Inside Le Locle’s watch factories

Shilpa Dhamija | Updated on October 04, 2019

Work of art: Flinqué enamelling in progress; (below) Ulysse Nardin Classico Rooster Dial with Champlevé technique

A tour of the Ulysse Nardin manufacture factory highlights age-old techniques of enamelling perfected by watchmakers

To any accidental or purposeful visitor, Le Locle may seem like any other quaint, little Swiss town. Situated in the Jura mountains, amid shingled roof houses and heritage buildings, it is a bustling industrial centre. For years Le Locle has been an important town for watchmakers — so much so that what might appear to be a residential bungalow is actually a mini watch workshop! Deep inside the small town, up a narrow street, framed by freshly-piled snow, there is an easy-tomiss modest white building. Inside, specialist luxury watch manufacture dial enameller Donzé Cadrans employs a handful of artists faithfully absorbed inthe decorative art of enamelling watch dials for some of the biggest brands in the Swiss watch industry. The flawless white dials of Patek Philippe, Hermès, the signature blue dials of Ulysse Nardin are painted — or rather — cooked under this roof.

A complex art

Jars full of powdered pigments sit on shelves of the room. Unlike most styles of painting, no two pigments can be mixed to achieve a desired colour in enamelling. “We have to specifically order the colour we want, in powder or solid form,” explains Claude-Eric Jan, the head of production at Donzé Cadrans. In 1972, Donzé Cadrans was set up by master enameller Francis Donzé to revive the 300-year old technique of making the decorative grand feu enamel dials. Ulysse Nardin first collaborated withDonzé Cadrans in the 1980s for a vibrant blue flinqué dial. In the course of time, as enamel dials became a signature of Ulysse Nardin watches, Donzé Cadrans was bought by the watch brand. Enamelling is a painstaking process. Grand Feu enamel, Guilloché and Flinqué enamel are themore common styles of enamelling watches. Champlevé and Cloisonné techniques are done by expert craftsmen because of their complex nature. Grand Feu means ‘big fire’. The copper dial discs are covered with refined enamel powder and then cooked in a kiln between 760 and 900 degree Celsius. Nearly every step is done by hand. An artisan gently sprinkles the enamel powder with a wooden sieve to cover the entire surface ofthe copper disc with steady hands. The enamel powdering and firing process is repeated till the right thickness of enamel is achieved on the dial disc. “Even after years of workmanship, many dials appear out of the oven with flaws. Nearly 60-70 per cent of them have some or the other flaw like bubbles on the surface, or chipping, and even bent metal because of the heat. We have to dispose off many discs because we can only use the absolutely perfect enamelled dials,” adds Claude-Eric Jan.“The enamel dials have to be made strong enough for them to be able to last for centuries!” The printing of the dial numbers is done using a silicon pad. The copper dialthen again goes in to the kiln for seven seconds. This is the traditional way of printing numbers on enamel. After several courses of cooking and layers of enamel on top, the dial needs to be brought to the right shape and thus flattened. A piece of carbon is used for this process and must be done with great care. “Otherwise, all the steps taken would be futile; if damage is done, we have to start all over again.”

Know your enamel

Many of the Lady Classico watch models in Ulysse Nardin sportGuilloché andFlinqué enameldials. AGuillochédial is a metal disc that has a repetitive pattern engraved on it. Flinqué enamelling is the technique of applying a translucent or opalescent colour enamel coating to the Guilloché dial to achieve a radial effect of the colour. It is not always easy to be able to differentiate between the Champlevé and Cloisonné enamel techniques. ‘Cloisonné’ in French means compartment. On the watch dial surface, compartments are created using gold wires as thin as a strand of fine hair. These wires are placed on dial by an expert watchmaker to create the frame of the object that is to be painted on the dial. Thereafter, five layers of moist enamel colour are filled in the compartments to achieve a three-dimensional impression of the final art piece. The dial disc is baked five times or more if need be. Cloisonné technique is believed to have been first used in the 4th century! The Ulysse Nardin Jade Lionfish watch features a flawless Cloisonné dial. Dating back to the 12th century, Champlevé enamelling method is somewhat similar to Flinqué where colours are used on a dial that comes engraved with the desired design. The enamel must be filled in with great care to allow smooth binding during the heating process. The Ulysse Nardin Classico Rooster watch is an example of the Champlevé technique.

Shilpa Dhamija

Published on October 04, 2019

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