller Francis Donzé in 1972.
What artisans are capable of is very well represented by the lively marine creature on last year’s Ulysse Nardin Jade Lionfish, the Classico Schooner America in 2016 or the unusual three-dimensional champlevé offshore oil platform on the North Sea Minute Repeater. As a member of the Ulysse Nardin group of companies, Donzé Cadrans provides an unparalleled in-house capability for these outstanding dials.
The building sits in the calm scenery of Le Locle. Fine-watchmaking workshops rarely seem to be obstreperous or tumultuous and this one is also blessed by all the quietness necessary to inspire the mind and lead the hand. Colours, patterns and Claude-Eric Jan (the Director of Donzé Cadrans) welcome us as we step in. Before we entered the workshop he explained the process itself.
Enamel is basically ground glass, silica and soda with the addition of different metal oxides responsible for the different colours. It is one of the most sensitive and capricious materials used for decoration. Sometimes a change in the weather – even a too sunny or too humid day – can cause a shift in its behaviour. Enamel powder is applied onto a metal base – which can be gold, silver, copper, aluminium or steel. Enamelling is the process of fusing layers of ground glass on this metal base using a kiln.
Mixing the powder is an old and rare profession itself. A wall in our room was full of little bottles in the colours of the rainbow. Working with them was not without any danger in the past as some were lead-based or included other toxic elements – they are not in use nowadays, of course. In order to achieve the outcome you expect, you need extensive experience with the actual powder. Due to the various ingredients they have a unique behaviour and might change colours during the firing. However, a nice final piece is really made to stand the test of time. It doesn’t fade or change its colour.
Artisans are typically self-taught as there is no official school dedicated to this profession. Because of the trial-and-error nature of the work, one requires strong self-motivation and all the patience in the world to challenge that particular test of time.
There are multiple techniques to apply and fire the material. We saw two main types of enamels being prepared in the manufacture.
The Grand Feu is created at a very high temperature and results in beautiful deep monochromatic colours – white, blue and sometimes black. The difficulties are diverse: the colour has to be perfectly even and without any cracks, bubbles or tiny holes in the material. Dials are checked for all these during the quality control inspection and will be rejected in case of failures. It is common that you have some unwanted inclusions in the enamel layer, which can be scraped out carefully and replaced with enamel powder when applying the next layer of enamel. Layers are important anyway as the 5+ layers provide that fantastic deep, smooth and still crisp surface that Grand Feu is famous for.
Another class of enamel dials are very colourful. These are responsible for most of the collectors’ pieces, portraying animals, ships or complete sceneries. Many methods are used, each resulting in a unique character to the dial.
During ‘champlevé’, the moist powder enamel is applied to an engraved patterned metal surface. The enamel seeps into the patterns and it is then fired. Even the smallest unevenness in the pattern can prevent the appropriate binding of the enamel. The un-carved portions of the original surface remain visible as a frame to the colourful enamel designs. An example is the Jade Lionfish mentioned above or the Classico Goat and Classico Horse below, which have the exposed golden areas further engraved for a more lively effect.
The ‘cloisonné’ technique is similar, but in this case there are small strips added on top of the metal to create the enamel compartments. These strips are extremely fine (around 0.07mm) and they are bent and applied by hand to the dial, creating individual cells. Colours are then picked out for each cell in order to create the cloister effect. Multiple layers of enamel are applied to the cloisonné dial for more depth.
Discover both techniques in this video (the miniature ship is created by cloisonné, while the rooster by the champlevé technique):
A third ‘flinqué’ technique applies enamel on an engraved or guilloché metal base (gold or silver). The translucent enamel is deposited on the dial several times (usually 4 or even more) to give the piece a vibrant colour and slightly see-through effect.
Firings can take from a few seconds to several minutes, with the temperature between 650°C and 1000°C, depending on the techniques. During the Grand Feu technique, the enameller exposes the dial to 800-900°C fire several times to allow the motif and colours to appear gradually.
When the surface has cooled, it is polished with very fine sandpaper.
In many ways, I find the enamelling decoration more enthralling than gem-setting. I have always been amazed by the miniature artworks I came across. The enamel makes the theme come alive – you expect the ship to bow on the waves and the horse to gallop in any second. The entire thickness of the material can be used to convey the message by hiding areas softly and surfacing others vividly. It was fantastic to see how they are made, but it proved, yet again, that the patience to create such is not mine.
Photo credits: Loupiosity.com.
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